What have the chemists ever done for us?

‘What ‘ave the Romans ever done for us?’ the Monty Python crew once quipped. The same question might also be applied to chemists. I suspect the comedic power and popularity of that particular sketch means members of the public could comfortably supply answers to the first question in their best John Cleese (apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public ‘ealth…). But they might struggle with the latter. Indeed, the public attitudes to chemistry survey that the Royal Society of Chemistry conducted in the UK earlier this year demonstrated that the public was a little unsure about exactly what it was that chemists do. 

But as we see time and again, chemistry is out there solving some of the world’s most pressing problems. And the solutions to serious global problems need not be complex. Simple retorts are now providing relief from mercury poisoning for gold miners in Indonesia. There, miners work with limited equipment to extract gold and other precious metals from ores, and often turn to mercury to do so. The very idea of standing over a precious metal amalgam and using a blowtorch to melt it or – literally – handling mercury with no protection should horrify our readers. But this is an everyday occurrence for these miners. The new retorts, developed by a charity that works with the miners, can be used to condense the mercury vapours as the amalgam is heated. This basic apparatus protects not only the miners, but their families and the surrounding environment, much of which is already badly contaminated with high levels of the heavy metal. 

Elsewhere in this issue we report on research in the US that has created a ‘drinkable book’ whose pages are impregnated with silver nanoparticles to filter contaminated water. The nanoparticles kill the vast majority of the harmful bacteria in the water that passes through a page, and a single book of 25 pages could provide someone with drinkable water for an entire year. This could be a real game changer for some of the poorest people in the world who have no access to clean water.

And there’s a new phosphor coating that can be used to create white LEDs without using any rare earth elements. Excluding these expensive elements should drive down the price of white LEDs, making highly efficient lighting something that isn’t a costly green-living lifestyle choice but the logical light bulb for your home. 

The RSC has, unsurprisingly, recognised chemistry’s role in solving some of the world’s biggest problems and created its own list of global challenges. The inventions above – while seemingly modest at first glance – tick many of the boxes on this list. 

Chemistry is often described as the central science. It is the science that connects all the others and helps them to achieve what they do. For me, chemistry is the science that made the modern world. Wherever you are, its impact is all around you: in the food on your plate (ammonium nitrate fertiliser), the water in your cup of tea (chlorine water treatment) or the processor in your computer (semiconductors). It’s the science that gets things done.  

So, apart from the medicines, plastics, safe drinking water, semiconductors, solar power and inorganic fertilisers, what have the chemists ever done for us?