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Science Communication

Experts predict 2021’s big chemistry trends

Chemists from academia and industry share their predictions for the new year

December 18, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 48
An illustration of a man pulling the cloth off the year 2021.

Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN


Marshall Brennan

Photo of Marshall Brennan.
Credit: Corbin Wesler Photography

Scientific director, Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening

"In the past few years, artificial intelligence has dominated the research landscape of many fields, and chemistry is no exception. These technologies have proven especially important during this year, when we needed scientific results as fast as possible while keeping safe with social distancing. This growing combination of extraordinary computational prowess and increasingly fast and articulate automated lab equipment will undoubtedly see even more advances and applications in the coming year. Researchers should take this opportunity to dream big about both the scale and scope of their research questions."

Alexa Dembek

Photo of Alexa Dembek.
Credit: DuPont

Chief technology and sustainability officer, DuPont

"Progress in connectivity, data analytics, and automation has given us an understanding of our global community that will grow more vivid as sensors are increasingly woven into our lives. Wearables have proven that sensors in fitness trackers and blood glucose monitors offer paths to individual health and happiness. Visionaries in biotechnology, automation, and sustainability are now clamoring for novel sensors to help them impact society itself. Nascent sensor innovators rushing to meet this moment are demanding that form follow function at the atomic level, setting sensors apart as an emerging technology. Moving into 2021, a growing tool kit of new materials for sensors will begin enabling their promise of a healthier, more sustainable future."

Vy M. Dong

Photo of Vy Dong.
Credit: Laurel Hungerford

Organic chemist, University of California, Irvine

"We will see a spike in interdisciplinary projects aimed at understanding and preventing pandemics. At UC Irvine, I see biophysical chemists predicting virus sequences, atmospheric chemists designing masks, and synthetic chemists working on protease inhibitors. The paradox of being socially distanced while also just a click away from everyone is a unique recipe for creativity."

Thomas Holme

Photo of Thomas Holme
Credit: American Chemical Society

Chemistry education researcher, Iowa State University; editor in chief, Journal of Chemical Education

"The pandemic has brought many challenges for chemistry educators due to the switch to remote learning. While laboratory activities represent a clear challenge, the place where chemistry education is going to need to make advances is in testing and assessment. Remote learning has resulted in access to information, such that testing methods that were customary before the pandemic may be susceptible to internet sharing strategies. Thus, finding more robust assessment strategies that encourage student learning and measure more meaningful aspects of that learning will be a key development in chemistry education in 2021."

Jessica Ray

Photo of Jessica Ray.
Credit: University of Washington

Environmental engineer, University of Washington

"Global climate change will continue to exacerbate threats to human and environmental health, including the safety of the urban water supply. To meet increased drinking-water demands while protecting water sources from new anthropogenic chemicals, I believe the future of water research will focus on new technologies to remove and degrade persistent contaminants like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and microplastics and to mitigate remobilization of legacy contaminants (e.g., lead) in aging infrastructure."

Dame Carol V. Robinson

Photo of Carol Robinson.
Credit: Royal Society of Chemistry

Protein chemist, University of Oxford

"It is difficult to look forward without thinking about 2020 and the two epoch-making events for protein chemistry: the pandemic, that motivated many scientific breakthroughs, and [the early-December] announcement from DeepMind that artificial intelligence could solve the long-standing problem of protein folding. Not surprisingly, the two events are linked. Structures of two SARS-CoV-2 proteins, selected as targets for structure determination, were successfully predicted by DeepMind. In 2021, I will be watching how the algorithm develops. Can it predict drug-binding pockets? How will it assess the propensity for proteins to misfold? And can it predict intrinsically disordered regions of proteins?"

A. N. Sreeram

Photo of A. N. Sreeram.
Credit: Dow

Senior vice president of research and development and chief technology officer, Dow

"Innovation transforms challenging times into opportunities. Twenty twenty reinforced the value proposition for driving sustainability expectations in product performance, more efficient manufacturing, improved recyclability, and circularity. In 2021, industry will introduce new products that enable recycling and circularity, that provide energy savings in use and corresponding reductions in carbon footprint, and that utilize renewables, all of which will offer enhanced performance attributes and benefits for consumers."

Paul S. Weiss

Photo of Paul Weiss.
Credit: American Chemical Society

Nanoscientist, University of California, Los Angeles

"The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn the attention of nanoscientists to key related communities, including aerosol science, atmospheric science, immunology, textiles, toxicology, virology, and others. While connections and overlap existed to some extent, the importance of bringing deep expertise in these fields together has never been more apparent. An important role of nanoscience has been linking fields through communications, tool building, and collaboration skills, as nanoscience originated by adopting the problems and approaches of disparate fields in science, engineering, and medicine. Research and advances with these communities will continue in 2021 as the world at large comes back to life."



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