10 "Big Question" Mysteries for Chemistry to Solve

Air Date: 09/20/2011
Source:
NBC Learn
Creator:
Beth Nissen
Air/Publish Date:
09/20/2011
Event Date:
09/20/2011
Resource Type:
Science Explainer
Copyright:
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
Copyright Date:
2011
Clip Length:
00:05:17

In October 2011, Scientific American identifies "10 Unsolved Mysteries" for 21st century chemists to answer. Those 10 questions are counted down and briefly explained in this is NBC Learn video. Additional images provided by James Hedberg.

10 "Big Question" Mysteries for Chemistry to Solve

BETH NISSEN, reporting

Why, in this nano-speed insta-fact year, are we celebrating The International Year of Chemistry that ancient science of elements and molecules? Because chemistry holds the answers to some of the most profound unsolved science mysteries of the 21st century.

A special section of the October edition of Scientific American identifies and summarizes 10 of these Big Questions in Chemistry. Heres a quick countdown:

Can We Continuously Monitor the Chemistry of Our Own Bodies?

Is our body chemistry the newest infor-mation technology? Can we learn to read, at the molecular level, chemical reactions in the body that give early warning of disease or cell mutations, or real-time reactions to drugs?

What Is Key to Making Entirely New Kinds of Drugs?

21st century chemistry is all about creating molecules, to make new materials or trigger specific reactions but building individual molecules is a lengthy and tedious process. Could chemists mass-produce thousands of new molecules by programming molecular fragments to auto-assemble assemble themselves?

How Does the Brain Think and Form Memories?

Our brains work by processing a mass of chemical signals and electrical impulses. If we can tease out the exact chemistry involved in storing, recalling, altering or losing bits of information, could chemists develop compounds that make us think better and faster? Remember more?

How Can We Make an Efficient Biofuel?

Biofuels like ethanol, made from corn, are an inefficient use of food crops and huge areas of land. Can chemists find effective ways to cheaply and efficiently break down waste plant material crop stalks and tree scraps into liquid fuels that can be purified and piped into storage?

How Do We Tap the Suns Energy?

The sun is a powerful and reliable source of clean energy but capturing sunlight with solar panels is expensive. Plant leaves capture and store sunlight in photosynthesis. Can chemists make artificial leaves cheap, self-renewing solar cells for plentiful, cost-efficient solar power?

Can We Make Computers Out of Carbon?

Chemists already make nanotubes, only a billionth of a meter in size, out of nanometer-thin layers of carbon; they can also make sheets of carbon one-atom thick, called graphene. If they can manipulate nanotubes and graphene into more complicated shapes, they could make atomic-scale circuits for ultra-miniature computer chips far faster and more powerful than todays silicon chips.

How Many Elements Exist?

Using particle accelerators to crash atomic nuclei together, scientists are creating new superheavy elements, adding to the periodic table. How many more will be identified? And how periodic are they? These new elements decay almost instantly -- will scientists figure out a way to determine their properties?

How Does the Environment Influence Our Genes?

It was once thought that a persons DNA code determined, in the embryonic stage, exactly what individual cells would grow into. Now biochemists are studying how to change the chemical instructions given to even mature cells, possibly commanding damaged or mutated cells to regenerate and repair, or activating dormant cells to take on new roles.

How Do Molecules Form?

This is one way to represent molecules: atoms joined by bonds into particular structures. To help researchers build molecules, computational chemists are working on computer simulations to show molecular structures and properties in a more accurate and complete way: as constantly moving electrostatic swirls of atomic nuclei in clouds of electrons.

And in the Number 1 spot on the Scientific American list? A question that is primary in every way: How Did Life Begin?

How did certain chemicals in inanimate matter react and arrange themselves, over eons, into more complex molecules and compounds, able to process energyreplicateevolve into living things? And is the chemical basis of life on Earth the same throughout the solar system? On Mars? Jupiter?Its what all science is: series of ever-evolving best answers to ever-growing networks of questionsso much more for the sharpest, most curious minds to discover.Happy International Year of Chemistry.

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