Applications of chemistry


A Christian's perspective on the uses of the chemical sciences

Your will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven.
  God has endowed the Earth's materials with astonishing creative possibilities, inorganic and organic, almost as if He were challenging us chemists to do His will with them, for the sake of all. We rely on the skills of chemistry to provide most of our clothing, many protective materials from insulation to glass, and as an essential support in producing and transporting food. If we were reduced to using natural materials alone, then 90% of us would soon die of starvation or disease. Yet chemists have also made enough serious mistakes to give our discipline a bad name.

   Here are two Gospel principles that point to a better outcome.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
   Although Jesus' words apply far beyond chemistry, they do also apply to the work of the chemist, and especially when this benefits those in need. Biblical ‘righteousness' includes all we do. God wants us to ‘get it right', even though this might mean accepting less security and lower pay in pursuit of a challenging vision. Chemists who devote all their will and skill to carrying out right chemistry, for the benefit of all humankind, will indeed find spiritual riches that cannot be bought with mere money. Here are some of our continuing challenges.

  Analytical methods:  Our environmental consciousness could hardly exist without the reliable measurements made possible by physical and analytical chemistry. How else, for example, could we even know about the ozone layer in the stratosphere, let alone monitor it? Similar inventions have already transformed forensic science and medical monitoring. Related work has also revealed the molecular fundamentals of biology. More is needed

  Materials: Chemists nowadays aim to do more with less. Using abundant materials and ingenious new catalysts, we convert essential manufacturing processes, such as papermaking, into ones with low energy requirements and little or no waste. Also, how about fireproofing, super-strong materials, recyclable cars, better medical implants, or printing ink that doesn't smudge but does come away when the paper is recycled?  The challenges are endless.

  Energy: Oil is already becoming very expensive, and we need to work on new ways of providing packaged energy, such as coal-to-oil conversion, better batteries, more effective solar cells and the storage of hydrogen, as well as the removal of CO2 and other waste products.

  Pharmaceuticals: New drugs will always be needed, and the resources of the giant pharmaceutical companies are enormous. Yet probably even more good can be done for more people, especially in the Third World, by the development of ‘orphan drugs' for non-western diseases. The likely profits are low, but some major charities now fund such research.

  Agriculture: More work is needed to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilisers by careful targeting, and to reduce waste with better storage methods. As a small example, half the U.K. onion crop used to go to waste because of neck rot, until one research group found that a very light application of a fungicide to the onion seed, before planting, reduced the losses by a factor of five.

  Living: Simply, where would we be without bright colours, computer hardware materials, contact lenses, safe packaging or reliable glues? All these are the work of chemists. Did you know that even the wing panels of jet aircraft are held on by glue rather than rivets, to save fuel?

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

   Chemistry can be dangerous: think of the Flixborough explosion that devastated a square mile near Scunthorpe, because a chemical process was scaled up without due attention to the dangers, or consider the loss of animal life because of DDT and the thinning of the ozone layer by fluorocarbon refrigerants. Some of the blame lies, of course, on business greed, but some also lies on overconfident chemists, perhaps carried away by the power of science, and certainly failing to think hard enough about long-term consequences.

   We have misled the public into believing that there is a pill for every ill, and probably for every pleasure too. We are slap-happy about the over-use of medical drugs and fertilisers -- quite apart from the obviously illegal things like back-street drugs whose untested effects may be literally mind-blowing. There is plenty of scope here for highly informed, prayerful Christian humility, to expose the irresponsible, to quantify its consequences, and to do better.

- If we want to have an Earth worth inheriting!

Oliver Howarth (University of Warwick - retired), October 2004