5 chemistry break through that shaped our modern world

The discovery of a way to make ammonia was the single most important reason for the world’s population explosion from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7 billion today, Or that polythene, the world’s most common plastic, was accidentally invented twice?The chances are you didn’t, as chemistry tends to get overlooked compared to the other sciences. So the Royal Society of Chemistry decided to look into what people really think of chemistry, chemists and chemicals. It turns out most people just don’t have a good idea of what it is chemists do, or how chemistry contributes to the modern world.Here are the top five inventions that make the world we live in

1. Penicillin

There’s a good chance that penicillin has saved your life. Without it, a prick from a thorn or sore throat can easily turn fatal. Alexander Fleming generally gets the credit for penicillin. in 1939 Australian pharmacologist Howard Florey and his team of chemists figured out a way of purifying penicillin in useable quantities.But the full-scale production of penicillin took off in 1944 when the chemical engineer Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau took Florey’s Heath Robinson design and converted it into a full-scale production plant.

2. The Haber –Bosh process

Nitrogen plays a critical role in the biochemistry of every living thing. It is also the most common gas in our atmosphere. But nitrogen gas doesn’t like reacting with very much, which means that plants and animals can’t extract it from the air. Consequently a major limiting factor in agriculture has been the availability of nitrogen. In 1910, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Boschchanged all this when they combined atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia. This in turn can be used as crop fertilizer, eventually filtering up the food chain to us. Today about 80% of the nitrogen in our bodies comes from the Haber-Bosch process, making this single chemical reaction probably the most important factor in the population explosion of the past 100 years.

3. Polythene

Most common plastic objects, from water pipes to food packaging and hardhats, are forms of polythene and is the result of two accidental discoveries. The first occurred in 1898 when German chemist Hans von Pechmann noticed a waxy substance at the bottom of his tubes during experiment. Along with his colleagues he discovered that it was made up of very long molecular chains which they termed polymethylene. Then in 1933 an entirely different method for making the plastic was discovered by chemists. They were working on high-pressure reactions and noticed the same waxy substance as von Pechmann.

4. The Pill

In the 1930s physicians understood the potential for hormone-based therapies to treat cancers, menstrual disorders and, of course, for contraception. Russel Marker, a professor of organic chemistry at Pennsylvania State University, slashed the costs of producing progesterone by discovering a simple shortcut in the synthetic pathway. He went scavenging for plants with progesterone-like molecules and stumbled upon a Mexican yam. From this root vegetable he isolated a compound that took one simple step to convert into progesterone for the first contraceptive pill.

5. This Screen

Incredibly, plans for a flat-screen color displays date back to the late 1960s! When the British Ministry of Defense decided it wanted flat screens to replace bulky and expensive cathode ray tubes in its military vehicles, it settled on an idea based on liquid crystals. It was already known that liquid crystal displays (LCDs) were possible; the problem was that they only really worked at high temperatures. So, not much good unless you are sitting in an oven. In 1970 George Gray at the University of Hull to work on a way to make LCDs function at more pleasant (and useful) temperatures. He did just that when he invented a molecule known as 5CB. By the early 1980s, 90% of the LCD devices in the world contained 5CB, and you’ll still find it in the likes of cheap watches and calculators. Meanwhile derivatives of 5CB make the phones, computers and TVs of today possible.

Blog by

Prof. Payal Sangole, 
Indira College of Engineering & Management, Pune

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