This post is entirely inspired by a Tweet that appeared in my stream via @stuartcantrill, a request for ideas on the future of chemistry. My (instant) response was that we have to replace everything with materials derived from waste biomass. After finishing my morning check of information systems and my coffee, it was time to get on my bike and cycle to the university. This set off the lateral neuronal activity that my brain engages in when I cycle – the worse the traffic, the more lateral activity…
The title of this post came into my mind. It comes from WWII and is associated with responses to requests for various luxuries, which are obviously not available, as the nation’s priorities are elsewhere.
There is a war on. But it isn’t the “War on terror, drugs, cancer, antibiotic resistance or XXXX” where XXXX is the sociopolitical zeitgeist. It is the survival of Homo and our technology-based society. Given global warming (I note that this was patently obvious to me when I started climbing in the mountains in the late 1970s – glaciers are a fantastically sensitive thermometer), we are approaching the endgame. I like the trappings of technology, they mitigate Hobbes’ view that life is “nasty, short and brutish”. So this is the real ‘war’ – gaining control of the planet’s climate system and setting the termostat somewhere sensible – perhaps around 1960s-70s levels – so that our lives are tolerable.
How do we fight this war?
I would argue that chemistry, with a strong dose of biochemistry, is part of the solution. Waste biomass has more than enough carbon for our needs, it is just the wrong sort of carbon. Chemistry is about changing bonds. Part of biochemistry is biocatalysis (enzymes). Put the two together and you have a recipe to convert waste biomass into materials and energy and be either carbon dioxide neutral or even negative, should we bury in landfill the non-biodegradable materials (an interesting angle, in that recycling may not always be good).
The problem with the “war” is that the time span, though well within the understanding of scientists is well beyond the workings of politics (with a small p). Nevertheless, as we (slowly) re-orientate our priorities, the outcome will be that much of our science priorities will be focussed on the war effort – gaining control of the global climate system. So one future of chemistry, biochemistry and associated biological disciplines, including the new coinages such as synthetic biology, is the war effort.
Thinking ahead, if we succeed we will be able to push carbon dioxide down and so engage in a spot of global cooling. This is good, until the day the planet enters a phase of mega volcanic eruptions. At that point we will need to generate carbon dioxide. This is easy, we do not need to burn anything, we can just use some of that limestone over there. Chemistry rides to the rescue again.
So perhaps the future of chemistry is a broad avenue in every city, for bicycles (entirely made with funky new biomass-derived materials, naturally) and pedestrians only, flanked by cafés and restaurants, with statues of Great Chemists or a Periodic Table installation artwork, Lest We Forget.
The alternative, I think, is No future.