By Prof Joe Sweeney, Head of Synthetic Chemistry at Lancaster University
For decades we have relied on oil-derived raw materials for our chemical needs - now we’re turning our attention to renewable natural sources.
Chemistry is unique, because it is the only science which allows us to make things which have never been made before.
Chemistry researchers use the process of synthesis to make unprecedented new molecules, with new properties and potential for all sorts of things which can directly benefit society: advances in medicine, to make bigger, better TVs, such as OLEDs, or to make new fabrics which can make contaminated water drinkable.
To do this, synthetic chemistry relies on readily available and affordable raw materials, which can be modified in a predictive, controlled manner into high added value new molecules.
In chemical synthesis, these ‘raw’ materials must be of high purity, otherwise the chemical reactions used will produce impure and unusable materials, placing real limitations on synthetic chemists.
The establishment of companies which used by-products from the oil industry to make a diverse range of pure chemical ‘building blocks’ kick-started chemical synthesis, and now many thousands of starting materials are commercially available.
We should perhaps say ‘where’s there’s waste, there’s value’!
Universities and businesses around the world are now addressing the challenge of restoring the chemicals we put in in the first place. While we do this, wouldn’t it be better to use renewable sources to get the synthetic start–points we’re using?
How can we recycle the chemicals from discarded products and make them into other usable chemicals? How can we process the thousands of tonnes of natural raw materials produced by nature, from plants and sea shells among other things, into useful, pure chemicals for synthesis?
Lancaster University research teams are looking at these challenges, focusing on creating tools which can help us move to a circular chemical economy. They used to say ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass’ – in the 21st century, we should perhaps say ‘where’s there’s waste, there’s value’!