This year’s big story was, and still is, 2020’s big story: Covid-19. The pandemic remains the most pressing concern for countries around the world and their citizens, but as 2021 began that story took a more positive tone with the first national vaccination programmes beginning to roll out – the culmination of months of tireless work developing, manufacturing and distributing medicines on a scale never before seen. And with the vaccines delivered, lockdowns were gradually lifted and we dared to hope the green shoots of spring would at last see off Covid’s long winter. Sadly, disease epidemiology has no regard for metaphor and despite the success story of vaccine immunity we’ve had another year of hard work and difficult decisions as countries find a delicate balance between easing restrictions and controlling infection rates.
That’s largely because the looming threat of variants eventually arrived to spoil the party. The Delta and now Omicron variants have played nemesis to hubristic hopes that vaccines would be sufficient to curb infections and put the pandemic behind us. The consequences of uneven vaccination rates around the world and optimistic relaxation of the restrictions that limited transmission are now all-too evident. In this second winter under Covid, the first antiviral treatments that have just recently been approved will be much needed.
Covid changed the way we live and work, but not all of those changes were for the worse. The aftermath of the first lockdowns prompted introspection from many scientists about the way they work and how we do science. Our research culture special took a deep dive into that knotty problem and its complex issues. There are no simple answers but there is perhaps a greater desire now for change and a refusal to let the pandemic pass without at least some improvements that make research a healthier place.
Which will be vital, because there are bigger challenges for science to come. Climate change and sustainability should have been last year’s biggest story, with Cop26 being the last chance saloon to put us on course for a best-case scenario outcome. Many scientists were disappointed with the lack of ambition in the international accords struck there, but every month the research pages of our magazine show that chemists are more committed than ever to finding the solutions we need for clean energy, carbon-free infrastructure and sustainable societies generally. Our sustainability collection has much more on the topic.
That research coverage is at the core of what we do, and 2021 was brimming with examples. Yet as well as the exciting potential of chemistry’s applications, our selections here are also heavy on fundamental insights. The challenges we face today are clear, and so is the value of improving our understanding for the challenges of the future.
Electrochemical experiments under extreme conditions show diamonds forming from molten carbonate rocksRead story
The new US president has elevated the role of science in the White House
Reaction kinetics affected by direction of external electric field under cryogenic conditions
Suzuki reaction now comes in an organocatalysed format
Security breach reveals industrial facilities’ control system vulnerabilities as remote work is normalised during the pandemicRead story
Approach offers future possibility of observing ultrafast electron motion in time and space
New organisation could tackle problem of ‘limited and fragmented’ coverage of environmental impact of these issues
Scientists explore einsteinium’s unusual chemistry using less than 200 nanograms of the precious and highly radioactive material
Scientists discover a π-electron circuit with an odd number of electrons in a polycyclic system
Soft lenses can correct red–green colour vision deficiency
Peeking into the picosecond transition state window reveals effect of spin–orbital interactions
Piece of chemistry history at Sussex could form heart of outreach centreRead story
New results could help to solve the dispute around the strange Na–B bond in NaBH3–
New paint formulation that reflects up to 98.1% of sunlight can rival the cooling power of air conditioners
Revised version of Pauling’s formula enables better predictions for problem systems such as metal-containing molecules
Almost 76 years ago, US scientists set off the first nuclear bomb – and accidentally created the first synthetic quasicrystalRead story
Chemists reveal the tiny forces in chemical bonds between quantum corrals and AFM tip atoms
Cheminformatic tool can deliver retrosynthetic analysis
Assembled sequence of 53 aromatic rings has surprisingly high solubility
The Covid-19 pandemic has, unsurprisingly, had a heavy influence on the chemistry-using industries this year. The pharmaceuticals sector has ridden the rollercoaster of accelerated vaccine, antibody and antiviral development, approvals, manufacturing and distribution. In chemicals the overriding story is of struggles with global supply chains (compounded by Brexit in Europe) while gearing up to accelerate the essential transition to a more sustainable industry.
Plastic bottle becomes industrially useful product thanks to biosynthetic transformationRead story
Sale of digital data related to cancer immunotherapy and Crispr will be used to finance research
GlycoRNAs found across several cell types and organisms
Can migratory robins ‘see’ Earth’s magnetic field at night?
2D materials used to stabilise Wigner crystalsRead story
Five European nations will formally propose to bar the production, trade and use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances by July 2022
Artificial molecular motors gently pull on cells’ membrane receptors to trigger a biochemical response
Decision sparks fears of long-term consequences for Swiss research
X-ray structure of chemistry staples hypochlorite and hypobromite recorded for the first time
Hopes raised that approval for skin sensitisation test could mark the start of a raft of in vitro toxicity tests
One-hundred years after it was first developed UN hails end of an era as heavy metal is banned in fuel in Algeria
As evidence grows that lithium mining damages water sources, reclassifying brine as water – rather than as mineral – could empower Indigenous communities to protect their rights and convince mining companies to act more responsiblyRead story
Compressing buckyballs at high temperatures makes ultra-hard and strong carbon materials
As the French Revolution neared the Lavoisiers were reimagined as scientific progressives rather than out of touch aristocrats
Deal releases $4.3bn to combat addiction, but protects Sackler family from litigation
Actinide’s unusual covalency could explain its ability to fix nitrogen
Unlike physisorption and chemisorption, the newly discovered ‘mechanisorption’ is an active process that can store energy or chemicals
Suzuki–Miyaura, Hiyama, Stille, Sonogashira and Heck cross-couplings shown to proceed with quantitative yields in certain vegetable oils, fish oil, butter and waxes
Analysis of millions of transformations reveals reliance on popular methods – and the rise of complex reactionsRead story
By running their famous 1952 experiment in glass flasks, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey might have unintentionally simulated the role of rocks on early Earth
Larger versions of rooftop refinery could satisfy global demand for kerosene – if the sector commits to technological changes
Nanosized caliper that can identify individual proteins could ‘do for proteins what next-generation sequencing did for DNA’
A series of unfortunate events and a missed control experiment meant palladium sneaked its way into a supposedly amine-catalysed reactionRead story
Researchers call on chemical industry to embrace absolute environmental sustainability criteria
Amorphous diamond with pockets of natural diamond makes theoretical paracrystals a reality
Machine learning creates algorithm that avoids large errors in solutions to certain problems