President of EuCheMS explains how chemistry is all around and plays an integral role in many sectors….

Renewable energy and tackling climate change

Chemistry pervades everything we do. It is all around us and we could not live the lives we do without it. Manmade chemicals are all around us too. Without them, we would not be able to feed the world or have safe drinking water. We would not be able to drive our cars or cure diseases. Life would be much less comfortable without modern textiles, plastics, paints, etc. and we would have no mobile phones computers or televisions.

All of these very important uses of chemicals lead to a huge economic advantage for regions which have well developed chemical industries, and Europe is a good example of this. About a quarter of the balance of trade surplus of the EU comes from the chemical industry and about 1.2 million people work in chemistry and a further 2.4 million in jobs dependent on chemistry.

A renewable chemical landscape.

However, there are still huge challenges. Most of the man-made chemicals now in use are made from oil based feed stocks, but oil is becoming scarcer and more expensive, threatening our current way of life. This presents a huge opportunity for chemists to develop new processes for making the many things we currently take for granted but from renewable resources. Most of these resources will be plant based, but they have to be developed without threatening the food supply. This means that they should mostly come from by-products of food production, especially cellulose and lignin.

Current research into using these chemically rich but very difficult to work with resources is growing fast and will lead to a whole new chemical landscape.

Tackling climate change

Climate change arises from burning fossil fuels in power plants, vehicles and industry. If we do not stop this endless pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the planet will not be able to sustain our children and grandchildren. It has been suggested that climate change is the very worst problem affecting future life on earth.

Hydrogen is the perfect fuel because when it burns it gives very large amounts of energy and produces only water – no pollution and no greenhouse gases. At the moment hydrogen is made from fossil fuels, but it can be made from water using sunlight if the right catalysts are added. Potentially, this allows us to make a fuel from abundant water and to burn that fuel to regenerate the water used. Current research is aimed at increasing the efficiency and especially lifetimes of the catalyst.

Controlling life-threatening diseases

Tackling diseases of ageing, antibiotic resistant bacteria and cancer are all chemical problems. Huge progress has been made but much more needs to be done. Chemists, working in collaboration with biochemists and medical doctors hold the key to conquering these and many other diseases.

How can EuCheMS help?

EuCheMS, the European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences is an overarching body for all the chemical societies in Europe and as such it provides an independent and unified voice for 160,000 chemists.It aims to ensure that the European Parliament and the Commission are aware of the chemical aspects of any legislation that is being considered; it responds to consultations concerning chemical matters issued by the European bodies and provides early information on chemical issues as they arise.

It does this by running awareness events in the European Parliament. Recent or forthcoming examples include workshops on:

  • Energy storage through chemical means
  • Using carbon dioxide as a feedstock for chemicals production
  • Preserving endangered elements – elements that are used in everyday consumer goods such as computers and mobile phones, but for which the total supplies are only sufficient for < 100 years.

EuCheMS also attempts to raise public awareness of these critical issues with recent public lectures related to securing clean food and water supplies for an increasing population, as well as to ways to make energy without producing any carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases.

Finally, EuCheMS, through its Divisions and Working Parties, as well as through its biennial chemistry congresses – the next one of which will be held in Sevilla in September 2016 – keeps the chemistry community updated on the very latest developments that are occurring in all areas of chemistry.