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Why we need a common vision for chemistry

by Javier Garca Martnez
January 11, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 2

 

This is a guest editorial by Javier García Martínez, vice president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and a chemistry professor at the University of Alicante.

The year 2019 was a very special one for chemistry. On the one hand, we celebrated the International Year of the Periodic Table, which was a great success, reaching millions of people. On the other, at the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), we celebrated 100 years of history creating the common language of chemistry.

Now that the celebrations are over, it is time to look ahead. This new decade represents a great opportunity to think together about how chemistry can contribute to solving our global challenges, as the year 2030 is the deadline for achieving the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs). Chemical societies have much to contribute toward this objective. A step in this direction was the signing of a joint agreement among 15 chemical societies during the IUPAC General Assembly last July in Paris to collaborate on the UN SDGs. This agreement clearly states the commitment to identify local solutions to global challenges with the SDGs as a guide and states a common vision to achieve these goals and to build a sustainable future for the benefit of humanity.

Having a common vision for chemistry will make our efforts toward improving the health of our planet, our economy, and our well-being more effective. This vision is especially needed now, as the problems we are facing are becoming more urgent and complex. According to the European Chemical Industry Council, world chemical sales will almost double by 2030 to reach €6.6 trillion. Trend data suggest that the projected growth in the global chemical market will increase chemical releases, exposures, and adverse health and environmental impacts. Because of these major challenges, business as usual is not an option. All stakeholders, including industry, policy makers, social organizations, and the media, should be part of the effort to decouple economic growth from natural resource use and environmental impact.Having a common vision will help us better adapt to the profound changes that new technologies are introducing to our profession and to our industry. In particular, the use of artificial intelligence and robotics in the lab and in the chemical plant will significantly affect the way chemists will work in the future. This new reality requires that we fundamentally change the way we train chemists. In addition, the electrification of our economy will require a fundamental reinvention of the chemical industry. The sheer scale of change involved in moving from producing fuels to generating electrons cannot be overstated. To do this, we must reimagine entire processes, heavily invest in new plants, and find new ways of storing and using electricity more efficiently. The decarbonization of our industry, the replacement of scarce raw materials by abundant alternatives, and the reduction of the fabrication of petroleum-derived products, especially nondegradable single-use plastics, also pose huge challenges for which we are not yet prepared.

Now that IUPAC begins its next 100 years of history, it is time to think about the future of the union and how we can better serve the chemistry community in this new era. One of the most exciting projects in which we are involved, and that can have a great impact on the future of our profession, is the creation of a chemical language for machines that helps us make better use of the huge amount of chemical information that is published every day worldwide. The International Chemical Identifier (InChI) is a chemical substance code, designed to provide a standard and readable way to encode molecular information and to facilitate the search for information in databases and on the web. This effort is key to unleash the potential of AI applied to chemistry discovery, research, and education.

The decarbonization, electrification, and digitization of our economy and the need to reduce our impact on the planet through circular processes will transform chemistry profoundly and definitively. At IUPAC, we are working to respond to this challenge with a vision to efficiently translate all the potential of chemistry into the solutions we so urgently need.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS or C&EN.

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