At the risk of upsetting some people I’m going to say it: I love a holy grail. I am a fan of Arthurian legend and so a mention of the holy grail evokes memories of knights in shining armor, Merlin the wizard, and Excalibur, the sword that King Arthur, as rightful heir to the throne of England, pulls out of a stone.
I say that I risk upsetting some people because the use of the “holy grail” phrase in the scientific literature and science journalism has been very contentious over the years and was even been banned here in C&EN by one of my predecessors in 2003.
I’m breaking the ban, but I have a good reason: Accounts of Chemical Research, the ACS journal that published one of the most talked-about holy grail papers back in 1995, is issuing a special issue to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the journal.
Why do I like the term “holy grails?” The quest for the grail became the main quest for King Arthur’s knights. Like his knights, every chemist is on a quest. Clad with lab coats as armor and armed with spatulas and Liebig condensers as our Excalibur, chemists around the globe are on a quest for breakthroughs that solve thorny problems or open up completely new fields of research.
The term means something different to every chemist, so the good news in this quest is that there is more than one holy grail. Consequently, grail-hunting may take our knights in very different directions. But overall, the term is used to describe the big scientific questions or challenges in the chemical sciences. Defining holy grails allows our discipline to reach for the sky and lay out an ambition, a thirst for knowledge, and a never-ending pursuit to answer fundamental questions.
At Accounts, they asked 42 chemists to describe their holy grails in chemistry and comment on progress made toward their achievement. There are several themes within the 42 comment pieces, but they can very broadly be categorized into three areas: energy, health, and materials.
In the energy area, one of the main challenges is harvesting and converting sunlight into usable and storable energy. To satisfy those working or with an interest in that area, Accounts has a comment piece from Harvard University’s Daniel Nocera on how his research is helping set the stage for what he describes as “a paradigm shift from a fuels and chemicals industry powered by fossil fuels to one powered by the sun.” Peidong Yang of the University of California, Berkeley, and collaborators also contribute with an article about the design of “cyborgian materials” for the production of solar fuel. In the energy harvesting area, Michael Grätzel of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, contributes with analysis on “the rise of highly efficient and stable perovskite solar cells.”
In the health area, ETH Zurich’s Shana O. Kelley contributes a piece on the design of methodology to “speed and simplify the diagnosis of disease.” Her research focuses on the development of diagnostic technologies that are based on molecular signatures rather than symptoms. These strategies detect trace levels of biomarkers or rare cells with high specificity and sensitivity.
In the materials area, there is a stellar array of contributions of well-known names such as Langer, Lippard, and others.
Then, of course, there is the grail of all grails: the quest to elucidate how life arose on Earth. Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy of Scripps Research Institute is one of the contributors in this area, with a piece on the “transition from prebiotic chemistry to protobiology,” meaning understanding how a mix of source chemicals may come together to assemble and organize into more complex entities that then go on to evolve and interact with other small molecules.
Holy grails are dreams, but the kind of dreams that may one day become a reality. And, just like the knights of legend, they have the potential to save the world.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.