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31 May 2012

The Four Elements of Modern Chemistry

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Life. It was simple for 2000 years — controlled by only four elements: Earthfirewater and air. 

Today, life is exponentially more complicated, with the list of elements numbering well over 100. But, when it comes to enacting innovative policies to improve life worldwide, I argue that we can return to taking a more simplified view. This view returns us to a new four-item list — the four elements of modern chemistry: food, energy, water and climate. Although none of these are proper chemical elements, these modern versions of the classical elements are the essential components of any solution to today´s great challenges.

The case of food-derived bio-fuels is one example that demonstrates how interdependent these four elements of modern chemistry are. In an effort to mitigate climate change, bio-fuels have been developed under the premise that carbon-dioxide emissions are offset by crop growth. In this oversimplified carbon-dioxide-neutral cycle, the amount of energy consumed – mostly from oil and coal – for fertilizers and other crop-production materials is, in most cases, ignored.

The amount of water needed to produce each liter of bio-fuel is yet another, often-overlooked cost, and the amount of water needed can vary several hundred-fold, depending on the type of crop being produced. An increase in demand for edible crops caused by first generation bio-fuels had consequences that were generally ignored by a majority of scientists and policy makers until a spike in food prices left millions facing starvation.

It is true that the causes of high food prices are diverse. But using food to produce fuel comes at a high cost in terms of water and energy. The same is true when it comes to producing clean water from sea water, which subsequently has a deleterious effect on the environment. The efforts to produce a new generation of biofuels from non-edible crops, agriculture waste or algae are in the right direction although they do not solve all the problems associated with using biomass for fuels.

Today, our biggest challenge is to produce sufficient, safe and sustainable energy, food and water for 7 billion people without negatively impacting our environment any more than we already have. This means we need to do more than improve on existing energy-production systems — we must create new ones. But, as our scientific knowledge broadens, scientists work on narrowly-focused projects instead of the holistic, scalable and radical solutions the world needs. Scientists, as a result, must be trained to think disruptively, since incremental improvements on existing technologies will not meet the challenge we face.

Our next challenge is creativity. Although many professional scientists and developers emphasize the importance of creativity and originality, these skills are not sufficiently promoted in the classroom or the lab. In fact, out-of-the-box thinking is too often discouraged in schools. Textbooks around the world contain the same, key concepts, which are presented using abstract examples. Once students have completed their formal education, they quickly realize that excelling in academia is easier if your published work does not challenge the theories of more senior colleagues. This is the wrong lesson to be teaching the next generation.

Originally published in The Washigton Post

 Javier García
Rive Technology Founder and Director of the Molecular Nanotechnology Lab at the University of Alicante (Spain)

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