Grand Challenges in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering

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 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.