Chemistry in the News Year in Review

The year in chemistry: 2022’s biggest chemistry stories

Infographic summarising twelve significant chemistry stories from 2022. More detail on each is provided in the text of the post below.
Click to enlarge

For the first time since the onset of the pandemic, COVID’s domination of the science news cycle waned in 2022. The focus increasingly shifted to the longer-term crisis we face: that of climate change and taking steps to make components of our modern lives more sustainable. This graphic summarises some of the key chemistry news over the past year, with more detail and links to related articles below.

Concerns over increasing atmospheric methane
While increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to cause alarm, this year researchers also highlighted concerns about another potent greenhouse gas: methane. Methane’s global warming potential is 25 times that of carbon dioxide, and though its atmospheric lifetime is around 10 times lower, news that 2021 saw a record rise of 17 parts per billion of methane in the atmosphere caused concern. 30% of methane emissions are caused by the production and use of fossil fuels and further research this year showed that the venting of methane from oil and gas production sites is higher than was thought.

Wildfires set back ozone layer recovery
Research this year showed that the severe Australian wildfires in 2019 and 2020 significantly impacted atmospheric concentrations of ozone. The ozone layer has been recovered from the now banned use of ozone-depleting chemicals for decades, but the effects of the wildfires are estimated to have set back this recovery by 10 years.

Click chemistry wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry
The 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded jointly to Carolyn R. Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and K. Barry Sharpless for their development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry. Click chemistry snaps together small molecular building blocks using easily achievable reaction conditions and avoiding unwanted byproducts. Bioorthogonal chemistry takes this one step further and carries out these reactions in living cells without affecting their normal chemistry. There’s more detail in the explainer graphic I made when the prize was announced.

New prefix for the mass of an electron
If you’ve gotten tired of remembering the correct power of ten for the mass of an electron in grams, despair no longer, because thanks to the introduction of a series of new prefixes for very large and very small numbers, you can now just say that the mass of an electron is around 1 rontogram. Quectograms (ten to the power of minus 30) are available for even smaller stuff.
The new prefixes for larger numbers are quetta- (the planet Jupiter weighs two quettagrams) and ronna- (Earth weighs 6 ronnagrams).

Universal flu vaccine successful in animals
A universal flu vaccine that aims to protect against all strains of Influenza A and B has been successfully tested in animals. The next step for the vaccine candidate, which uses the same mRNA technology which proved successful in COVID vaccines, is human trials. If it proves successful in these, it could be available in the next few years, which is an encouraging thought for anyone currently battling a bad bout of flu.

Lab-grown meat declared safe to eat
The US Food and Drug Administration has deemed lab-grown chicken produced by a Californian company to be safe for human consumption. The lab-grown meat is made by taking living cells from chickens and then growing them to produce the meat for consumption. The news doesn’t mean the products will be hitting supermarket shelves right away, as individual product approval will still be required, but it’s a promising step towards meat from animals without the need to slaughter them.

JWST probes exoplanet atmospheres
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has faced controversy over its choice of name but made better news this year by registering a number of astrochemistry firsts. The telescope was able to provide a detailed atmospheric composition of an exoplanet, including the presence of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. It also provided concrete evidence of photochemical reactions taking place in the atmosphere.

Evidence for two forms of liquid water
That’s right, plain old water may have not just one liquid state, but two. Don’t start scrutinising the water from your tap, though — the different states can only be observed when water is supercooled, requiring low temperatures and high pressures. This year direct evidence for the possible existence of two separate liquid states was offered up by Japanese scientists.

Graphene sensors can monitor blood pressure
Graphene feels like it’s been an innovation in search of a killer application for a while now. Every year there seem to be various studies repurposing it for one use or another, but this graphene sensor for measuring blood pressure was one of the most interesting this year. Forget the old-school sphygmomanometers doctors currently use (though perhaps remember that fantastic name), this could enable continuous blood pressure readings. It’s only a prototype at the moment, though, so you’ll still have to endure the inflating sphygmomanometer cuffs for a while longer.

Structure predictions for most known proteins
This probably sounds like less of a big deal than it is for non-scientists, but predicting protein structures is hard. They’re made up of hundreds or even thousands of amino acids in a long chain, which can fold in 3D space to form any number of potential shapes. Knowing the exact shape it does take up can help with understanding protein function and targeting them with medicines.
This story follows from last year’s news summary, where Google’s AlphaFold AI system had predicted structures for all the proteins in the human body. They’ve now gone one better and predicted structures for almost all proteins currently known.

Company to stop ‘forever chemicals’ production
‘Forever chemicals’, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFOA) to give them their more chemically specific name, are the chemistry bad news story that’s just kept on giving over the past few years. Concern over their persistence in the environment and potential impact on human health has regularly hit the headlines.
This year alone brought news that PFAS used in liquid containers can leach into the liquids, a proposal to designate some of them as hazardous chemicals, and a causal link between them and liver disease.
It’s no big surprise, then, that chemicals manufacturers are starting to reevaluate their use of these chemicals, and the first manufacturer to commit to phasing them out is 3M. The company plan to cease production of PFAS by 2025.
It wasn’t all bad news on the fluorochemical front: Researchers also found a simple way to make PFAS molecules fall apart, which may help with environmental clean-up.

Further steps towards sustainable jet fuels
Last year’s news summary highlighted a solar-powered redox reactor which could make kerosene from carbon dioxide and water vapour. This year, the reactor was successfully scaled up – though it’s still only able to produce a litre of kerosene a day, so some way off providing for the needs of the entire aviation industry.
It’s not the only instance of progress being made towards sustainable aviation fuels, however — there’s a good summary of the wider progress being made here.

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