Friday, 1 March 2013

Chemistry... in the space future!

While searching for something entirely unrelated, I came across this paper:

Naturally, I immediately set about procrastinating and gave it a quick read. As the title suggests, it predicts major research themes for the next 40 years of organic research.

The (numerous) authors highlight six key questions:
1. Can we do "simple"?
2. Physics, a promising tool to reach total selectivity?
3. Artiļ¬cial cell, a chemist’s creation?
4. CO2: a versatile organic building block?
5. Can we design the "magic bullet"?
6. Chemists: inventors and creators of their own tools? Towards an intelligent NMR?
It's an interesting mix. Some of these are obvious and timeless: Ehrlich's "magic bullet" dates back to 1900 and has haunted most every medicinal chemist of the past century, I imagine.  The artificial cell sounds modern and sexy, but has venerable roots in Oparin's ideas about the  role of coacervates in the origins of life. Given my own research project, naturally I'd like organic chemistry to continue to study this question!

What of the other questions? The notion of simplicity in synthesis bundles together several ideas: atom economy, green chemistry, systems chemistry, and 'ideal synthesis'. Simplicity, it transpires, is quite complex. 

The authors suggest that "physics" could allow for exquisite selectivity through the differential activation of bonds based on physical principles, particularly the use of electromagnetic pulses. They support this with a handful of examples of reactions controlled by external fields, and suggest that this technique be generalised into a useful synthetic strategy. Similarly, they look at Soai's absolute asymmetric autocatalysis - which can be triggered by very weak chiral sources such as circularly polarised light - and call for generalisation, such that absolute asymmetric synthesis could be performed without molecular sources of chirality such as auxiliaries or ligands.

The fourth question refers to the growing shortage of traditional sources of carbon - fossil fuels. They point out that the depletion of crude oil resources will radically change the face of synthesis and demands new sources of organic reagents. Their solution: use CO2 to produce hydrocarbons, methanol, and other vital chemical resources. This question's answer can be summarised in the word catalysis.

The final question points out that chemists have at their disposal powerful analytical tools such as NMR, but do not use them to their full potential, and calls for chemists to fully integrate computational and analytical techniques into daily practice. By way of illustration, they describe a scenario in which an NMR machine not only gives you your spectrum, but automatically provides multiple 1D and 2D spectra of multiple elements, identifies known compounds, and offers possible structures for unknown compounds. Amongst other things, this would involve a global NMR database akin to those used by crystallographers.

I quite liked this article: I think it hits on important themes, although not necessarily anything unexpected, and proposes sensible solutions for the most part. I'm not sure that the principles described in question #2 are generalisable: it would be really quite remarkable if absolute asymmetric autocatalysis became routine, for example.

What do you think the major themes of the next 40 years will be? Which are important, and which are under-appreciated?


  1. Currently, I think converting biomass into useful chemicals and the increased use of biotech in chemical synthesis are going to also be big themes over the upcoming decade(s). Designing organisms to be able to synthesise a whole range of chemicals will be a big goal for process and industrial chemistry. In both cases, it won't be chemists working on their own but alongside biologists, crop scientists, engineers etc, in particular to overcome the energy costs of processing and purifying biomass.

    1. Sounds about right! How much do you think that biochemical approaches to synthesis will begin to replace chemical methods, rather than being complementary? After all, we have discovered some remarkable reactions in the past century, but the 'chemical enzyme' is still a long way off.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!