Chemical Education Today
Challenges at the Molecular Frontier Shortly after completing the editorial that appeared in the May issue, I discovered Beyond the Molecular Frontier: Challenges for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (1). Prepared by a committee of well-known chemists and chemical engineers, this report drives home the points I made in May and recommends that “Educators must convey the excitement of the chemical sciences to students, especially those in introductory courses. Education must become increasingly multidisciplinary if it is to keep up with the same trend in the field.” A “report brief ” (available as a PDF file) contains an introduction and 11 sections that illustrate the breadth of modern chemistry. Section headings are Chemists as Creators: Challenges in Synthesis; Inspired by Nature; SelfAssembly and Nanotechnology; Characterization and Measurement; Advancing Chemical Theory and Modeling; Greener by Design; Chemistry and Medicine; Fueling New Energy Sources; National and Personal Security; Public Perception of Chemistry; and Research and Education. The introduction states, “Chemistry is moving rapidly from a reductionist science concerned with atoms, molecules and pure substances to an integrationist science concerned with organized molecular systems.” The full report summarizes the broad scope of activities in chemical science, ranging from molecular-level chemistry through industrial-scale chemical processing technology. The report lays out challenges for the future with the expectation that chemical scientists will be able to meet those challenges. Synthetic chemists are challenged to add to our existing knowledge of how atoms and molecules can be manipulated to produce new polymers, pharmaceuticals, superconductors, composites, and electronic, optoelectronic, photonic, and magnetic devices. They are further challenged to devise simple, reproducible methods for creating surfaces with desired properties and to learn how to synthesize compounds having characteristics that can be predicted and fine tuned. All chemists are challenged to develop better understanding of the processes of life. This includes understanding mechanisms of biological processes in chemical terms, being able to imitate organisms that perform important functions such as fixing nitrogen, and figuring out how proteins fold into specific structures and how those structures carry out protein functions. Another major challenge is to fabricate nanostructures and nanomachines to imitate biological systems or to produce electronic chips. This might involve learning more about self-assembly of chemical components into complex structures or synthesizing molecules whose complexity approaches that of proteins. Analytical chemists are challenged to find new, better methods for identifying substances, finding out how much of a substance is in a sample, determining how long the substance will last in a given sample, and separating one substance from another. With highly sensitive, superfast techniques of analysis, the structures of reaction intermediates and even transition states ought to become accessible.
“Smart” instruments that are self-calibrating, miniaturized, and automated, could lead to high throughput and huge gains in analysis, storage, retrieval, and graphic display of data. Theoretical chemists are challenged to improve the speed and accuracy with which structures of molecules and transition states, bond energies, and other properties can be predicted for larger and larger systems. Both research and development chemists are challenged to create new industrial processes and products that use substances that are less hazardous, produce less pollution, and generate smaller quantities of wastes. In addition, industrial processes should be sought that make greater use of more abundant or renewable raw materials and that reuse materials currently considered to be wastes. Chemists are further challenged to work toward more effective and less costly medical therapies. Goals in this area include production of human spare parts, rapid screening of the effects of small molecules on a broad range of gene products, and simple, quick tests for chemical risks, drug compatibility, or environmental hazard. Finding alternatives to current usage of fossil fuels is another area ripe for additional effort. Cheaper, longer-lasting photocells and other means for capturing solar energy, better methods for dealing with radioactive wastes, and effective, low-cost methods for generating and storing hydrogen fuel all present challenges to which chemists can rise. In a time of heightened security-consciousness, chemists can help develop better understanding of the action and half lives of chemical and biological agents and better, more sensitive methods for detection of such agents. To help deal with a root cause of terrorism, chemical scientists can help improve standards of living and infrastructure throughout the developing world. All chemists are challenged to help the public better understand how chemistry contributes to medicine, energy supply, and many other beneficial fields. Chemistry should be described in nontechnical terms that are more accessible to the public and the media, more energetic efforts should be made to attract the best students to our field, and we educators should convey to our students the excitement, vitality, and breadth of chemistry. Please read this report and the PDF report brief. Both are available free on the Web (1). I challenge you to devise a plan for addressing at least one of the report’s recommendations—and to carry out that plan. Literature Cited 1. Committee on Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century, Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology. Beyond the Molecular Frontier: Challenges for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering; National Academies Press: Washington, DC, 2003; available at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10633.html with a PDF report brief at http://books.nap.edu/html/ molecular_frontier/reportbrief.pdf, both accessed April 2003.
JChemEd.chem.wisc.edu • Vol. 80 No. 6 June 2003 • Journal of Chemical Education