Do you know that the discovery of a synthesis of ammonia is the single most important reason for the world’s population explosion from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7.8 billion by 2020? or that polythene, the world’s most common plastic, was invented? The chances are you do not, as chemistry tends to be overlooked compared to the other sciences. Chemistry news just does not get the same coverage as the physics or technology projects, even when the project is all about landing a chemistry lab on a comet. Therefore, the Royal Society of Chemistry decided to look into what people really think of chemistry, chemists and chemicals. It turns out the most people just do not have a good idea of what it is chemists do, or how chemistry contributes to the world
This is really important to know about the chemistry and chemicals because the world as we know it would not exist without chemistry. Here are some of the top chemistry inventions that make the world you live in.
1. Rechargeable Li-Ion Battery – They Created a Rechargeable World
The Rechargeable, low in weight and the most efficient Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are now used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles. The Li-ion batteries are used globally to power the portable electronics that we use to communicate, work, study, listen to music and search for knowledge. The Li-ion batteries have also enabled the development of long-range electric cars and the storage of energy from renewable sources, such as solar and wind power. The Li-ion battery research was initiated during the oil crisis in the mid-twentieth century. Stanley Whittingham developed methods that could lead to fossil-fuel-free energy technologies. He started to research superconductors and discovered an extremely energy-dense material, which he used to create an innovative cathode in a Li-ion. This was made from titanium disulfide which, at a molecular level, has spaces that can house — intercalate — lithium ions. The battery’s anode was partially made from metallic lithium, which has a strong drive to release electrons. This resulted in a battery that literally had great potential, just over two volts. However, metallic lithium is reactive and the battery was too explosive to be viable. After a systematic search, in 1980, John Goodenough demonstrated that cobalt oxide with intercalated lithium ions can produce as much as four volts. This was an important breakthrough and lead to much more powerful batteries. With Goodenough’s, Akira Yoshino created the first commercially viable Li-ion battery in 1985. Rather than using reactive lithium in the anode, he used petroleum coke, a carbon material that, like the cathode’s cobalt oxide, can intercalate lithium ions. As a result, a lightweight, hardwearing battery that could be charged hundreds of times before its performance deteriorated. The Li-ion batteries have revolutionized our lives since they first entered the market in 1991. Through their work on Li-ion, these three scientists together won the Nobel Prize for creating the foundation of a wireless, fossil-fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind.
2. Medicine to Deadly Diseases – Created a Healthy Society
(a) Penicillin Penicillin heralded the dawn of the antibiotic age. Before its introduction, there was no effective treatment for infections such as pneumonia, gonorrhea, or rheumatic fever. Hospitals were full of people with blood poisoning contracted from a cut or a scratch, and doctors could do little for them but wait and hope. In 1928, Alexander Fleming, Professor of Bacteriology at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, was performing some experiments in his laboratory. He first observed that colonies of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus failed to grow in those areas of a culture that had been accidentally contaminated by the green mold Penicillium notatum. This mold was killing the bacteria in his experiment! Later, he isolated the mold, grew it in a fluid medium, and found that it produced a substance capable of killing many of the common bacteria that infect humans. And then, Australian pathologist Howard Florey and British biochemist Ernst Boris Chain isolated and purified penicillin in the late 1930s, and by 1941 an injectable form of the drug was available for therapeutic use. The Nobel Prize was awarded to the three scientists together for their work on penicillin, whilst the mold itself is thought to have since saved 200 million lives.
(b) Taxol You know the invention and the production of penicillin and distribution during the World War-II ushered in the modern age of antibiotics. The discovery of these new drugs convinced many that diseases could be eradicated chemically. By the mid-twentieth century, the research in cancer research, especially chemotherapy, intensified with the increase in cancer deaths. And, do you know? You might not have heard of Taxol, but, really, you should have: it is one of the most effective drugs of cancer in the world. This medicine works by preventing cells from dividing, which ultimately leads to the death of the cell. In cancer patients, the cells notoriously divide very rapidly, Taxol is like a poison for cancer. The life-saving anti-cancer natural product, Taxol was discovered by the research team of Monroe E. Wall, Mansukh C. Wani in 1971 as a part of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) project “Cancer Plants”. They reported the structure of Taxol from the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia. This natural product was isolated by a novel bioactivity-directed fractionation of the crude plant extracts. This compound kills cancer cells by unique and previously unknown mechanisms of action, and together they have been approved for the treatment of ovarian, breast, lung, and colon cancers and Kaposi’s sarcoma.
3. Plastic (Polyethylene, Bakelite etc.) – World of Packaging
You know plastic is everywhere: in mobile phones, cars, almost everything in your kitchen, and they constitute plastic bags, toys, even most of our clothes. Its basic application is in packaging i.e. plastic bags, plastic films, geomembranes, containers including bottles, etc.. But, do you know who invented them? The initial form of plastic dates back as far as 3500 years ago. The ancient Mesoamericans first processed natural rubber into balls, bands and figurines. They would harvest latex from the Panama Rubber Tree plant and process it using the liquid from the ‘Morning Glory Vine’. Modern-day plastic made its first appearance during World War-II when it was used for military purposes because it was more durable than glass and had a greater range of possible products that could be made from it. You can find out more about compounds in our chemistry dictionary! Plastic is derived from natural, organic materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil. However, the first synthetic plastic Parkesine (nitrocellulose) was synthesized by the Alexander Parkes, in Birmingham, England in 1856. An inventor, Parkes intended for this plastic to be used as a waterproof coating for fabric clothes. Whilst he and his business went bankrupt, Parkes’s invention kick-started the plastic industry. In 1907, an American chemist, Leo Baekeland, created another humbly named plastic, Bakelite, which was simply a malleable chemical substance made from two other chemicals. Later on, a variety of synthetic polymers have been synthesized with the variations in chemical compositions. The backbones of common synthetic polymers such as polythene, polystyrene and polyacrylates are made up of carbon-carbon bonds, whereas carbon-hetero atom containing polymers such as polyamides, polyesters, polyurethanes, polysulfides and polycarbonates have other elements (e.g. oxygen, sulfur, nitrogen) inserted along to the backbone. Also, silicon forms similar materials without the need for carbon atoms.
4. Ammonia Synthesis – Greatest Innovation of the 20th Century in Food
Do you know the atmosphere is composed over 78% of nitrogen; it exists in its chemically and biologically unusable gaseous form. Nitrogen plays a critical role in the biochemistry of every living being. It is also the most common gas in our atmosphere. But, nitrogen gas from the atmosphere is inert and doesn’t like reaction which means that the plants cannot extract it from the air. Consequently, the availability of nitrogen is the major limiting factor in agriculture. Therefore, the ammonia is critical in the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizers. And, do you know who discovered the synthesis of ammonia? At the beginning of the 20th century, in 1908, German chemist Haber discovered the ammonia, chemically reactive, highly usable form of nitrogen. He synthesized ammonia by reacting atmospheric nitrogen (N2) with hydrogen (H2) in the presence of iron at high pressures and temperatures. On 13 October 1908, Fritz Haber filed his patent on the “synthesis of ammonia from its elements” for which he was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 1918. Today, this reaction is known as the Haber–Bosch process: Fritz Haber was the inventor who created the breakthrough and laid the foundations for high-pressure chemical engineering, but it was Carl Bosch who subsequently developed it on an industrial scale, for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1931. Haber and Bosch, who were awarded the Nobel Prize for their research, gave their names to the ammonia production process that been in use since then. In fact, the Haber-Bosch process is perhaps the most significant innovation of the 20th century. When the World War-I ended, ammonia emerged as an irreplaceable chemical for the production of fertilizers at large scale, which contributed decisively to the increase of food production and world population; and, even today, we still depend on this process. Today about 80% of the nitrogen in our bodies comes from the Haber-Bosch process, making this single chemical reaction probably the most important factor in the population explosion of the past 100 years. So, this invention is credited with saving billions of lives and will probably save billions more.
5. Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD Screens) – The Technology of 21st Century for Electronics
A liquid-crystal display (LCD) technology is one of the most important discoveries in chemistry in this 21st century. In the last two decades, every aspect of our daily lives has become saturated with electronic devices, most of them with a display as the user interface. The vast majority of these displays in flat-screen TV sets, PC monitors, notebooks, tablet PCs, as well as in smartphones are based on LCD technology. In this way, we use LCDs for a variety of applications such as mobile phones, tablets, TV, calculators, computer monitors, instrument panels, aircraft cockpit displays etc.. The lightweight smartphones and social media etc. have revolutionized our lives, but these have only been possible because of the LCD screen – a screen that is lightweight, small, and that you can fit in your pocket. The culture in which we walk around with our phones and laptops all the time could not have thrived without this technology. The early developments on applications of liquid crystals were carried out in research laboratories in the USA, Eastern and Western Europe and Japan. The idea of using liquid crystal materials for display applications was probably first conceived by Richard Williams and George Heilmeier at the David Sarnoff Research Center (then the central research arm of RCA Corporation) in Princeton, New Jersey in 1963. He thought a wall-sized flat-panel color TV was just around the corner. From that point on, twisted-nematic (TN) mode, super TN mode, amorphous-Si field-effect transistor, and room-temperature liquid crystals were developed. In the beginning, liquid-crystal displays(LCDs) were limited to niche applications such as small-size displays for digital watches, pocket calculators, and small handheld devices. That all changed with the development of the notebook computer industry. In 1988, Sharp Corporation demonstrated an active-matrix full-color full-motion 14-inch display using a thin-film-transistor array. The electronics industries now recognized that Heilmeier’s 25-year dream of a wallhanging television had become a reality. LCDs could be used to replace existing cathode ray tubes. Through the cooperation and competition of many electronics giants, the LCD industry was firmly established.
William Henry Gates III is an American business magnate, investor, author, philanthropist, and humanitarian. He is best known as the principal founder of Microsoft Corporation.