2020 chemistry news roundup

On the timescale of scientific research, a year really isn’t all that long. Yet 2020 has probably been the longest that many of us can remember.

With the pandemic infiltrating every part of the news agenda – from politics and economics to business, education, health, culture and, of course, science – it feels strange to remember a time when it wasn’t the focus of all our attention. So here we’ve picked out some of the key stories that show the breadth of science news in 2020.

One of my personal highlights is the Nobel prize in chemistry being awarded to Crispr gene-editing pioneers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. It was a well-deserved prize for a technology that holds huge potential, and also the first time the award was shared solely by women.

Elsewhere in research, we watched the march of machines continue through 2020, with the robotic chemist we reported in July perhaps the most tangible example yet of how these technologies are maturing. Sustainability and climate change also remain high priorities for chemists: CO2 conversion, solar power and green fuels have been a mainstay of our research coverage.

We’ve covered the issues that surround chemists and chemistry too, such as the Royal Society of Chemistry’s reports into student retention and widening participation for under-represented groups. These show there is still much to be done to make chemistry inclusive and equitable.

But of course the best science story of the year has to be that safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines have been developed, tested, approved, manufactured and distributed in a matter of months. And that makes 2021 look like a much brighter prospect.

January
January

Rogue Chinese geneticist jailed for his role in creation of gene-edited babies

2020-01-06T14:30:00+00:00By Maria Burke

Team leader He Jiankui sentenced to three years with another two researchers sent to prison

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February
February

Old mattresses and a little chemistry help Syrian refugees grow food in the desert

2020-02-12T09:30:00+00:00By

University of Sheffield scientists provide the spark to get displaced victims of Syria’s civil war growing their own

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March
March

Universities prepare for new normal as pandemic forces UK to shut down for three weeks

2020-03-24T14:30:00+00:00By Maria Burke

Labs and lectures wound up as students and staff are left anxious about their futures

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A tough year

It’s safe to say that when we started 2020 with scenes of the devastation wrought by the Australian bushfires many would have expected those to be one of the iconic images of the year. Now, those terrible scenes will seem a long time ago, displaced by masked healthcare workers, patients on ventilators and hospitals full to overflowing.

The pandemic looks set to continue its hold on our lives – certainly for the first half of the year. But in a truly an amazing testament to the hard work of researchers and drug developers, four vaccines so far have been given emergency approvals in record time. Many more vaccines are in the pipeline too. Global health organisations such as the besieged World Health Organization (WHO) now face the daunting prospect of helping administer the largest and most logistically challenging vaccine roll-out in human history.

Another key event was the election of Joe Biden as the next president of the US. His administration is expected to end the anti-science rhetoric that has sometimes characterised the Trump administration. But Biden will face some tough political battles with a Republican-held Senate over science spending, at a time when the country will be seeking to recover from a catastrophic response to the pandemic.

And of course there’s Brexit. The UK began 2020 by formally leaving the EU and entering a one year transition period. This time was to allow for the forging of a basic trade deal with the UK’s biggest commercial partner. Whatever the outcome, it seems scientists will be hit hard in terms of funding sources, collaboration and freedom of movement. Working out how to navigate the new research landscape and deal with the disruption will be one of the biggest headaches for UK researchers this year.

April
April

Superconductivity discovered in extra-terrestrial objects for the first time

2020-04-03T08:30:00+01:00By

Material in meteorites is likely to have formed under intense conditions

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May
May

Chemistry’s reproducibility crisis that you’ve probably never heard of

2020-07-01T08:45:00+01:00By

Legacy issues are posing important questions for scientific software developers

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June
June

Post-silicon age dawns as carbon nanotube transistors made in chip factories

2020-06-10T08:30:00+01:00By Tim Wogan

Moore’s law could hold true for many years to come with a little help from nanotubes

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July
July

Your new labmate does 700 reactions in eight days – and it’s a robot

2020-07-09T08:31:00+01:00By

Robotic chemist optimises water-splitting photocatalyst by working continuously for eight days even in complete darkness

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Getting down to business

As the business editor, my focus has mostly been on the industrial response to the year’s challenges. And what a response it has been. With so many of the industry’s outputs crucial to the struggle against the virus, shutting down simply wasn’t an option in many cases. But as national lockdowns and ever-changing restrictions disrupted manufacturing and supply chains all over the world, companies of all sizes have faced uphill struggles to survive.

Plummeting demand in the automotive and other sectors has had knock-on effects for those who supply their materials. At the other end of the spectrum, sectors supplying pandemic-related products have had to scale up rapidly to meet volatile demand without overstretching themselves, while negotiating and competing for opaque and unpredictable government supply contracts.

At the same time, 2020 has shown what the industry is capable of. Pharmaceuticals firms racing to test existing treatments against the disease, and coming up with multiple effective vaccines within the space of a few months. Producers, from chemicals majors to boutique distillers, churning out boatloads of hand sanitiser and other products, with many distributing it for free or at cost.

Looking to the coming year, one event looms large – the UK and EU negotiations over a possible Brexit deal is now balanced on a knife edge. Companies are grappling with regulatory quagmires and uncertainty over trade rules, and things are further complicated by the frustrating lack of clarity about what the new rules of operation will be.

Some certainty would be a welcome start to 2021 – planning for multiple potential scenarios is costly in terms of both cash and human resources. And after a tough year, many organisations – particularly small and medium-sized enterprises – find themselves with little to spare.

August
August

Questions surround deadly Beirut blast

2020-08-07T13:24:00+01:00By

Ammonium nitrate explosion that killed at least 135 appears to have been caused by poorly-stored cargo from an abandoned vessel

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September
September

Russian opposition leader was poisoned with Novichok agent

2020-09-03T09:10:00+01:00By

German chancellor Angela Merkel says Russia has ‘serious questions’ to answer after tests confirm presence of nerve agent in Alexei Navalny’s bloodstream

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October
October

Crispr–Cas9 gene-editing inventors win chemistry Nobel prize

2020-10-07T16:18:00+01:00By

2020 chemistry award goes to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier

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Room temperature superconductivity

2020 saw scientists finally create a material with zero electrical resistance at an ambient temperature. The carbon–hydrogen–sulfur compound needing to be subject to 155GP of pressure to become superconductive at 15°C should have thrown cold water on energy revolution headlines gushing from the mainstream media, but it didn’t. Nevertheless, it’s an incredible breakthrough and one we’ve been anticipating for a little while at Chemistry World. I’m more than certain that we’ll be covering more developments in this area in 2021.

November
November

Research community breathes a sigh of relief as Biden beats Trump

2020-11-07T16:49:00+00:00By

US president-elect Joe Biden expected to reverse many of Trump’s actions on climate, environment and funding that worried scientists and research advocates

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December
December

2020: the year the world changed

2020-12-17T09:05:00+00:00By

Andy Extance discovers how scientists around the world have responded to the pandemic, working on solutions from drugs and vaccines to hand sanitiser and PPE

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