Introduction to special issue

Chemistry Writ Large

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  07 Aug 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5941, pp. 691
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_691

Many people encounter the apparatus of a chemistry laboratory at some stage in their education. They might recall performing a simple ion exchange reaction in a flask and then isolating the powdery product by vacuum filtration. Comparatively few see the scaled-up industrial versions of such tools, though they make ample use of the products—the fuels, pharmaceuticals, plastics, paints, cosmetics, and countless other components of modern life prepared through chemical synthesis. The lab bench and plant floor are similar in some respects: At the molecular level, atomic bonds break and form in much the same way whether the bulk material is being collected in fractions of a milligram or hundreds of kilograms. Yet numerous additional concerns arise at industrial scale. Cost becomes a major factor; waste streams must be processed efficiently; flow and mixing rates start to dominate reaction productivities. This special section explores the current dynamics of industrial chemistry. After a century of rapid development, where is the field headed?

Four Perspectives highlight different facets of the enterprise. Dudukovic (p. 698) discusses the general design of chemical reactors, noting that in practice, most reactors have tended to be optimized empirically after assembly rather than constructed from the outset to maximize reaction efficiency at a large scale. He argues that increasingly sophisticated computational fluid dynamics models, coupled with experimental tracer studies, should offer improved design principles. In pharmaceutical synthesis, drug leads pass through three stages of development, from preliminary exploration through clinical trials to commercialization, and often the synthetic process changes dramatically at each stage. Davies and Welch (p. 701) emphasize the benefits of a more consistent approach, facilitated by the adoption of versatile reaction protocols, or platforms, that are optimized by highthroughput experimentation and then applied broadly to multiple targets at multiple scales. Hustad (p. 704) discusses recent efforts to tune the properties of polyethylene, the most abundantly synthesized plastic. He highlights the often competing virtues of selectivity and productivity, and the creative approaches from both academic and industrial research directed toward reconciling them. Willems (p. 707) examines the opportunities and challenges inherent in efforts to replace petroleum—long the chemical industry's primary feedstock—with biomass.

Beyond process optimization factors, industrial chemists must consider societal concerns about the potential toxicity of marketed products and discarded byproducts. Two News stories describe how some of these issues are playing out in the United States. Service (p. 692) discusses the prospects for revising a once-vaunted comprehensive environmental law affecting industrial compounds, the Toxic Substances Control Act. Stokstad (p. 694) explores the quest for faster, more effective toxicological tests to gauge how synthetic compounds affect living cells.

Finally, there are the people themselves, engaged in pushing the field forward. In a Science Careers feature by Petkewich (p. 696), young chemists offer impressions and advice to others planning to make the leap from academia to careers in industry.

Navigate This Article