To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.
C&EN adopted this motto in early December when it hosted a webinar in conjunction with the American Chemical Society, our parent organization. During the live broadcast, science editors Michael Torrice and Lauren Wolf picked the brains of chemistry experts in the scientific publishing community about the biggest research trends from 2018 and those on the way in 2019.
Panelists included Marshall Brennan, publishing manager at preprint server ChemRxiv, which is co-owned by ACS; Claire Hansell, a senior editor and the chemistry and materials team leader at Nature; and Jake Yeston, editor of physical sciences research at Science. They weighed in on a variety of scientific advances, including those in flow chemistry and artificial intelligence. For her big trend of 2018, Hansell picked the use of machine learning to predict reactions and new materials. Yeston pointed to organic chemists increasingly choosing main-group elements such as phosphorus and boron to catalyze reactions in 2018. And Brennan said that 2018 is the year when “the chocolate’s really getting into the peanut butter”: chemists are becoming more interdisciplinary and collaborating with scientists in areas far afield from their own.
Looking ahead to 2019, the panelists discussed the chemistry advances they see on the horizon. The excerpts that follow are from that conversation and have been trimmed and edited for clarity. You can also check out the full webinar below.
Yeston: I’m bullish on organic electrochemistry. Phil Baran [an organic chemist at Scripps Research] has been a proselytizer about this lately and has collaborated with stir-plate [and lab equipment company Ika] to get an easy-to-use prototype [electrochemistry device] for people if they don’t have a lot of experience. [With this type of setup, organic chemists can, in a controlled way, add electrons to or subtract them from target molecules without needing dangerous oxidizing or reducing reagents.]
It’s a very big time for electrochemistry writ large right now. Artificial photosynthesis [which mimics the natural process with a photoelectrochemical setup] is getting well funded. There are a lot of people doing electrochemistry to make hydrogen [by splitting water in fuel cells] or to modify carbon dioxide [and make it into other useful chemicals]. That dovetails really well with the burgeoning trend, really a renaissance, of using electrochemistry for organic chemistry. I think the stage is set in a similar sense to the explosion of visible-light photochemistry that’s happened over the past 10 years [in which organic chemists drive the movement of electrons in reactions with light]. There’s probably going to be a lot more people getting into this area. The barrier has gotten lower.
Brennan: Battery technology is at a perfect point for being the next thing to explode onto the scene next year. We’ve been seeing a lot of improvements. Twenty eighteen was an incredible year for electric-vehicle sales. We’ve seen all sorts of electronic devices getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Batteries are under a huge burden to continue improving.
A lot of what we choose to do in terms of research directions is motivated by what the downstream applications are. There’s been a demand for better batteries. So we’ve seen things like start-up Prieto Battery coming out and using copper foams for solid-state 3-D batteries. [These porous electrodes have a high energy capacity, and the batteries themselves use a solid electrolyte rather than a flammable, liquid one.] And we’ve seen some great work from Mircea Dincă’s lab [at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] recently focusing on using metal-organic frameworks and covalent organic frameworks, which are electrically conductive, 3-D structures that carry charge and can potentially be used for these applications.
I think we’ve got a ways to go to make these materials have the energy densities and capacities that we really want, but they show improvements in safety and manufacturing benefits. The stage is set in 2019: we’re going to see the first be-all, end-all 3-D solid-state electrodes.
Hansell: [My pick is] a continuing move into automated platforms, not just for synthesis but for automated analysis as well. This is already going on. There’s some great work at Merck, which does analysis [of reactions] on a tiny scale in terms of how much material you actually need [but also a huge scale in terms of the data collected]. It’s all automated. Synthesis and analysis are done all at the same time to iterate screening and optimization [of reactions]. And I think that will carry on into 2019 and be linked in with the trends in machine learning that we’ve seen. So synthesis will be even more hands off, and grad students can be freed up for thinking rather than slaving.
[Despite this trend toward automating synthesis], organic chemistry is still incredibly alive and well. There’s so much room for creativity and new reactivity. Nature published an SN1 reaction that was enantioselective this year, for example. There’s room for really basic textbook reactions to be turned completely on their head. And you don’t have to do a bunch of grunt work. You can spend time thinking about, actually, what’s going on at a very fundamental level. I don’t think people are out of a job necessarily. They might just be out of the boring bits of their job.
Hansell: Something that’s super important, but that doesn’t get as much coverage as perhaps it deserves, possibly because it’s not sexy like machine learning, is the energy efficiency and “greenness” of all the processes we carry out across chemistry. If you think about how much solvent is used on a daily basis in labs worldwide, if you think about how much energy goes into running fume hoods or process-scale plants, it’s a huge contributor to energy use and pollution worldwide. Efforts to reduce that—whether it’s by new processes or optimizing processes or new synthetic routes—I think they are unsung heroes.
Brennan: I have been in love with cluster chemistry in the past year, year and a half. For example, carborane clusters, like what Alex Spokoyny is doing at UCLA, or metal clusters like the ones Ellen Matson is working on at the University of Rochester. From a fundamental research perspective, we’re learning so much about electron transfer and how molecular orbitals reshape themselves in these systems. The best thing about it is they’ve got very clear applications. For instance, Alex is showing that you can do some cool work with applying these to ionic liquids and to catalysis, and Ellen’s got some of her clusters working with multielectron redox processes that could probably have effects in redox flow batteries.
As someone who’s grown up on organometallic and physical organometallic chemistry, I read these papers and they just make me giddy. We’re learning a lot about chemistry broadly [from this work], and I’ve just been in love with both of these groups and this type of chemistry.
Yeston: I’m going with agrochemistry: the rise of pesticide- and herbicide-resistant pests and weeds. This is a growing problem. If you want to take a dark view: Do you want to die quickly from antibiotic-resistant microbes or do you want to die slowly because the pests and weeds kill your food supply?
It’s very hard to make something that is not toxic for us but is sufficiently toxic for these other things [pests and weeds]. I was inspired to think about it because I went to visit Nagoya University in Japan last year [at the Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules]. One of their big projects is thinking about Striga weeds that strangle crops, especially in Africa. How can the intersection of chemistry and biology, in this case plant biology, address this kind of problem? It’s a problem that’s not going away. As we learn more about off-target pesticide toxicity, the problem just gets more and more thorny. This is an important thing for chemists all across the spectrum to be thinking about and to be considering.
Hansell: I’d be excited if my iPhone battery could double in storage capacity, to be honest. I think it’s going to take a bit more than a one-year plan to get there, but I agree with Marshall that battery improvements are definitely to be looked out for and welcomed.
Yeston: I think one of the big boons for automation is going to be helping people who have a physical disability. There are people who are born with a disability or had an accident, so they just don’t have that kind of agility [needed to work in a lab]. That’s going to be a fantastic feature of this growing automation trend—it’s going to bring those people into science in a way that previously might have been too big a challenge.
Brennan: There’s a sort of existential question of, What happens when we automate everything we do? What is my identity as a synthetic chemist, or whatever type of chemist you are? The question that I’m most excited about answering is, What can a chemist do when robots do all the boring stuff? When we have our time and brainpower freed up, instead of thinking about what’s being taken away from us, think about what’s being given to us in terms of our own capacity. I’m pretty optimistic moving forward.