published on 10 January 2011 in energy

International Year of Chemistry

Year of Chemistry
The 63rd session of the General Assembly of the United Nations has proclaimed 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry and has assigned the responsibility of the event to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) and to IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry). Moreover, the International Year of Chemistry is part of the initiatives of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESS 2005-2014). There will be numerous national and international initiatives that will take place in 2011 to remember and emphasise the importance of chemistry not only because it is the central science that is connected to all the other branches but mainly because it is fundamental in our daily lives. In fact, chemistry has helped man to understand the world and the universe, to comprehend molecular transformations, chemical reactions and the interactions between atoms and molecules, essential for the production of medicines, fuels, food and all those products that have improved man’s quality of life. Moreover, 2011 will be the occasion to remember the fundamental contribution of chemistry to the preservation of the environment and of natural resources.

Chemistry around us
Often we do not realise the importance of chemistry in our everyday lives, but if we think about it, it is difficult to imagine any part of our day-to-day existence in which chemistry is not involved. Chemistry is often considered a synonym of artificial, unhealthy or polluting but actually chemical reactions and the interactions between atoms and molecules play a very important role in the existence of living things and their environment, both near and far away. In fact, chemistry is all around us and within us. It is around us in natural phenomena essential for life such as photosynthesis or respiration, in synthetic materials such as pharmaceuticals, fertilisers and plastic; it is within us because the proper functioning or ill-functioning of our bodies is regulated by chemical reactions. Hence, it is impossible to imagine life without chemistry!

Nobel and centenaries
2011 will also be the occasion to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Marie Curie and to remember the important contributions that women have made to science. Marie Curie was not awarded only the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The Polish scientist also received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 with her husband Pierre Curie and Antoine Henri Becquerel. This is a historical date to remember because Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and even the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes in different fields. Apart from her, only one other person has received this award in two different fields: Linus Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 and the Peace Prize in 1962. Other two scientists have received two Nobel Prizes, but unlike Marie Curie and Linus Pauling, they won it in the same field: John Bardeen (1956 and 1972 in Physics) and Frederick Sanger (1957 and 1980 in Chemistry).

A life dedicated to science
Maria Sklodowska, better known as Marie Curie, was born on 7 November 1897 in Warsaw. Having firmly decided to study Physics, notwithstanding the fact that at the time it was inconceivable for a woman to embark on a scientific career and that women were forbidden to attend the University of Warsaw, Maria moves to Paris in 1891 to enrol at the Sorbonne. In Paris, Marie meets Pierre Curie, a professor at the School of Physics, who on 26 July 1895 becomes her husband and subsequently her inseparable “laboratory collaborator” for scientific research, to which the couple dedicate their entire life. The couple focus on the study of the properties of pitchblende, a complex mineral, and notice that it is more radioactive than it should be, considering its uranium content. Marie Curie attributes this radioactivity to the presence of another unknown chemical element. So the Curies begin a long trying research aimed at isolating this mysterious element. Their efforts and their perseverance will be rewarded in 1898 with the discovery of a new element named polonium, in honour of Marie’s native country. But the research continues and 1902 they manage to isolate another element, even more radioactive than polonium, which is named “radium”. One year after the discovery of radium, Marie Curie is awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, together with her husband Pierre Curie and Antoine Henri Becquerel, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their research on radiation phenomena”. Moreover, in the years dedicated to the study of radioactivity, Marie comes to the conclusion that it is an “atomic” phenomenon. This ingenious intuition demolished the conviction of the times that the atom was the smallest particle of matter. After the tragic death of her husband in 1906, Marie Curie goes on working in her laboratory. She succeeds her husband as Physics professor at the Sorbonne and manages to isolate pure polonium and radium. For this achievement, in 1911, she is awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, “in recognition of her services towards the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and the compounds of this remarkable element”. During the First World War, Marie, like other scientists, supports the war efforts of her country. In fact, Marie Curie gets the inspiration that X-rays, discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen, might enable doctors to see bullets, shell fragments and broken bones in the bodies of wounded soldiers. She immediately sets about trying to find a way to get the X-ray equipment as close to the battlefront as possible. She is donated a car which she equips with the required instruments and creates the first mobile X-ray unit. In 1919 the Radium Institute is inaugurated to which Marie Curie will dedicate most of the rest of her life. Under her direction, the Institute becomes a world centre for the study of radioactivity, and still today it is an important scientific institution for cancer research. Marie Curie died on 4 July 1934 due to a sickness caused by the prolonged exposures to radiation, the risks of which were not known at the time. To date all her laboratory notebooks are considered too dangerous to handle because they have been contaminated by radioactive substances. Hence they are preserved in appropriate lead-lined boxes and whoever wishes to consult them must wear protective clothing. The discoveries of Marie and Pierre Curie have been of fundamental importance since they have changed the course of science and opened up the path that has led to a new field of scientific and technological research: nuclear physics.

The future of chemistry is green
Nowadays chemistry carries out a primary role in the transformation of old technologies into new eco-compatible processes and products that have more respect for the environment. The answer to the need for technological progress combined with sustainable development can be found in green chemistry, or sustainable chemistry, defined by the IUPAC as “the invention, design and application of chemical products and processes to reduce or to eliminate the use and the generation of hazardous substances.” The idea of Green Chemistry was born at the beginning of the 20th Century but its principles spread only at the beginning of the 90s when the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), subsequent to the emanation of the Pollution Prevention Act in the USA, launched a ‘Green Chemistry’ programme with the help of OPPT (Office of Pollution Preventing & Toxics) that was already working on research projects in order to reduce the environmental impact of the products and processes of the chemical industry. The aims of green chemistry are to:

  • identify, understand and replace products and processes that are not sustainable with low environmental impact alternatives;
  • build the base for sustainable technological development, reducing the impact of chemical phenomena, using raw materials obtained from renewable sources, reducing waste and by-products, using bio-sustainable and eco-sustainable compounds;
  • develop a branch of chemistry that is focused on substituting polluting technologies with safer and more efficient technologies.

Edited by Benedetta Palazzo

With the sponsorship of the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research
Eni S.p.A. - P.IVA 00905811006