Another challenging year is behind us. Political, socio-economic and climatic changes stimulate the development of science and technology on a daily basis and determine new trends. The world of chemistry has also changed during this time.
TOP 10 2021
To show at least a glimpse of these changes, we have prepared a summary of ten interesting discoveries and events of 2021 in the field of chemistry.
Transparent wood (01.21)
Researchers at the University of Maryland have discovered a new technique to make wood transparent. In the past, attempts had been made to make wood transparent by using specialised chemicals to remove lignin. However, the main drawback was that this weakened the wood.
The new method uses an alteration of the lignin. At the beginning of the process, the molecules responsible for giving the wood its colour are removed. Then, a special hydrogen peroxide agent is applied to its surface which is then exposed to UV light (or natural sunlight). After these treatments, the wood takes on a white colour. The wood is then soaked in ethanol for a more thorough cleaning. Finally, the pores are filled with colourless epoxy to make the material smooth and almost perfectly transparent. This gives the wood the qualities of being able to transmit up to 90% of light and the material is 50 times stronger than conventionally rendered transparent material. It is also lighter and, above all, stronger than glass and provides better insulation.
This discovery could become a real revolution for the construction industry and completely change the image of buildings in the future. Research is also underway into technologically advanced, transparent wood materials, which will additionally be touch-sensitive and will provide an alternative to various types of displays. Due to their strength corresponding to the characteristics of wood, such displays will prove themselves in harsh environments where glass often fails.
Ink for digital printing on porcelain (03.21)
Ceramic manufacturing methods are distinguished by a long tradition. However, with the development of technology, the time has come for change here too. The digital colouring of ceramic tiles, which may replace the classic glazing method, is to become a breakthrough for this industry. Patterns will be applied with a high resolution printing method, because of this it will be possible to obtain not only various colours, but also various textures, which may be likened to those of fabrics or wood.
The solution has been developed by Italian company Metco, which has created a special, sustainable ink called ECO-INK for digital ceramics. The proposed ink is aqueous, so it does not contain organic solvents, which contributes to reducing both the toxicity and carbon footprint of the product. Additionally, the paint can penetrate the surface of the ceramic tile, thereby eliminating the need for an additional protective layer. This results in a more efficient and sustainable process. Moreover, the surface of the tiles becomes more durable after the application of ECO-INK.
As announced by the manufacturers themselves, this paint is a true revolution for the chemical industry.
Magnetic polymers (03.21)
The magnets we are familiar with are usually found in the form of inflexible and hard metals. These characteristics cause many limitations in the application of magnets. That is why scientists have undertaken the MAGNETOproject, which involves creating magnetic materials with mouldable properties.
To achieve this effect, the researchers prepared a powder consisting of shredded magnetic materials that was mixed with various polymers. Advanced 3D printing was used to create a magnet from these components. This made it possible to give them much more complex shapes. The first prototypes produced showed the enormous potential of such materials and the possibility of using them in many fields, from diagnostic tools to touch screens and many others.
The presented composite materials with exceptional magneto-mechanical properties will allow for the introduction of innovative solutions in many areas, such as medicine. Therefore, this represents an important milestone for the development of science and technology.
Newly discovered effects of a natural medicine with one thousand years of history (04.21)
Research has been carried out at the University of Warwick into an ‘antibiotic’ vegetable paste whose recipe is 1,000 years old. It is called ‘vision repairing ointment’, and it was discovered in the Old English medical manual Medicanale Anglicum, written in the 9th century. The ointment, which contains onions, garlic (or leek – the scientists had trouble translating the name correctly), cow bile and wine, has extremely potent antiseptic properties. It has been shown to be effective against certain strains of bacteria that have become resistant to modern drugs.
Even initial testing has proven the concoction’s effectiveness in treating Staphylococcus aureus. However, recent research has been extended to other strains and the results have been presented in the form of a scientific publication. Experiments have shown that this natural medicine can be a powerful weapon against bacteria called biofilms. This is one of the most dangerous types of bacteria, among which, we can find strains causing, for example, sepsis, but also other serious infections. It is also hoped that this recipe will help to treat foot infections in diabetics, for example, which at the moment often result in amputation.
The example of the paste described above draws attention to the clash between natural medicine and modern pharmaceuticals. It leads one to draw new conclusions and inspires hope for the treatment of diseases that cause suffering to many people.
Vanilla flavouring based on plastic (06.21)
The problem of the disposal of objects made from plastic is one of the biggest challenges of the present time. The whole world is struggling to develop effective methods to reduce the amount of pollution that devastates our environment. One of the most interesting solutions turned out to originate from scientists at the University of Edinburgh, who transformed plastic bottles into vanilla flavouring. The research involved mutating the enzymes responsible for the decomposition of polyethylene terephthalate (the polymer from which the bottles are made). The decomposition reaction produced terephthalic acid (TA), which was then converted into vanillin. This compound carries most of the taste and smell of vanilla and is often used in the food, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries.
According to The Guardian magazine, which published extracts of an interview with Joanna Sandler of the University of Edinburgh, who led the research project, 85% of vanillin is currently synthesised from chemicals derived from fossil fuels. However, the demand for vanillin continues to rise. Therefore, this is an important discovery both because of the increase in demand, but more importantly for the sake of a solution with environmental benefits.
Plastic-eating yeasts to save the planet (09.2021)
The environmental pollution caused by plastics is one of the biggest environmental disasters. Microparticles of plastics, which have a diameter of less than 5 millimetres, pose a particular threat. They can be found in water bodies, but also accumulate in living organisms such as fish, plankton and the human body.
This problem has been addressed by the research team of Dr Piotr Biniarz from the Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences. Their research consists of finding microorganisms that naturally decompose plastics due to the enzymes that they possess. However, as this process is usually inefficient, it is planned to clone their enzymes into fast-growing yeasts (Yarrowia lipolytica). These organisms will not only be able to produce enzymes more efficiently, but also to grow on municipal wastewater or waste so that micropollutants can be removed directly from it.[
Nobel Prize 2021 (10.2021)
This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to David MacMillan and Benjamin List ‘for the development of asymmetric organic catalysis’. Organocatalysis is a unique tool for building molecules. Until this discovery, it was assumed that there were only two types of catalysts, or substances that speed up the course of chemical reactions. These are enzymes and metals. However, scientists have recently demonstrated the existence of asymmetric organic catalysis, which uses small organic molecules.
Organic catalysts are characterised by a stable skeleton of carbon atoms, to which chemical groups with a higher activity can attach. They may contain elements such as sulphur, nitrogen, oxygen or phosphorus. They are much smaller than enzymes, which facilitates their production. These features make the catalysts more environmentally friendly, but also relatively inexpensive to produce.
Asymmetric organic catalysis has been developing since 2000, and David MacMillan and Benjamin List are the clear leaders in the field. Their discovery has shed new light on many conventional industrial processes and shown that organic catalysis may be used in many chemical reactions. It is highly efficient and can support the manufacture of almost anything from modern pharmaceuticals to the molecules responsible for capturing light in photovoltaic cells. This discovery has definitely revolutionised the world of science and technology.
The material that feels (12.21)
A research group consisting of scientists from Chicago and Missouri set out to design a material that is sensitive to sensing surrounding stimuli and adapting to them.
As it has properties that are not present in naturally occurring materials, it belongs to the group of so-called metamaterials. It is made from piezoelectric elements that are controlled by electrical circuits. It may be used to form a specialised circuit that processes information. In addition, electrical energy enables it to move and change form. These elements allow it to sense external stimuli and adapt to them. As the creators themselves say, this material is able to make decisions without human interference.
Eco-friendly plastic from salmon seed (12.21)
Plastics were supposed to constitute a revolution among available materials. However, despite their many advantages, they have also become one of the main problems threatening our planet. This is why research into greener alternatives is continuing.
Chinese scientists have developed a unique plastic-like material, one of the main components of which is salmon seed. This was accomplished by combining two strands of salmon DNA with a chemical derived from vegetable oil. The result is a spongy, gel-like substance – a hydrogel. The resulting hydrogel is freeze-dried and moisture is removed from it, thereby allowing it to be moulded into different shapes.
The production of this bioplastic can emit up to 97% less CO2 than the production of traditional polystyrene plastics. Additionally, it will be recyclable using DNA digesting enzymes. Ultimately, it can also be immersed in water so that it becomes a hydrogel again.
These types of bioplastics represent an opportunity for the future of the plastics industry and to reduce the pollution on our planet.
Graphene-based lubricant (12.21)
Italian researchers have developed a novel graphene-based lubricant that can be used in cars and motorbikes. In particular, the addition of graphene has ensured the greater stability of oil which, in addition, helps to reduce the friction between engine parts. These beneficial properties make the parts heat up and also wear out less rapidly. Graphene has the potential to become an alternative to traditionally used oil. This will make oil less toxic to the environment and also make it easier to dispose of or recycle. The lubricant has already undergone its first tests, in which it performed to a promising level. Therefore, further research is underway to bring this graphene innovation to commercial applications.
TOP 10 2020 – What surprised us in 2020?
We have a difficult year behind us, which we will mainly associate with the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, science has been beyond that and many exceptional discoveries have also been made during this time.
Let us therefore summarise some of the most important events for the world of chemistry, which will have an impact on our future and further development of science.
A TELESCOPE THAT BRINGS US CLOSER TO THE SUN (January 2020)
A telescope that made it possible to capture extremely detailed pictures of the Sun has been built in Hawaii by National Science Foundation (NSF), a US government agency. It is the world’s largest telescope and has a 4-metre solar mirror. The pictures it takes has created a new era in the study of the Sun. It will enable weather forecasters to predict geomagnetic storms more accurately and better understand what affects cosmic weather. 
A YEAR MARKED BY THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC (March 2020)
Even though the first COVID-19 cases was observed in November 2019, the World Health Organisation labelled it as a pandemic on 11 March 2020. The disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus shook the whole world. New recommendations and orders have changed our everyday reality. An important role has been played by chemicals such as disinfectants, which proved to be an important weapon in the fight against the spread of the disease. The chemical industry also took an important role in the medical and pharmaceutical sectors by supporting doctors in their fight against the disease.
PLASTIC-EATING BACTERIA (April 2020)
On 8 April 2020, Nature published an article proving the existence of bacteria with enzymes that are capable of breaking down plastics and turning them into simple elements. During digestion, strain 201-F6 b of Ideonella sakaiensis makes it possible to recover material that can be used again in the synthesis and production of plastics of the same quality as that obtained through petrochemical processes. This method is being slowly implemented in industry, and in a few years we should be able to buy recycled bottles manufactured using this method. 
A WAY TO CUT 2D MATERIALS (14 July 2020)
Scientists have developed a very precise technology which makes it possible to carve small holes in atom-sized particles. The aim is to support the production of photonic and electronic nanodevices. Research describes a thermomechanical technique which makes it possible to cut 2D materials using a heated scanning nanotip. This method makes it possible to make arbitrarily shaped cuts with a resolution of 20 nm in monolayer 2D materials. 
METAL-EATING BACTERIA (15 July 2020)
For over 100 years scientists have suspected the existence of metal-eating bacteria. However, they could not prove it until now. The discovery was made by microbiologists from Caltech (California Institute of Technology). Dr. Jared Leadbetter was conducting research based on manganese. When he finished, he placed a glass jar he had been using in the sink to soak. By coincidence and because he had to leave the campus, the jar was left in the water for several months. When Leadbetter returned, he discovered that the vessel was coated with a dark residue, which turned out to be oxidised manganese generated by the bacteria living in tap water. Extensive research has shown that the bacteria can use manganese for chemosynthesis. It is the first known case in which bacteria use manganese as a source of energy. It is a revolutionary step for science, one which has largely contributed to our understanding of natural elemental cycles. 
ALMOST INVISIBLE FISH (17 July 2020)
The unique fish in question are real masters of camouflage. Their black exterior absorbs 99.95 percent of all photons. These fish literally soak up all the light, so even under a strong spotlight we can only see their silhouettes against dark water. Karen Osborn, a research zoologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and her team discovered 16 species of fish which look as if they were covered with Vantablack, the darkest material known to humans, which absorbs 99.96 percent of light. 
THE NOBEL PRIZE IN CHEMISTRY (October 2020)
Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna were awarded the Nobel Prize for the development of a method for genome editing. They discovered precise “genetic scissors” which could, for example, make it possible to develop new cancer therapies. The method was discovered in 2012 and was a scientific breakthrough. 
A RECORD-SETTING TIME MEASUREMENT: ZEPTOSECONDS (19 October 2020)
Scientists managed to measure the shortest time unit, known as the zeptosecond. It was measured during the observation of a light particle crossing a hydrogen molecule. It took 247 zs (zeptoseconds). It was decided that one zeptosecond was 10-21 of a second.
Measurements were made by a team of physicists lead by Professor Reinhard Dörner of Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. 
THE POLISH NOBEL PRIZE (4 November 2020)
Other awards granted this year included those of the Foundation for Polish Science (also referred to as the Polish Nobel Prize). In the field of chemistry, the prize was awarded to Professor Ewa Górecka of the University of Warsaw “for obtaining liquid crystal materials with a chiral structure made of non-chiral molecules.” 
DIAMONDS MADE IN MINUTES (20 November 2020)
Scientists of the Australian National University (ANU) managed to create a diamond just by applying high pressures and without raising the ambient temperature. They obtained two types of diamond. One was a typical stone, which could be used on a ring after cutting. The second type was called lonsdaleite, a form which is found in nature after a meteorite hits the Earth. The possibility of creating a diamond so quickly and at room temperature opens up multiple possibilities, including for industry. 
What scientific discoveries did 2019 bring?
We have a very special time behind us, because last year was the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the Periodic table by Dmitri Mendeleev. To honour this milestone in chemistry, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) and UNESCO declared 2019 the “International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements (IYPT2019)”. In connection with this event, have a look at our Facebook fanpage, where we have organized a unique contest on the knowledge of the elements and periodic table. Apart from a special anniversary, this year was full of new discoveries. We have selected the 10 most interesting ones, among which there are, for example, spectacular results of research on the new state of matter, the method of using sunlight to produce fuels or creating cyclocarbon. Below is a calendar of the 10 most interesting chemical discoveries and events of 2019.
BUILDING A NEW HADRON COLLIDER Future Circular Collider (FCC)
The FCC is to be four times bigger and many times more powerful than the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The accelerators allow to examine the elements created by the collision of streams of accelerated elementary particles. Accelerator with a larger size and greater power may allow us to discover yet unknown forms of matter and to investigate more thoroughly the already known ones.
CYCLOCARBON A NEW VARIETY OF CARBON
Scientists from the University of Oxford and IBM Research in Zurich, in a publication in “Science” magazine, presented how to produce a ring made of 18 carbon atoms. This relationship was created by an innovative method of manipulating single atoms. One of the discoverers of cyclocarbon was a Pole Dr Przemysław Gaweł from the University of Oxford.
SLOW ELECTRONS DESTROY CANCER CELLS
Scientists from the Vienna University of Technology discovered that the previously observed effect of destroying cancer cells using slow electrons is possible. By using the Coulomb’s interatomic decomposition, the ion can transfer additional energy to the surrounding atoms. As a result, a huge number of electrons are released, with enough energy to cause DNA damage to cancer cells.
NEW STATE OF MATTER
A team of scientists from the University of Edinburgh performed computer simulations to further investigate the so-called “state of the molten chain“. The tests were carried out on 20 000 potassium atoms subjected to a pressure of 20 000 to 40 000 atmospheres and a temperature of 126 to 526 degrees Celsius. The results showed that the created structures represent a new state in which two interconnected lattice structures are formed. The observation is that chains dissolve into a liquid while at the same time the remaining potassium crystals are in a solid form.
NEW TERAHERTZ RADIATION SOURCES
Scientists from the CENTERA research agenda, together with research teams from France, Germany and Russia, have made a discovery that may lead to the construction of new sources of forgotten terahertz radiation. It would be tunable with a magnetic field. The results of these studies are described in Nature Photonics.
NOBEL PRIZE IN CHEMISTRY
John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino were awarded for the development of light and capacious lithium-ion batteries. This invention is commonly known as lithium-ion batteries. Their creation revolutionized the world and, as the members of the Nobel Committee pointed out, “they laid the foundations of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society“. 
The winner of the Foundation for Polish Science Award (the so-called Polish Nobel Prize) is Professor Marcin Drąg from the Faculty of Chemistry of the Wrocław University of Technology. Professor was appreciated “for developing a new technological platform for obtaining biologically active compounds, especially proteolytic enzyme inhibitors.”
DNA in a prehistoric “chewing gum”
Scientists from the University of Copenhagen report in “Nature Communications” about finding a DNA fragment of a prehistoric inhabitant of Scandinavia in a piece of birch tar she chewed. Based on this discovery, the complete female genome was reconstructed. The artefact dates back to 5700 years.
SUNLIGHT FOR FUEL PRODUCTION
Researchers at Nanyang Technological University of Singapore (NTU Singapore) have discovered a method that can transform plastic waste into chemicals by using sunlight. A team of scientists conducted research on a mixture of plastics with their catalyst in a solvent, which allows the use of light energy. As a result, dissolved plastics were transformed into formic acid. This acid is used in fuel cells to produce electricity. This discovery is aimed at developing sustainable methods of using sunlight to produce fuels and other chemical products. 
LASER LIGHTSABER AT OUR FINGERTIPS
Aleksandra Fliszkiewicz, a student of the Warsaw University of Technology, developed a light swordas part of her engineering work, inspired by the 8th part of “Star Wars”. It was created using a green laser and a lens developed by Polish scientists, the so-called “light sword”, which focuses the light into a section. The lens, the geometry of which was developed in 1990 at the Warsaw University of Technology, is now also supposed to bring new solutions in ophthalmology, such as the creation of intraocular implants for people after cataract surgery, which are being clinically tested.