The four elements of modern chemistry

November 25, 2011

Javier Garcia Martinez is director of the Laboratory of Molecular Nanotechnology at the University of Alicante, Spain, founder of Rive Technology and author of The Chemical Element: Chemistry´s Contribution to Our Global Future.

Life. It was simple for 2000 years — controlled by only four elements: Earth, fire, water and air.

Today, life is exponentially more complicated, with the list of elements numbering well over 100. But, when it comes to enacting innovative policies to improve life worldwide, I argue that we can return to taking a more simplified view. This view returns us to a new four-item list — the four elements of modern chemistry: food, energy, water and climate. Although none of these are proper chemical elements, these modern versions of the classical elements are the essential components of any solution to today´s great challenges.

The case of food-derived bio-fuels is one example that demonstrates how interdependent these four elements of modern chemistry are. In an effort to mitigate climate change, bio-fuels have been developed under the premise that carbon-dioxide emissions are offset by crop growth. In this oversimplified carbon-dioxide-neutral cycle, the amount of energy consumed – mostly from oil and coal – for fertilizers and other crop-production materials is, in most cases, ignored.

The amount of water needed to produce each liter of bio-fuel is yet another, often-overlooked cost, and the amount of water needed can vary several hundred-fold, depending on the type of crop being produced. An increase in demand for edible crops caused by first generation bio-fuels had consequences that were generally ignored by a majority of scientists and policy makers until a spike in food prices left millions facing starvation.

It is true that the causes of high food prices are diverse. But using food to produce fuel comes at a high cost in terms of water and energy. The same is true when it comes to producing clean water from sea water, which subsequently has a deleterious effect on the environment. The efforts to produce a new generation of biofuels from non-edible crops, agriculture waste or algae are in the right direction although they do not solve all the problems associated with using biomass for fuels.

Today, our biggest challenge is to produce sufficient, safe and sustainable energy, food and water for 7 billion people without negatively impacting our environment any more than we already have. This means we need to do more than improve on existing energy-production systems — we must create new ones. But, as our scientific knowledge broadens, scientists work on narrowly-focused projects instead of the holistic, scalable and radical solutions the world needs. Scientists, as a result, must be trained to think disruptively, since incremental improvements on existing technologies will not meet the challenge we face.

Our next challenge is creativity. Although many professional scientists and developers emphasize the importance of creativity and originality, these skills are not sufficiently promoted in the classroom or the lab. In fact, out-of-the-box thinking is too often discouraged in schools. Textbooks around the world contain the same, key concepts, which are presented using abstract examples. Once students have completed their formal education, they quickly realize that excelling in academia is easier if your published work does not challenge the theories of more senior colleagues. This is the wrong lesson to be teaching the next generation.

Great scientists have been known to be creative thinkers. Some were even terrible students. But all were audacious and passionate. The next generation of scientists, should be encouraged to challenge conventional wisdom and raise big, new questions and to disruptively innovate in order to solve our current, global challenges. Tomorrow’s scientists should look to digital photography, podcasting, gaming consoles and smart phones as examples of the kind of disruptive innovation we need. This requires a rare kind of talent, strong leadership and long-term investment, since success is not guaranteed.

Global economic turmoil, however, is a new threat to the solutions we seek, since it has resulted in cuts to education and basic research funding. Cuts to education are a quick way to reduce the deficit, but it merely defrays the cost, since we lose our competitive edge as a result. The recently-announced “Pay as you Earn” program is good news for many struggling to pay down their student loan debt, but it is also a quick fix that showcases the government’s inability to solve the education debt crisis. One can only wonder what their plan is to create a new generation of scientists and engineers able to compete with the thousands graduating from China, India and Brazil. In terms of public support of blue-sky research, it is difficult to predict where the next discoveries will appear that will give rise to new industries, so it is advisable to keep investing in high-risk, high-yield programs in accordance with the capabilities of our best institutions and researchers.

The economic downturn has also forced many European countries to abruptly reduce public funding in education. As a result, expect many of the new discoveries to come from the countries China, India and Brazil, where most of the future scientists and engineers are currently studying. Given this, the urgency of the challenges we face, calls for team work on the part of the U.S. and Europe.

In the past, we invested in education and R&D to improve our national competitiveness. Now, we need to find ways to cooperate in order to discover, implement and scale-up global solutions to urgent challenges. This effort should prioritize creating a new generation of scientists who are not afraid of mastering the four elements of modern chemistry, to provide us not only with incremental information to known problems but with breakthrough solutions to the energy, water, climate and food crises we face today.

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