The National Research Council’s Board on Chemical Science & Technology has published a very interesting report entitled “Beyond the Molecular Frontier.” The full report can be read on their web site and portions can be copied at http://www.nap.edu/books/0309084776/html/. Here are some provocative themes they identified, several of which involve catalysis.
- Learn how to synthesize and manufacture any new substance that can have scientific or practical interest, using compact synthetic schemes and processes with high selectivity for the desired product, and with low energy consumption and benign environmental effects in the process. This goal will require continuing progress in the development of new methods for synthesis and manufacturing. Human welfare will continue to benefit from new substances, including medicines and specialized materials.
- Develop new materials and measurement devices that will protect citizens against terrorism, accident, crime, and disease, in part by detecting and identifying dangerous substances and organisms using methods with high sensitivity and selectivity. Rapid and reliable detection of dangerous disease organisms, highly toxic chemicals, and concealed explosives (including those in land mines) is the first important step in responding to threats. The next important step for chemists and chemical engineers will be to devise methods to deal with such threats, including those involved in terrorist or military attacks.
- Understand and control how molecules react–over all time scales and the full range of molecular size. This fundamental understanding will let us design new reactions and manufacturing processes and will provide fundamental insights into the science of chemistry. Major advances that will contribute to this goal over the next decades include the predictive computational modeling of molecular motions using large-scale parallel processing arrays; the ability to investigate and manipulate individual molecules, not just collections of molecules; and the generation of ultrafast electron pulses and optical pulses down to X‑ray wavelengths, to observe molecular structures during chemical reactions. This is but one area in which increased understanding will lead to a greater ability to improve the practical applications of the chemical sciences.
- Learn how to design and produce new substances, materials, and molecular devices with properties that can be predicted, tailored, and tuned before production. This ability would greatly streamline the search for new useful substances, avoiding considerable trial and error. Recent and projected advances in chemical theory and computation should make this possible.
Understand the chemistry of living systems in detail. Understand how various different proteins and nucleic acids and small biological molecules assemble into chemically defined functional complexes, and indeed understand all the complex chemical interactions among the various components of living cells. Explaining the processes of life in chemical terms is one of the great challenges continuing into the future, and the chemistry behind thought and memory is an especially exciting challenge. This is an area in which great progress has been made, as biology increasingly becomes a chemical science (and chemistry increasingly becomes a life science).
- Develop medicines and therapies that can cure currently untreatable diseases. In spite of the great progress that has been made in the invention of new medicines by chemists, and new materials and delivery vehicles by engineers, the challenges in these directions are vast. New medicines to deal with cancer, viral diseases, and many other maladies will enormously improve human welfare.
Develop self-assembly as a useful approach to the synthesis and manufacturing of complex systems and materials. Mixtures of properly designed chemical components can organize themselves into complex assemblies with structures from the nanoscale to the macroscale, in a fashion similar to biological assembly. Taking this methodology from the laboratory experimentation to the practical manufacturing arena could revolutionize chemical processing.
- Understand the complex chemistry of the earth, including land, sea, atmosphere, and biosphere, so we can maintain its livability. This is a fundamental challenge to the natural science of our field, and it is key to helping design policies that will prevent environmental degradation. In addition, chemical scientists will use this understanding to create new methods to deal with pollution and other threats to our Earth.
- Develop unlimited and inexpensive energy (with new ways of energy generation, storage, and transportation) to pave the way to a truly sustainable future. Our current ways of generating and using energy consume limited resources and produce environmental problems. There are very exciting prospects for fuel cells to permit an economy based on hydrogen (generated in various ways) rather than fossil fuels, ways to harness the energy of sunlight for our use, and superconductors that will permit efficient energy distribution.
- Design and develop self-optimizing chemical systems. Building on the approach that allows optimization of biological systems through evolution, this would let a system produce the optimal new substance, and produce it as a single product rather than as a mixture from which the desired component must be isolated and identified. Self-optimizing systems would allow visionary chemical scientists to use this approach to make new medicines, catalysts, and other important chemical products–in part by combining new approaches to informatics with rapid experimental screening methods.
- Revolutionize the design of chemical processes to make them safe, compact, flexible, energy efficient, environmentally benign, and conducive to the rapid commercialization of new products. This points to the major goal of modern chemical engineering, in which many new factors are important for an optimal manufacturing process. Great progress has been made in developing green chemistry, but more is needed as we continue to meet human needs with the production of important chemical products using processes that are completely harmless to Earth and its inhabitants.
- Communicate effectively to the general public the contributions that chemistry and chemical engineering make to society. Chemists and chemical engineers need to learn how to communicate effectively to the general public–both through the media and directly–to explain what chemists and chemical engineers do and to convey the goals and achievements of the chemical sciences in pursuit of a better world.
- Attract the best and the brightest young students into the chemical sciences, to help meet these challenges. They can contribute to critical human needs while following exciting careers, working on and beyond the molecular frontier.