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Science Communication

Experts predict the big chemistry advances of 2020

Editors from ACS Central Science and Nature Chemistry weigh in on what to watch for next year

by Lauren K. Wolf
December 12, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 48
An illustration of a person in a time machine.

Credit: Shutterstock


The end of the year always brings with it retrospectives offering “best of” lists. C&EN offers its own curated look-back features (see our Year in Pharma and Year in Chemistry offerings), but we also like to look ahead.

On Dec. 4, C&EN partnered with the American Chemical Society, our parent organization, to host a webinar about what to watch for in 2020. During the live broadcast, C&EN science editors Michael Torrice and Lauren K. Wolf chatted with experts in the science publishing community about the biggest trends of 2019 and what’s on the horizon for 2020.

Experts included Chris Chang, a senior editor with ACS Central Science and chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stu Cantrill, the chief editor of Nature Chemistry. Chang picked advances in protein degraders for his big trend of 2019. In particular, he talked about molecules called PROTACs that tag disease-related proteins in a cell as garbage. Proteins tagged in this way can then be recognized and broken down by a cell’s trash disposal system. Chang’s lab is involved in a partnership between UC Berkeley and Novartis to design new protein degraders. Some protein degraders entered clinical trials in 2019.

Cantrill chose advances in the chemical recycling of plastics for his trend of the year. “Environmental concerns seem to have been hitting the headlines more in 2019 than ever before (and rightly so), and the issue of plastic waste is a significant one,” Cantrill said. He pointed to companies developing ways to break down plastics into their monomer building blocks, which could be reused to make new products, and to researchers creating next-generation polymers that are recyclable by design.

Chang and Cantrill also dusted off their crystal balls to prognosticate about chemistry’s fate in 2020. Here are their predictions:

Stu Cantrill

Nature Chemistry

This is a photo of Stu Cantrill.
Credit: Courtesy of Stu Cantrill

“We’re all going to be replaced by robots and computers,” Cantrill joked. Artificial intelligence and automated instrumentation are making strides in the chemistry lab to improve synthesis, he pointed out. For instance, machine-learning algorithms have been trained to predict new materials. And automated equipment has used recipes to run flow-chemistry reactions. But “I think the adoption of such approaches is going to increase significantly over the next few years.” The year 2020, he added, will be the tipping point.

Chris Chang

ACS Central Science

This is a photo of Chris Chang.
Credit: Courtesy of Chris Chang

“I think there’s going to be a focus on the nitrogen cycle, broadly defined,” Chang said. One big goal among chemists, for instance, is to make ammonia synthesis greener; the current industrial method for making NH3, the Haber-Bosch process, uses a lot of energy and has a large carbon footprint. But Chang also thinks other reactions involving nitrogen will be in the spotlight in 2020. “Sustainable methods to make products that involve C–N bonds are going to be important for a variety of purposes,” including commodity chemicals, medicines, and recyclable materials, he said.


ACS Webinars/C&EN
Watch the entire live broadcast of the Dec. 4 webinar here.


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