Chemistry inventions have had a profound impact on our lives and will no doubt continue to do so long into the future. As a subject, chemistry has made massive contributions to the areas of medicine, biology, agriculture, engineering and so many other disciplines. It has provided us with technologies that have transformed the way we communicate, stay well, recover and even the way we eat.

It is the accomplishments of many famous chemists that the modern world is as advanced as it is today. If you are looking into a chemistry degree or wondering about taking chemistry courses, this article which takes a look at some of the most important chemistry-related discoveries could help you to make that decision. Why? Because while chemical reactions are fascinating, sometimes it is the people behind them that are even more inspiring!

Medical Chemistry Discoveries

Penicillin

In 1928, Alexander Fleming who was a Scottish pharmacologist, doctor and bacteriologist, discovered through his experiments to grown bacteria in a petri dish that his samples had grown mould. To his amazement, he realised that it was not just any mould, but that it was capable of killing the experimental bacteria!

The mould, which became known as penicillin became one of the most significant medical discoveries of our time. As is often the case, others came along to build on his discovery. After publishing a paper about his mould research, no one too much notice. No one except two biochemists called Howard Florey and Ernst Boris.

In the end, the three scientists won the Nobel Prize for their discovery of penicillin which is thought to have since saved two hundred million lives.

Taxol  

If you haven’t heard of Taxol, it’s worth mentioning as one of the most important and effective cancer treatments ever known. The drug which prevents cell division ultimately leads to cell death. For cancer cells which are notorious for their rapid division, Taxol is like poison.

Once again, the chemistry laboratory was the stage for greatness when Monroe Wall and Mansukh Wani collected tree samples for the US National Cancer Institute in an effort to find new cancer-fighting substances. Amongst many tree samples, the two chemists discovered that the Pacific Yew Tree held a substance that was toxic to cells. They named it paclitaxel and researched its chemistry reactions for decades before finally being used on patients for the first time in 1992.

scientist extracting liquid with syringe
The antibiotic penicillin was derived from mould! | Source: Unsplash

If you love chemistry courses, your chemistry tutor could expand further on these and other interesting facts.

Anaesthetic

It is thanks to the chemistry formula sheet and so many other advances in modern chemistry that we no longer have to undergo surgery with nothing more than a bottle of alcohol to knock us out. This, unbelievably, has only been the case since the 19th century when William Morton, dentist and part-time chemistry laboratory enthusiast discovered that animals pass out when inhaling sulphuric ether. In an outlandish demonstration of innovation, Morton performed live dental surgery on an anaesthetised patient in front of a gobsmacked crowd in 1846!

After this, Morton claimed to have discovered anaesthesia, but this is not strictly true because a type of ether had already been used way before then in 1525 by a chap called Paracelsus.

If you would like to better understand chemistry reactions and general concepts, consider reading this article.

The Role of the Chemistry Laboratory in Farming and Food

Pasteurisation

While it may seem obvious to us today that bacteria are killed by heating up of food, this is not always something we have known.

While this process was first studied in 12th century China, later in 16th century Japan and in Italy in the 1700s, it was not until Louis Pasteur arrived on the scene in 1864 that the link between heat and the death of bacteria was fully discovered. Pasteur apparently made the discovery while on holiday heating wine, even though the process of pasteurisation has since become associated with milk which is known to be a dangerous breeding ground for bacteria.

cow standing in a green field
| Source: Unsplash

Haber-Bosch Process

Did you know that 80% of the air that we breathe is actually nitrogen?  Even though nitrogen is an essential element for life, it does not produce a chemistry reaction on its own. This is why our bodies, plants and animals have developed complex biological methods that extract this element from the air.

By the turn of the 20th century, scientists were beginning to develop artificial methods of extracting nitrogen for both agricultural and weaponry development purposes. Previously, nitrogen had been sourced from bones and animal faeces. One method, proposed by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch became one of the most significant discoveries in the history of humankind. The process has quadrupled agricultural efficiency and contributed to the explosive growth of the human population over the last century.

If you dream of spending your days in a chemistry laboratory, start by understanding your chemical formula sheet.

Chemistry Reactions that Changed Our Lives

Plastic

Like it or hate it, plastic is in everything from mobile phones, motor vehicles, kitchen equipment, toys and even our clothes.

outdoor washing line with colourful plastic pegs
Synthetic plastic is quite similar to naturally occurring chemical compounds called polymers. | Source: Unsplash

Was plastic invented in a chemistry laboratory? Do we know who invented it? Sort of.

Plastic is almost always synthetic, or manmade even though it is similar to the naturally occurring chemical compounds called polymers.

Defining the origination of plastic is difficult, however, what we do know that Alexander Parkes was the first person to construct man-made plastic. His initial intention, to provide a waterproof coating for clothing kick-started the plastic industry. Little did he know that it would become such a blessing and a curse in later generations.

In 1907, American chemist, Leo Baekeland created Bakelite, a malleable substance made from two chemicals. It wasn’t long before plastic was included in the building of all kinds of machinery.

LCD Screens

In the past 50 years, one of the most important chemistry discoveries has been the liquid crystal display, also known as LCD screens. These days almost all technology is equipped with some kind of screen – from TVs, smartphones and laptops to alarm and radio screens, the LCD screen has become like an attachment for human existence!

Interestingly, scientists were aware of liquid crystal back in the 1960s when it was believed that the technology only worked at very high temperatures. However, when the British Ministry of Defence wanted screens installed in their vehicles, a chemist, George Gray was commissioned for further study. His research included the invention of a particular molecule that functions at a lower temperature. This molecule called the 5CB has been found in most LCD screens ever since.

Did you ever imagine that a chemistry degree could take you so far into the modern world?

laptop computer showing screensaver
The liquid crystal on which modern LCD screens are based was discovered in the 1960s. | Source: Unsplash

Radiation: Science’s Great Discovery

Do not despise the days of small beginnings. When Marie Curie first began chemistry courses she would never have dreamed that she would make such a profound contribution to science and the world!

Curie was part of a team of scientists and chemists who worked on radiation, X-rays and radioactive chemicals like radium and uranium. Radioactivity, which was discovered by Henri Becquerel, when he was working with uranium, changed the colour of sheets that were light-sensitive. This happened even when there was a paper layer between the element and sheet. He then knew that the material was releasing something that he could not see.

Curie’s contribution was in the discovery of polonium and radium – and of course their chemistry reactions. The process was named ‘radioactivity’ which is caused by the breakdown of particular atoms. Her legacy was put to use in the fight against cancer and as both a physicist and chemist she is still the only person to be awarded the Nobel Prize in two sciences.

Chemistry formula sheets, chemistry reactions and in fact, all things chemistry can be equally rewarding and complex. If you are struggling with certain aspects of your chemistry courses, or want to ensure that your marks are up to scratch to be accepted for a chemistry degree, consider a private tutor.

Superprof tutors are located all over South African, you simply need to search by location and if you can’t find one near you, you could even sign up with one online – all you need is a webcam and internet connection.

One of the added benefits of using a Superprof tutor is that in many cases, the first lesson is free, this means you can figure out if you have the right person on whom to test your most outrageous chemistry reactions!

If you are flummoxed by your chemistry formula sheet, find a private chemistry tutor near you and ace your chemistry pracs!

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Niki

Niki is a content writer from Cape Town, South Africa, who is passionate about words, strategic communication and using words to help create and maintain brand personas. Niki has a PR and marketing background, but her happiest place is when she is bringing a story to life on a page.