In 2020, science news was dominated by COVID and vaccine development. In many ways, 2021 has been little different, but away from the virus we’re now overly familiar with there were plenty of other chemistry-related news stories. This graphic highlights a selection of them – see below for more details as well as links to related articles and studies.
- Development of antivirals for COVID-19
2021’s undoubted success story was the rollout of vaccines which brought us back to some semblance of normality. But development and trials of antivirals against COVID-19 also continued apace. A significant story was that of Molnupiravir, an antiviral pill initially hailed as a potent weapon against the disease. While full trial data has shown a lower effectiveness for Molnupiravir which has tempered some of the initial enthusiasm, it may still be beneficial. Another drug, Paxlovid, has been recently approved in the USA and UK and showed 89% efficacy in patients at risk of serious illness. However, producing sufficient Paxlovid to meet demand is likely to pose a challenge.
- Highly fluorinated compound restrictions
Concerns around the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (commonly referred to as PFAS) have been growing over the past few years, particularly in relation to their potential toxicity and persistence in the environment. Their strong carbon-fluorine bonds resist being broken down by most means. In July, the US state of Maine became the first government to ban the use of PFAS where alternatives are available, and the EU also took steps towards potential future restrictions.
- Asymmetric organocatalysis wins chemistry Nobel Prize
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Benjamin List and David MacMillan for developing asymmetric organocatalysis, which uses organic compounds to catalyse the creation of mirror image molecules.
- Use of leaded fuel finally phased out worldwide
Leaded petrol, invented in 1921, was finally phased out 100 years later. Though its sale has been banned in many countries for some time, in July, Algeria became the last country in the world to halt sale of leaded petrol. The lead from leaded petrol will still be with us for some time, however; a study in June this year found that airborne particles in London still have much higher levels of lead than the usual background level, 22 years after leaded petrol was banned in the UK.
- Amine catalysis claim debunked
Early in the year, the chemistry world was abuzz with the publication of a study claiming that a carbon-carbon bond-forming reaction could be catalysed by an amine compound, instead of the usual expensive palladium catalyst. By the end of the year, however, the claims had been conclusively debunked. The observed catalytic activity was not, in fact, due to the amine, but due to the accidental creation of a palladium complex during the preparation of the amine.
- AI predicts protein structures
AlphaFold, an AI tool produced by DeepMind (itself part of the the same company as Google) this year produced predicted protein structures for the nearly 20,000 proteins made by the human body. Proteins are built up from amino acids, and while determining the sequence of amino acids is relatively straightforward, predicting how the resultant protein chain arranges itself in 3D space is much more challenging. The structures have been made available for free online, and could give insights into protein function, as well a offering potential new targets for drug design.
- First malaria vaccine approved
In October, the World Health Organisation approved the first vaccine for malaria in children. As well as being the first vaccine for malaria, it’s the first vaccine to be approved for any parasitic disease. The vaccine’s effectiveness is modest – it requires four doses, and prevents 30% of severe malaria cases in children under 5 – but it’s still estimated it could prevent the deaths of 23,000 children every year.
- Researchers create metallic water
By dripping a liquid sodium-potassium alloy into a vacuum chamber containing small amounts of water vapour, researchers were able to observe metallic water, formed as electrons from the alloy were drawn into the water. Previously, metallic water’s existence had been theorised to occur only at extremely high pressures.
- Making jet fuel from captured carbon dioxide
In November, details of a rooftop refinery which can convert carbon dioxide and water vapour from the air into jet fuel were published. The reactor uses a solar-powered redox reactor to reduce the carbon dioxide and water vapour to carbon monoxide and hydrogen, from which hydrocarbon fuels can be made. Commercialisation is planned, though an area a little larger than Switzerland would be required to meet current global aviation fuel demands.
- Controversial Alzheimer’s drug approved
You might have thought that the first new approval of a drug for Alzheimer’s disease in 20 years might be a cause for fanfare. However, the drug in question, Aduhelm, which reduces amyloid-β plaques in the brain, has been met with scepticism about its effectiveness and cost – and questions remain over whether it slows cognitive decline. Despite its approval in the USA back in June, uptake of the drug has so far been limited.
- Skin oil changes identify Parkinson’s
Several years ago, Joy Milne was dubbed “the woman who can smell Parkinson’s” after detecting a change in her husband’s smell years before he was diagnosed with the condition, and subsequently detecting a similar smell from other Parkinson’s sufferers. This year, research published in March identified 10 skin lipids that differed significantly between those with Parkinson’s and those without. It could help with diagnosis and monitoring the progression of the disease in sufferers.
- Home weed killers phase out glyphosate
Glyphosate herbicides won’t be sold for home use in the US from 2023. The move follows concern about glyphosate’s effects on health, though the company that sells it, Bayer, says it’s primarily to avoid litigation. Glyphosate’s agricultural use will continue.