The chemical journey


An unexpected journey through molecules, petri dishes, and ingenuity

Thank you for joining us in this chemical journey! You can skip directly to the chemistry of the past, or the chemistry of today or simply scroll down to the introduction and let us guide you through the journey.

It is 1774. In Bowood House, an estate in the South of England, Joseph Priestley is researching different types of air. He captures gases in an inverted container and traps them inside by placing the container in a layer of water or mercury. The main question for each gas the chemist traps: does it sustain life and can it fuel a fire?

the chemical journey, chemistry of the past

As fire needs oxygen to burn, a fire in a sealed container will eventually consume all the oxygen and die out.

In testing the effects of adding a green plant to the container after all oxygen is removed, Priestley makes one of his most important observations. As long as it is exposed to sunlight, the plant ‘refreshes’ the air, making it capable of sustaining life again. Priestley observed a process we now know as photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis, as we all probably remember from our school days, is the process through which “plants use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to create oxygen and energy in the form of sugar.”

This knowledge, gathered over 200 hundred years ago, plays a vital role today in helping us understand how rainforests, woods and swamps capture CO2 and help us fight climate change. But, digging further, we also realise that the very same process analysed by Priestly is the basis of the creation of “biomass”, which can be used as a feedstock in bio-based chemistry.  

No scientific discipline exists in isolation and most scientific discoveries are multidisciplinary. Advancements in chemistry have often been inspired by or had a spill-over effects on physics and biology.

At the same time, no scientific discovery stands on its own . The experiments from years, decades, and even centuries ago, still live in the breakthrough discoveries of today and tomorrow. And just as the first observations of photosynthesis in 1774 were vital for addressing climate change today , the young minds working on the cutting edge of innovation today will make discoveries that might be crucial pieces to solving puzzles of the future.

Chemistry’s millionth birthday?

the chemical journey, chemistry of the past, DNA

At a minimum, the history of chemistry goes back millions of years. On that primordial earth, chemistry kickstarted life on our planet. A chemical reaction created amino acids and nucleic acids, the building blocks of proteins and DNA. Since then, chemistry has continuously shaped the world we live in.

But, while the core pillars of chemistry are still the same, our understanding of the meaning of the word “chemistry” has changed. From chemical reactions in nature to synthesising the same substances in a chemical lab, the journey has gone a long way, and there is still a long way ahead.

Let’s embark on this chemical journey, from chemistry of the past to chemistry of the future and get a closer look at the great minds and their discoveries which have profoundly changed the way of we live now.

Chemistry of the past

While chemistry, as well as physics, is  inextricably intertwined with life on this planet, little was known about its processes and secrets up to a few centuries ago. But even before then, several chemical processes and reactions had been known for centuries. Indeed, it was the IV century BC when Democritus formulated for the first time an atomic theory of the universe. Let’s us also not forget that, in their quest for the philosopher stone, many alchemists fathered many (accidental) chemical discoveries. One example? We have two stories: the discovery of phosphorus and of German porcelain.

Chemical Journey - Marie Curie's quote 2

But, it wasn’t until 1615 that Jean Beguin published the first ever chemical equation. These diagrams showed the result of reactions in with two or more reagents, the substance or compound added to a system to cause a chemical reaction.

Building on the crucial work done by chemistry pioneers like Beguin and Priestly, Boyle and Lavoisier, the rate of innovations and discovery drastically sped up in the last two centuries.

Chemical journey - Timeline
[Click on the picture to enlarge it]

Science improving life

Both as a fundamental science and as an applied science, chemistry holds the key to improving our lives, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Innovation in chemistry has always been a major driving force of technological progress. Just look around you. All of life’s necessities are touched by chemistry: from the device you are reading this page on, to clothing, furniture and medicines.

Fritz Haber
Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918.

Carl Bosch
Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1931

Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch for example, who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 and in 1931 respectively. By developing a key process to produce in a cheaper and less labour intensive way the key ingredients for fertilisers, they helped supply the world with food. Or Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff Jr., who discovered processes to make medicines more efficient and won the very first Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1901.

Chemistry has changed and continues to change the course of our world: from enabling us to harvest nuclear energy (Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1922), to learning more about radiation and its effects (Marie Slodowska Curie, Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911)

Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff
Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1901

Niels Bohr
Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1922

However, it is clear that none of these innovations could have ever happened without some key elements. One of them is, of course, an environment that enables the most brilliant minds to emerge and work. Next to it, was, and still is, the importance to have what we call “technology neutrality” which offered them the opportunity to explore freely and break the status quo for decades to come.

Because of these great minds and their groundbreaking work, the chemical industry earned its place as a key pillar in most value chains; from feeding the world in the agricultural and food sectors, to keeping people healthy with vaccines and other medical breakthroughs. But the journey has not ended. The sector has evolved, is evolving, and will keep evolving.

And just as science and the technologies are evolving, we at Cefic are working together with the European Commission and other key stakeholders to make sure the minds of today and tomorrow have the right framework in place to discover the solutions of the future.

The generations that came before us, our generation today, and every future generation, has the potential to produce a new Curie, a new Einstein. But we do not just need to make sure they can emerge, we have to make sure their talent, their genius, tackles needs bigger than the present. Our mission today is to ensure that the bright minds around us are empowered to work on the solutions we need for a climate-neutral society. This is what Cefic does: we create a bridge between policy and industry, we outline a clear pathway that connects the discoveries of the past, the human capital of the present, and the potential of the future.

Chemistry of today

the chemical journey - the solvay picture 1927

As it is often said, a picture is worth more than? paints a thousand words. And few pictures have inspired more, and spoken louder, than the famous 1927 Solvay Conference picture. Often referred to as the ‘most intelligent picture ever’, it features 17 (future) Nobel prize winners. Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Curie, Einstein, Bohr and Langmuir are just a few of the great minds that posed for the camera in the Brussels of 1927.

Still today, the 1927 Solvay conference picture is one of the most recogniszable, and most powerful, photographs in science. It can be found in schoolbooks and laboratories, on professors’ desks and on the walls of teenagers dreaming to change the world. But, most importantly, its footprint is found in the work carried out every day by thousands of researchers. Just like the footprint of the great minds of today will reverberate for generations to come.

the chemical journey - the remark of iconic 1927 solvay picture

Nearly a century after that picture was taken, during Cefic’s 50th anniversary celebration in May 2022, Cefic gathered the innovators of today in Brussels. Building on the tradition, we recreated the iconic 1927 picture. Our goal? Connect generations of scientists and build bridges to pass on scientific knowledge between the scientists at the forefront of the next chemical breakthroughs.

During the event we brought together renowned chemistry professors, PhD students and Nobel prize laureates. To ensure that scientific progress and innovation can find their way to the market, the CEOs from several chemical companies also joined the event

In an environment where problems become increasingly complex and multifaceted, collaboration across different sectors and different stakeholders is necessary. No single actor can single-handedly tackle climate change or develop a solution to increase Europe’s autonomy. But multidisciplinary and diverse teams can go beyond what we already see and imagine the solutions of tomorrow.

Marco Mensink Quote the Chemical Journey To solve the challenges we face and find solutions to the climate problem, we are looking at almost a re-invention of the industry. 809 x 335 chemical journey quotes card

This lesson is especially true today, when we are experiencing a profound shift in our way of life.. Just as science often offered a helping hand to solve crises of the past, it is likely to be instrumental in addressing the challenges of today.

Want to be part of the solution?

When presenting the EU Green Deal, Commission President von der Leyen announced that she wanted Europe “to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050.” Reaching this goal will only be possible with the help of climate-neutral and circular economy solutions developed by our industry. Download our brochure “chemicals for the green deal”.

From academia to the private sector, researchers all around the world are applying their knowledge and skills and collaborating with a broad array of stakeholders to solve the challenges of today and “prepare the ground” for the generations to come.

So, what challenges are our scientists working on today? And what innovation would we see on a journey across the European chemical laboratories?

Climate neutrality through chemistry

The chemical industry shares the ambition to become climate neutral by 2050, while developing solutions to help other sectors reduce their emissions and improve their energy efficiency. Indeed, the chemical industry is indispensable for a strong and sustainable European economy of the future. Chemicals are present in almost every strategic value chain.

But how concretely can chemistry support the transition towards climate neutrality?  

Want to discover more case studies on how chemistrycan contribute to climate neutrality?

Chemical solutions to go circular

Chemistry is central to the ideal of the circular economy. Whether talking about paper, battery or plastics recycling, the process is fundamentally chemical.

Scientists and engineers are working to perfect the way in which we can turn waste into valuable resource and lower our environmental footprint. From complimentary technologies to recycle plastics, to using “recycled” carbon molecules, ChemistryCan drive the circular economy.

Want to discover more about Chemical Recycling making plastic circular? Visit the chemical recycling exhibition.

Chemistry to enhance the quality of life

Chemistry is an integral part of  almost everything in our life: chemistry plays a part in developing the molecules for the frames of the glasses you are wearing, the medical devices used in hospital every day, and even the sport clothes in your wardrobe. And every day, we innovate towards enhancing comfort in our daily lives in unexpected ways.  

Ever heard of the concept “Safe and sustainable by design?”
We define it as an iterative process guiding innovation and the placement on the market of chemicals, materials, products, processes and services that are safe, and deliver environmental, societal, and/or economical value through their applications.

Chemistry at the frontier of material science

Chemistry-at-the-frontier-of-material-science-the-chemical-journey.jpg

According to the Cambridge dictionary, materials are “physical substances that things can be made from.” So, of course, materials are everywhere in the world. The pervasiveness of materials also means that any innovation happening to those building blocks would have wide repercussions across all value chains, creating new innovation opportunities in multiple dimensions and sectors.

And chemistry can catalyse  this opportunity: working on the molecular level, chemistry has the ability to create the next generation of materials, the so-called “advanced materials.”

“Advanced materials are the invisible innovations needed in sectors varying from healthcare to construction. They can make buildings more durable and energy efficient, and vehicles lighter and safer”

Daniel Witthaut, Cefic’s Executive Director Innovation

As recognised in the Materials 2030 Manifesto published earlier in 2022, “Materials, especially advanced materials, are the backbone and source of prosperity of an industrial society:” they can make our buildings more energy efficient, reduce the repairs and maintenance needed thanks to self-healing polymers, or even further advance 3D printing.

Discover advanced materials further with SUSCHEM “Strategic Innovation and research agenda” report.

Leaders of today for a brighter tomorrow

Nobel prizewinning chemist Ben Feringa – ChemistryCan. Photo credit: Jeroen van Kooten

Exceptional people can achieve exceptional outcomes if the conditions around them allow enough leeway for their imagination to run free. One example? At our 50th birthday celebrations we hosted Ben Feringa. Together with two colleagues, Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Fraser Stoddart, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2016 for their invention of molecular machines. Inspired by the myriad of “natural” molecular machines already present in the human body, they envisioned and worked on molecular machines that imitate those biological processes with synthetic molecules.


However, imagination alone is not enough to break the status quo. Visionary leaders are the ones that can set the conditions for the brightest minds to see the world that will be.

But what makes a leader “visionary?” According to the Michigan State University, visionary leaders:

  1. See the world differently;
  2. Help others see their vision;
  3. Turn the vision into reality.

What we would add, is that a visionary leader has the ability to see invisible trends and draws connections across time and scientific fields. Only then can they pave the way to the solutions of the future, converting times of crisis into times of opportunities.

However, while chemistry today is achieving massive results, the journey is not finished. It lives and will keep living in the scientists of tomorrow. And, as Nobel prize laureate Ben Feringa told Cefic in a previous interview:

We have to train our students and young people to go towards these opportunities, be daring and develop the methods and techniques and the skills to build the industry of the future—and that is what we are going to do.”

Ben Feringa

Stay tuned for more !

Our chemical journey will resume soon, and you will discover more about the chemistry of the future. In the meantime, join our Future Chemistry Network for regular updates.

External sources: