The challenge for chemistry

Published in The Hindu on January 6, 2011

“Reinvention is essential for the continuing relevance and survival of chemistry,” warn George M. Whitesides from Harvard University, Cambridge and John Deutch from MIT, Cambridge. “If chemistry as a discipline is poorly equipped for today’s problems, it will wither before the challenges of the future.”

This is the message of one of the Comment pieces published online today (January 6) in Nature. The warning comes at a time when 2011 is being celebrated as the Year of Chemistry.

Newer avenues

As the characteristics of most molecules and reactions have become well known, it is time researchers started exploring newer avenues. And these avenues are no longer within its boundary — energy, life sciences, material sciences, environmental sciences are the areas where the golden pot lies. These are the areas where chemistry will become highly relevant and where society will stand to gain.

The Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2009 and for the last few years has been awarded to researchers who used chemistry to understand biological systems.

Interpreting the molecular basis of disease, according to them, depends on understanding the chemistry. Even the management of carbon dioxide to tackle global warming needs chemistry. Another important application lies in fuel cells.

Unfortunately, “chemistry — fundamental and applied — has been slow to exploit these research opportunities,” Dr. Whitesides and Dr. Deutch note.

Magic of graphene

One of the areas where chemistry is taking baby steps outside its domain is nanotechnology. And leading the pack is graphene which was first characterised in 1991. A one-atom-thick flat sheet of carbon that is the world’s thinnest, strongest and stiffest material and an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, one of the greatest magic materials ever discovered by man, is attracting a lot of industry attention.

According to Richard Van Noorden, who has authored another Comment piece in Nature published today (January 6), South Korea is planning to invest $300 million to commercialise graphene.

Companies that are into electronics in a major way — starting from Samsung to IBM — are testing graphene electronics that may one day replace the omnipresent silicon chips.

But scientists have to overcome some great challenges for that replacement to happen. For instance, its great ability to conduct electricity proves to be a bane when it comes to making chips.

Scientists are yet to find a superior way to cut the flow of current like on-off switches as and when required and put them together to produce chips using commercially available technologies.

Another area where graphene will score over others is flexible electonics that can be used as sensors and displays and which can be stuck to walls.

It has a potential to replace currently used material as other materials, except organic conducting polymers, cannot be printed on plastic.

According to Dr. Noorden, super-capacitors of tomorrow may have graphene. Crumpled sheets of graphene can end up storing “more electrical charge per gram than any other material.” This is because the crumpled sheets of graphene will have more surface area, and more the surface area the more the potential to store electrical charge.

Carbon nanotubes

Another promising material is carbon nanotubes. For instance, they can potentially replace 60 miles of copper wires used in aeroplanes. Such replacement can result in enormous savings in terms of fuel and weight. But their actual use commercially is far away.

However, nanotube-based conducting films for energy storage or touch screens are much closer to commercialisation, Dr. Noorden writes.


If everything works fine, Samsung products may sport touch screens made from nanotube based conducting films in two or three years’ time. And that would mean that the magic material has successfully replaced or at least is a threat to currently used materials like plasma and LCDs.