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National research Council (US) Committee on obstacles for the Chemical scientific researches in the 21st Century. Beyond the molecule Frontier: obstacles for Chemistry and also Chemical Engineering. Washington (DC): nationwide Academies push (US); 2003.


National research Council (US) Committee on difficulties for the Chemical sciences in the 21st Century.
Develop more stable and less expensive materials and methods because that the record of solar energy and its switch to energy or to advantageous products.
Design inexpensive, high-energy-density, and quickly rechargeable warehouse batteries the make electrical vehicles truly practical.
Develop practical, less expensive, much more stable fuel cell with enhanced membranes, catalysts, electrodes, and also electrolytes.
Develop materials, processes, and infrastructure for hydrogen generation, distribution, storage, and also delivery of power for vehicles.
Develop photocatalytic systems with efficiencies an excellent enough to usage for chemical handling on a significant scale.
Learn exactly how to concentrate and also securely attend to the radiation waste assets from nuclear energy plants.
Develop technologies and also catalysts because that the cleaner use of coal as a fuel and for the counter of charcoal to other fuels.
Develop innovations for the boosted extraction of conventional fossil fuels, consisting of unconventional resources such together oil shale, tar sands, and also deep-sea methane hydrates.
Develop practical and also environmentally responsible techniques of carbon dioxide capture and also sequestration.
Develop reduced cost, lighter weight, much more durable, more resilient, and also recyclable materials for the building and construction of more secure lighter-weight vehicles.
Develop enhanced materials, processes, and practices the will enable reduced power use per unit of gross domestic product.

Chemistry and chemical engineering are intimately came to with the generation and also use of energy. Us need energy for manufacturing, because that transportation, because that heating and cooling our homes, for lighting, and for cooking. Currently about 85% that the world"s energy is obtained by burn fossil fuels—petroleum, organic gas, and coal—but this must readjust soon. Affordable provides will end up being scarcer, and burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide that contributes come the greenhouse effect by which solar power is trapped in ~ the atmosphere and also warms the planet. Burning fossil fuels, at the very least with present technology, also produces oxides of nitrogen and also sulfur and also other pollutants that impact plants and also animals.

The problem of having enough clean power is related to population, typical of living, and the effectiveness with which power is offered to provide a unit of financial output. Humans will constantly need energy, and also chemists and also chemical engineers will continue to play a central role in learning how to produce and also use it.


Chemists and chemical designers will require to join with professionals in other disciplines to invent brand-new ways come generate and transport power for person use and carry out for the needs and aspirations the a growing population in a sustainable manner. New ways will additionally be needed to minimize the energy used for human being activities, including manufacturing.


Generating Energy

Once petroleum is gotten rid of from the planet it is refined. The is separated into its various components by distillation, developing not just gasoline however also higher boiling products such as diesel oil, kerosene, lubricating oil, and also asphalt. Then part of that is cracked, converting some of the bigger less volatile molecules to smaller ones much more useful in gasoline, and also it is reformed, transforming several of the molecules right into others with smoother burning properties. Several of the assets are likewise used as chemical raw materials, in enhancement to fuels.

Both cracking and also reforming use special catalysts and also processes. The overall process is very efficient, so that basically none that the contents of petroleum room wasted. However, many agree the the supply of inexpensive petroleum will certainly run out sometime, although over there is disagreement as to exactly when. At existing rates the consumption, we may still be using petroleum together a significant source of power 50 years from now. Natural gas might last 100 years, while charcoal reserves could last for perhaps four centuries. If populace growth and standard the living innovation lead to enhanced energy consumption rates despite conservation efforts, the currently economically recoverable reserves will be depleted in a shorter duration of time. In any kind of event, breakthrough of much more expensive fossil fuel sources—such as oil shale, tar sands, methane hydrates that are found at the high pressure of the deep sea, and coal, oil, and gas that existing extraction an innovation leaves behind—will additionally be required.

Chemists and also chemical engineers have arisen processes for the gasification that coal, converting it through chemical transformation into syngas, a cleaner, more convenient power source. Lock have additionally devised means to convert coal right into a fluid that can be supplied in location of petrol in burning engines. However, whether charcoal is supplied as a solid or converted to a liquid or gas, once it is melted the an outcome is still carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

Some chemical processes use energy directly to journey the transformation. Because that example, the counter of iron ore, iron oxide, to iron metal requires chemical power to remove the oxygen atoms. In beforehand times the stole ore was heated through charcoal; in an ext recent time it is boil with polished coal (coke), however in both cases the result is counter of charcoal or wood right into carbon monoxide, i m sorry is toxic however can be shed to carbon dioxide to generate required heat. There is now interest in devising processes that do not usage carbon in this way, but use electrical energy to avoid the production of carbon oxides.

There is additionally interest in finding feasible and also harmless means to capture and permanently sequester carbon dioxide underground or in the oceans, thereby preventing its build-up in the atmosphere.2 Carbon dioxide concentration in the setting has increased by around one-third since the beginning of the commercial revolution. Unless burning of fossil fuels is halted, or uneven carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burn is totally and permanently sequestered, carbon dioxide concentrations in the setting will inevitably proceed to increase with potentially far-reaching consequences for global warming.

Solar Energy

Almost every one of our energy has come indigenous the sun. This is obvious when we burn wood, in i beg your pardon solar energy has been in a sense stored in a tree through photosynthesis. As soon as whale oil to be a far-ranging fuel that was just a little much more indirect— the whales ate plant product that was likewise produced by sunlight, and also then converted the food energy into the power in their oil. Petroleum, organic gas, and also coal are likewise just stored forms of solar energy, native plants and also animals the lived and were buried long ago, when hydroelectric and wind strength are derived from more contemporary solar-driven oceanic evaporation and atmospheric push gradients.

In photosynthesis, plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen the the air and also carbonaceous products of the plant; burning the plants just sends the carbon back to carbon dioxide again. Therefore the cycle—carbon dioxide plus light to kind plant material and also oxygen, then burning the plant material to consume the oxygen and also regenerate carbon dioxide and liberate energy—is one way to record the energy of the sun. The an essential need is to protect against overloading the cycle, producing carbon dioxide much faster than it can be recycled into plant material—a significant concern for present levels of fossil fuel combustion.

Although power systems are currently dominated by fossil fuels, options need to it is in developed. Over there is no obvious solitary solution, yet a selection of approaches can make valuable contributions. One arrangement would it is in to thrive special grasses or other plants the are an especially efficient at convert sunlight right into biomass (plant matter), then transform the biomass to electricity either by burn or by some version of a fuel cell. Genetic engineering may permit us to design brand-new green plants that are specifically efficient in ~ converting sunshine into helpful fuels. Water and arable land would be required for this scheme, however it is argued that we execute not yet require all the arable land for the production of food and also fiber. Another different would it is in to encourage the expansion of phytoplankton in the ocean by knowingly fertilization v limiting means of means such together iron. The procedure would offer as a mechanism for sequestering part carbon dioxide indigenous the atmosphere; the result organic product would not be harvested together fuel however some rather would sink right into the ocean depths prior to completing the cycle earlier into carbon dioxide. As with other proposals because that carbon sequestration, there is no scientific agreement on the efficacy and safety.

Scientists, consisting of chemists and also chemical engineers, have also been pursuing the direct catch of solar energy, one of two people for heating or for straight generating electricity.3 One arrangement would cover far-reaching amounts of arid desert and also other surface such as rooftops v photovoltaic cells that directly convert solar power into electricity. In ~ the present time, photovoltaics can transform as lot as 30% the the incident sunlight come electricity. The technical challenge, however, is come devise materials and manufacturing processes for photocells that space cheap, long lasting, and efficient in the counter of irradiate to electricity; ways are additionally needed come collect, store, and distribute the energy when and also where the is needed. These difficulties have no yet been fully solved. A related advancement is the creation of electrically conductive polymers, which space not metals. Alan J. Heeger, Alan G. MacDiarmid, and also Hideki Shirakawa received a Nobel compensation in 2000 for opened up this important brand-new area the science.

In an alternative method to take benefit of the sun"s energy, photocells room under advance using sunshine to drive chemical transformations, probably even developing chemicals that in turn can be used to create electricity. Because that example, the photochemical generation the hydrogen, by splitting water, might be combined with a hydrogen fuel cell in this way. This area strongly depends on simple research in photochemistry.

Nuclear Energy

An alternative to solar energy is listed by atom energy—currently the resource of 7% of the world"s complete energy and also 20% of U.S. Electric energy. Chemists and also chemical engineers have devised the procedures for creating the nuclear fuels from crude oil uranium ores. In numerous countries nuclear strength plants are significant sources of electrical energy (as much as 75% in France), however one that the troubles is nuclear waste. A usual nuclear power plant produce 20 metric lots of radiation waste each year. Chemists and also chemical designers are functioning to devise techniques to separate the radioactive material from the inert product in which that is produced. If this is effective the volume of radiation substances to be taken on will be lot less, and some that the purified radioactive materials may be easily accessible for other offers (including medical diagnostics and also treatment). As one more approach, converting the waste assets to difficult ceramics can make them steady for very long durations of time. The breakthrough of safe methods for managing radioactive waste—together v public acceptance of them—pose a an obstacle to i beg your pardon chemists and also chemical designers can respond.4

Nuclear power offers many advantages if the waste difficulty can be solved. The fuel is inexpensive, the power can be produced near where it is to it is in used, and there space no greenhouse or mountain rain effects. The course, a special problem with nuclear energy is the hazard if the tree is operation carelessly, and it is possible that the operation of a nuclear strength plant can be diverted to construct material for nuclear weapons or the radioactive by-products could be offered in terrorist attacks. However, it is necessary to settle these difficulties so the the currently an unfavorable public late of nuclear power undergoes a change, and permits nuclear power to do its full possible contribution to the world, an especially after we have actually stopped burning fossil fuels.

Whether nuclear strength generation increases as a contributor to our energy supply or merely continues on its existing course, the aging populace of atom chemists and also engineers poses a significant concern. There has actually been a steady reduction in the number of university program in nuclear chemistry, radiochemistry, and also nuclear engineering—and in the number of graduates lock produce.5 uneven a new pool of expertise is developed, the will come to be increasingly difficult to safely operate existing reactors, regulate the radiation waste that will be produced (along with that which currently exists), and clean up radioactive air pollution from earlier activities.

Water and Wind

Approximately 10% of U.S. Electrical energy is produced by hydroelectric dams.6 Although over there are couple of economic and also environmentally acceptable dam website remaining, in some places it is feasible to use wind power, or perhaps also the s tides, to create electricity. Below the possibility for chemists and chemical designers is the invention and production of modern-day materials that can make such philosophies possible.

Energy Efficiency, Conversion, Storage, and Distribution

In current years, much attention has actually been specialized to enhancing the performance with which energy is produced and used by society in basic and also in chemistry manufacturing. Greater fuel efficiency in automobiles, better insulation materials and construction methods for homes, and also energy effective lighting and appliances are acquainted examples. Interior combustion-electric hybrid vehicles are one more area in i m sorry multidisciplinary science and also engineering research study is striving to develop extremely efficient, if possibly not yet economically practical, transport systems. For electrical power generation, complex systems such as coal-gasification combined-cycle and also natural gas combined-cycle are being mounted to reduce the quantity of carbon dioxide produced per unit of electrical power generated. A combined-cycle generator increases efficiency by recording heat indigenous the gas-turbine exhaust stream and produces extr power v a steam turbine. Together a repercussion of electrical energy deregulation, assorted heat and also power cogeneration and also distributed power generation schemes with micro turbines or fuel cell are additionally being explored. Again, contribute by chemists and chemical engineers will it is in critical, specifically in the advancement of high-temperature and other progressed materials.

Electrochemical Cells

Instead that burning fuels such as petroleum or charcoal or herbal gas come produce steam for electrical turbines, electrochemistry have the right to be supplied to create electricity directly from chemistry reactions—thus staying clear of the waste of energy and also the contamination that comes from combustion. This technique is specifically attractive for usage in portable energy sources and vehicles. A common example of such an electrochemical cell is an old-style flashlight battery that cannot be recharged. In such a battery, a metal such together zinc gives up electrons together it is oxidized come a zinc ion, while an additional material such as manganese dioxide is decreased by those electrons to type manganese ions. The battery is constructed with separators or membranes in such a method that the electron from the zinc must travel exterior the battery with an outside circuit prior to returning come the battery to reduce the manganese dioxide. In this means electricity is supplied directly. The zinc metal and also the manganese dioxide were both initially made in a factory by oxidation-reduction reactions of zinc salts and from manganese salts, for this reason the battery represents a convenient way to store and also deliver electricity.

Batteries have been arisen from plenty of pairs that chemicals qualified of being oxidized and also reduced. Part systems room rechargeable; after ~ the chemistry in the battery have been exhausted, the reactions can be reversed by the application of an external resource of electricity. The lead-acid vehicle battery is a familiar example. In plenty of applications, such together cell phones and laptop computers, the weight of a portable electricity supply is critical. This has led come the breakthrough of batteries based on lightweight lithium chemistry, because that which challenges still remain.

Electrochemists have also learned just how to make electrochemical cells in which one of the reactants is continuously gave from exterior the cell quite than included within. One example is the zinc-air cell in which corpuscle of zinc metal contained in the cell react with the oxygen the the air lugged in from exterior the cabinet to do zinc oxide, again through the generation that electricity. One deserve to imagine a scenario in which together a cell might replace the petroleum-fueled engine of an automobile. The vehicle would be driven by an electric motor v the power supplied indigenous a zinc-air cell. Once all the zinc had been oxidized, a “service station” would eliminate the part of the cell v the zinc oxide and also replace it v a fresh supply the zinc metal. The terminal would return the zinc oxide to a manufacturing facility where electrical energy would be used to convert it back to zinc metal.

Fuel Cells

Electrochemical cell in which both reactants are continuously offered from exterior the cell, specifically those in i m sorry the reactants are oxygen and an otherwise flammability fuel, are normally referred to together fuel cells. Chemists and chemical engineers have devised a large number that fuel cells that differ in the reaction used, as well as in the separators, electrolytes, catalysts, operation temperatures, and also other building details. One instance uses hydrogen and air. The cabinet reaction counter hydrogen fuel and also the oxygen indigenous the air come water, simply as if the hydrogen were being burned. However this procedure generates electricity straight with a higher energy effectiveness than that obtained from a procedure such as burning the hydrogen in a combustion turbine generator. A hydrogen fuel cell also operates in a cycle. The reaction of hydrogen and also oxygen in the fuel cell to create water is one part of the cycle. Elsewhere, a source of electricity might be supplied to electrolyze water and also generate hydrogen and oxygen. The net result is come move power from an electric generating plant to a remote fuel cell.

A fuel cell prevents the manufacturing of nitrogen oxide pollutants that are generally formed in combustion processes. Nitrogen oxides formed throughout generation the the energy needed for manufacturing of hydrogen (or other fuel) deserve to be eliminated by scrubbing the exhaust gases in the generating plant. Hydrogen fuel cells were an initial used in the room program (with pure oxygen rather than air), however they are being occurred for a selection of terrestrial applications that selection from portable electronics, to vehicles, come back-up emergency strength systems.

There space still countless unsolved problems for hydrogen fuel cells. One is the price of reaction the the oxygen at the electrodes, which is no yet as rapid as desired. Concerned this is the high expense of present membrane and catalyst systems. Another unsolved trouble is how to transport and store hydrogen safely for use with the fuel cell. For an are applications, hydrogen has actually been stored together a cryogenic liquid. Because that terrestrial applications, one method is to store the hydrogen as a very high-pressure gas in very solid lightweight cylinders make of advanced composite materials. Chemists and also engineers room working on various other approaches, such as adsorbing the hydrogen ~ above carbon or spongy nickel, or as steel hydrides that can be stored safely at short pressure. Yet this and also related difficulties have not yet been solved. As soon as they are, we can have what has been dubbed the “hydrogen economy.”

In another version of a fuel cell, a carbon compound such as methanol (from organic gas or from the reaction the coal through water) reacts straight in an electrochemical cell with the oxygen in air to kind water and also carbon dioxide. This approach has fewer problems with warehouse of the fuel, and it has higher efficiency than power production from burning of the very same fuel—but it still produces carbon dioxide v its donation to worldwide warming. The power of current fuel-cell catalysts may be degraded by carbon monoxide, an intermediary in the reaction v carbon-based fuels. In yet another variant, a hydrocarbon is brought about to react through water in a separate an equipment called a reformer to develop hydrogen along with a mixture that carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide; after separation, the hydrogen have the right to be fed to a conventional hydrogen fuel cell. This technique avoids carbon monoxide destruction of the fuel cell performance, yet it quiet produces carbon dioxide.

Although over there is still much to do to do fuel cells widely practical, experimental automobiles have actually recently been exhibited that space powered by fuel cells. For this reason there is every reason to suppose fuel cells to beat a significant role in electrical power production in the future.

Storage Batteries

In the above scenarios the energy to create the reactants for a battery or fuel cabinet was supplied in a factory, but one more possibility is a warehouse battery that have the right to be easily and quickly recharged one of two people at a organization station or at home. The familiar lead/acid auto battery is an example, however it is not great enough to replace combustion of gasoline together the key power resource in common transportation vehicles. The batteries space too heavy and also take too long to recharge.

What is necessary is a high-capacity warehouse battery that is lightweight, inexpensive, lengthy lasting, and rechargeable. The batteries now used in golf carts and in part recent electric automobiles do not meet all this criteria, however there is active research by chemists and also chemical engineers to develop such batteries. When they exist, drivers will be able to stop in ~ a organization station and also recharge your batteries in 10 to 15 minutes, then drive on for an additional 300 miles prior to a recharge is needed. In one more scenario, the drivers might simply profession in their depleted batteries for others that have been recharged through a business station. When the problems are solved, we will be able to reduce our dependence on petroleum-fueled automotive engines.

We likewise use small rechargeable battery to power cell phones and also portable computers. They are sensibly light and also have the volume to walk for some hours before requiring recharging, however improvements room still needed. As chemists and also chemical designers develop far better battery modern technology we can expect to it is in freed indigenous the should recharge the battery in our computers or cell phones quite so often.

Energy Distribution

Portable energy is crucial for vehicles and little electronic objects such together cell phones, but we likewise need come distribute energy from the generating plant to the place where the is to it is in used. Whether it is generated using photocells in the desert, by farming biomass in farming areas, or by operation nuclear strength plants, it have to go from there to the production plants and homes whereby it is needed. At this time this is done v power lines do of simple conducting materials such as copper or aluminum, yet the electric resistance of those metals results in considerable loss that energy. Therefore there is great interest amongst chemical scientists in occurring practical superconducting products for power distribution.

Superconductors pass power with no resistive loss, however so much they operate just at extremely low temperatures, and are impractical for power distribution. However, as the basic science of materials progresses it is hope that eventually superconductors will come to be practical for operation closer to typical temperatures while moving a huge current flow. This is a particularly daunting challenge, but if it deserve to be met, the rewards will certainly be enormous. Over there is currently progress—superconducting power cables that have the right to operate when cooled by fluid nitrogen room being produced short-distance power circulation in some metropolitan areas.

The method described above involves the idea the there is a central power plant from which electrical power is distributed, however there is one more choice. It can be feasible to distribute the strength generation itself, having little generators in your ar sited wherein the power is used. Already many big buildings have their very own power generators (as perform some personal homes), although this are mostly for emergency use. This distributed method offers the advantage that power is created locally and only once needed, so power losses from transmission would certainly not cause problems. For this approach, fuel cells may have vital role if they end up being practical and also can operate using locally obtainable fuels.


A range of opportunities and challenges have been explained in the coming before section along with an point out of where current progress is inadequate. We must eventually learn just how to operate in a civilization that is no energized by burn fossil fuels, and also the opportunities and also challenges space clear. In the meantime, when we space still burn coal and also hydrocarbons, we need to learn just how to address the carbon dioxide the is produced. This should be excellent to attend to the difficulty of an international climate adjust and to remove the environmentally harmful side products of combustion. We have to devise far better ways to usage solar energy, for instance by creating practical cells for conversion of sunshine to electricity. We should replace burning by fuel cabinet technology, and also we should solve the problem of how to transport and also store hydrogen. We need to design rechargeable batteries that are helpful for vehicles that have electrical motors instead of petrol engines. Breakthroughs in both straightforward and used chemistry and also chemical design are essential to accomplish these goals.


The challenges and also opportunities in the field of power are an important for a people in which inexpensive, readily obtainable fossil fuels will ultimately be exhausted. Uneven we learn just how to generate and store energy, not just burn up the fuels developed in earlier times, we will be can not to proceed to advance the human problem or also maintain it in ~ its existing level. The troubles are of central importance, yet they have the right to be solved—and the chemical sciences are a necessary component of the solution.

As part of the overall project on difficulties for the Chemical sciences in the 21st Century, a workshop top top Energy and Transportation will bring about a different report. The reader is urged come consult that report for further information.

Carbon Management: ramifications for R&D in the chemical Sciences, nationwide Research Council, national Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2001.

See because that example: Electrometallurgical techniques for DOE spent Fuel Treatment: final Report, nationwide Research Council, national Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2000; alternatives for High-Level rubbish Salt processing at the Savannah flow Site, nationwide Research Council, nationwide Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2000.

Nuclear Education and also Training: cause for Concern? The Nuclear energy Agency, organization for financial Co-operation and advance (OECD), Paris, 2000 ; Training demands for chemists in atom Medicine, nuclear Industry, and also Related Areas, Report the a Workshop, national Research Council, national Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1988.

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Renewable strength Pathways: A evaluation of The U.S. Room of Energy"s Renewable power Programs, national Research Council, nationwide Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 116.