Organic chemistry makes much of modern life possible. The highly creative science finds ways to make and break chemical bonds to produce increasingly complex materials. The field enables the pharmaceutical industry to make drugs that help keep people alive. For example, organic chemistry made the nucleic acids in the COVID-19 vaccines received by hundreds of millions of people around the world. Organic chemistry is also responsible for the herbicides and pesticides that allow farmers to produce enough food to feed a growing global population. On the basis of these successes alone, one might think that the future of organic chemistry is secure. But that security is at risk.
Modern synthetic organic chemistry, developed over the past 200 years, continues to be a discipline based to a significant degree on a finite resource: petroleum. Oil is the source of commonly used organic solvents, as well as many of the key raw materials on which the chemical industry relies. What happens to organic chemistry when oil companies no longer drill for oil?
Society has started to force petroleum companies to account for their environmental impact. For example, in 2021, a court in the Netherlands required Royal Dutch Shell to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions created from burning fossil fuels. In 2020, the CEO of BP announced the firm’s plans to begin cutting its oil production by 40% and focus on renewable energy. Is this the beginning of the end for big oil? How many companies must transition away from oil before the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries see shortages in the supply chains that are essential to their industries? And what does the future workforce of scientists—specifically synthetic organic chemists—look like absent the petroleum-based science that may soon become obsolete?
Without question, chemists need to find ways to practice organic chemistry without toxic, flammable, and costly petroleum-based organic solvents. The field already has reason to look for alternatives. According to the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute, organic solvents used in industry are a major contributor to organic waste, and the disposal of solvents can be problematic. For example, considerable amounts of chlorinated solvents get buried. But we can’t just ignore any waste once it’s underground. As climate change alters our landscapes, land that was once deemed suitable for spent solvent storage may no longer be so isolated or stable. Meanwhile, incineration, which is the preferred means of disposal for nonchlorinated organic waste, contributes heavily to carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and thus worsens climate change.
When petroleum-derived solvents become rare, will chemists reach for another solvent? Maybe they’ll opt for water. Chemoenzymatic catalysis in this medium, including enzymes used to transform organic molecules, could play a bigger role in organic chemistry. After all, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for biocatalysts designed via directed evolution. A chemoenzymatic approach to organic synthesis has many advantages. Using both chemical reagents and enzymes in water can minimize reaction times, reduce the use of metals, and often lead to single-pot reactions. And since these tandem processes require fewer workup and purifications steps, economic as well as environmental savings are virtually guaranteed.
Another area that could fill the gap left by petroleum-based chemicals focuses on hidden treasures offered by nature, such as catalysts derived from animals, minerals, or vegetables that are just waiting to be uncovered (C&EN, Feb. 20, 2017, page 26). What other creative solutions exist? Surely, there are many. Nonetheless, it’s a tough question given that most chemists are unfortunately still using organic solvents and thinking about related products that ultimately come from oil.
But when the pendulum eventually swings and non-petroleum-based chemistry becomes the norm, what happens to the foundation of organic chemistry and associated industries, such as materials and plastics? Leaving finite supplies of oil in the ground might make a lot of sense environmentally, but are we prepared for the downstream effects on our everyday lives? It’s a safe bet that organic chemistry as currently practiced is on borrowed time. The future of this fundamental science, which is tied to humanity’s health and well-being, is very much in jeopardy. Now is the time to anticipate the sea changes already happening in plain sight by investing in replacement technologies that are sustainable.
Bruce Lipshutz is a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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