Holy Grails of Chemistry
Cytoclonal Pharmaceutics Inc.
In the middle ages, great crusades or holy wars were waged
between various European factions and the holy lands. One of the primary
goals of these wars was the quest for the Holy Grail, the cup used
by Jesus at the last supper. In recent times, the term "holy grail"
has come to mean "that which is most highly sought after". The following
is a listing of the great quests of chemistry.
Scientific advances can be put into two categories, revolutionary
advances and evolutionary advances. Revolutionary advances are those
break throughs that open up a whole new field of research or solve
entire classes of problems. Revolutionary advances occur fairly seldom.
Evolutionary advances are slow improvements made over a period of time.
The scientific community is very good at making evolutionary improvements,
i.e. we expect that next years computers will be faster than this years
and that this trend will continue. However, we do not expect man kind
to achieve the complete genetic engineering of any organism over night.
The items listed are those which I feel would most benefit
the human race, the earth and our understanding of chemistry. The
numbering is for convenience and not a reflection of either importance
or availability of funding. Some of these are seeing rapid advances
and others are almost completely stagnant at this time. None of these
goals has been completely achieved at the time of this writing.
1. Room temperature superconductors.
Materials with a superconducting
phase at room temperature are expected to be used for electronic circuits
that don't generate heat, more efficient motors, power lines with no line
loss and cost effective magnetic levitating trains. At the time when this
list was first written, the highest Tc known was about 160 K.
2. The ability to observe single atoms.
Knowing the shape of a molecule is
crucial to understanding it and no study is complete without this knowledge.
Traditionally our understanding of molecular geometries comes from indirect
spectroscopic techniques such as IR and NMR. X-ray diffraction is very
useful for crystal compounds. However, all of these techniques are measuring
the average of many molecules not looking at individual atoms in individual
molecules. Scanning microscopy techniques are just approaching the point
where individual atoms can be observed. However, these techniques have
not yet been developed to the point where any researcher can casually
examine any molecule at any time.
3. The ability of manipulate individual atoms to synthesize any arbitrary
Traditionally a chemical synthesis requires devising a multiple
step procedure consisting of chemical reactions and purifications. The
whole idea of synthesis would change drastically if we could make any
compound as easily as punching the coordinates of the nuclei into a computer.
Even being able to do this on a very small scale would allow chemical
properties to be tested before going to the work of devising a reaction
route. Currently scanning tunneling microscopes can be used to drag individual
atoms across a substrate. If these atoms are put very close together,
they will sometimes form chemical bonds. This seems to be the best hope
for obtaining this goal, but still has a long way to go.
4. The exact analytic solution of the Schrödinger equation.
modeling has become an important tool in almost every area of chemistry.
The Schrödinger equation gives the mathematical description of the behavior
of electrons. However this equation has never been solved for any atom
or molecule with more than one electron. Currently mathematical approximations
are used which are capable of giving answers accurate to any number of
digits. However, these calculations can require very large amounts of
computer time on very large computers. If the Schrödinger equation could
be solved, jobs which are currently difficult on a Cray would be trivial
on a PC and systems could be modeled on supercomputers which we can only
dream about now. The best bet here is a toss up between density functional
theory and quantum Monte Carlo techniques.
5. A full understanding of genetic code.
The highly publicized project
to map the human genome is only the first drop in the bucket here. Once
we completely understand the genetic code, it will still be a long time
before we can control, repair or improve genes.
6. The ability to create catalysts with the efficiency and selectivity
of natural enzymes.
Man made catalysts are very important both in the
laboratory and in commercial chemical production. However, none of the
man made catalysts can rival the turnover rate or chemical selectivity
found in enzymes.
7. The ability to observe chemical reactions taking place.
all we really knew about reaction mechanisms was what molecules started
and what products were formed. We can determine exactly which atom
went where by isotopic labeling. A number of computational techniques
have been developed to show how the atoms are moving. Femto second
laser spectroscopy is just starting to shed light experimentally on the
8. A complete understanding of the chemistry of living organisms.
includes the ability to predict exactly the effect of introducing
any compound into the body. It also includes understanding growth processes,
disease, abnormalities and aging.
9. The ability to create materials with any desired
Much work has been done in materials science but it is not yet a trivial
task to just create a material with a specific set of physical properties.
10. Compounds which can change phase on demand.
electro-rheologicals and magneto-rheologicals. If materials could be
made, which have controllable optical, electrical, magnetic and
physical properties, the applications would be practically endless.
11. A way of recycling 100% of any arbitrary material.
There are hundreds
of patents on machines to recycle tires. Only one of these has no waste
or pollution side effects. That one machine was invented by Floyd Wallace,
who has spent his entire life inventing things in his home workshop.
His lifes goal is to create a machine which could have garbage dumped in
and completely separate the materials into bins ready to go back into the
12. Self assembling machines.
Plants and animals have a wonderful
ability to grow and repair damage to themselves. A few classes of
molecules are known which seem to just spontaneously align themselves
into some orientation. Ultimately it would be great to have car
engines which repaired themselves or carpets that cleaned themselves.
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