Another year over

By Philip Robinson  | Deputy editor

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.

January
January

Electric fields deep in Earth’s mantle helps diamond crystallise

2021-01-29T09:30:00+00:00By

Electrochemical experiments under extreme conditions show diamonds forming from molten carbonate rocks

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February
February

Florida drinking water plant hack briefly raised sodium hydroxide levels 100-fold

2021-02-11T14:30:00+00:00By

Security breach reveals industrial facilities’ control system vulnerabilities as remote work is normalised during the pandemic

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March
March

Why manufacturing Covid vaccines at scale is hard

2021-03-23T09:40:00+00:00By , additional reporting by Sanjay Kumar

Exploring the pinch points vaccine makers face as they ramp up production

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April
April

Thirty years on new home sought for Kroto’s Nobel-winning samples

2021-04-26T13:30:00+01:00By

Piece of chemistry history at Sussex could form heart of outreach centre

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May
May

Oldest human-made quasicrystal discovered in remains of first nuclear blast

2021-05-17T19:02:00+01:00By

Almost 76 years ago, US scientists set off the first nuclear bomb – and accidentally created the first synthetic quasicrystal

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2021 business in review

By Phillip Broadwith  | Business editor

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.

An image showing covid vaccines

Pharmaceuticals roundup 2021

By

It’s been another dramatic, pandemic-dominated year for the pharmaceutical industry

An image showing lines of freight lorries and heavy goods vehicles

2021 Chemicals industry roundup

By Vanessa Zainzinger

Supply chain problems, rising raw material and energy costs challenge an industry trying to recover from the pandemic

June
June

Genetically engineered microbes convert waste plastic into vanillin

2021-06-10T07:23:00+01:00By Jack Washington

Plastic bottle becomes industrially useful product thanks to biosynthetic transformation

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July
July

Best sighting yet of exotic crystals composed entirely of electrons

2021-07-05T08:30:00+01:00By

2D materials used to stabilise Wigner crystals

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August
August

Science and research ‘are dead’ in Afghanistan

2021-09-08T13:30:00+01:00By

Afghan researchers and scholars flee or go into hiding as the Taliban’s return to power sees the science academy and universities closed

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September
September

Chemical definition of brine as water could help clear up Chile’s lithium controversy

2021-09-06T08:41:00+01:00By

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 responsibly

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October
October

How organocatalysis won the Nobel prize

2021-10-15T09:29:00+01:00By

Jamie Durrani tells the story of how two young upstarts, Ben List and David MacMillan, created a whole new field of catalysis

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November
November

Are organic chemists discovering fewer reactions than they were decades ago?

2021-11-03T14:30:00+00:00By Kira Welter

Analysis of millions of transformations reveals reliance on popular methods – and the rise of complex reactions

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December
December

The curious incident of the catalytic amine that never was

2021-12-14T13:52:00+00:00By

A series of unfortunate events and a missed control experiment meant palladium sneaked its way into a supposedly amine-catalysed reaction

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