What’s the Most Important Unsolved Problem in Chemistry?

What’s the most important unsolved problem in chemistry? It’s a deceptively simple question. You could ask 100 different chemists and get 100 different answers. Chemistry is the central science, with ties to every other scientific discipline. It’s only natural that someone studying physical chemistry would have a very different selection for the most important unsolved problems in chemistry than a biochemistry researcher.

But just because there isn’t a single correct answer doesn’t mean the question isn’t worth asking. Debates like this about unsolved problems in chemistry help us have larger conversations about the nature of progress, the value of knowledge, and the challenges faced by humanity. Plus, talking about unsolved problems in chemistry can be a lot of fun.

As part of our new report on the Top 10 Trends Driving Science, we asked a dozen editors of ACS journals for their take on “the most important unsolved problem.” Here are their answers:

What are the most important unsolved problems in chemistry?

Most important: energy. Most fascinating: prebiotic chemistry.” – Cynthia Burrows, Editor-in-Chief of Accounts of Chemical Research

The ability to accurately predict the structure of complex biological or synthetic macromolecules and to relate the molecular and supramolecular structures to properties and reactivity.” – Kirk Schanze, Editor-in-Chief of ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces 

Why can’t we design chemical systems more efficient than photosynthesis? We know how it works but we do not know how to build one! Despite the efforts of several decades, artificial photosynthesis has failed to replicate the chemistry of reaction center of photosynthesis. (Most of the claims made today do not address efficiency, selectivity, and stability issues that can lead to a practical device. If you disagree, show me a prototype reactor!” – Prashant Kamat, Editor-in-Chief of ACS Energy Letters

“Development of energy-efficient, selective catalytic pathways for reduction of carbon dioxide.” Harry Atwater, Editor-in-Chief of ACS Photonics

“How to assemble complex, hierarchical materials from molecular building blocks as nature does. Related is how to predict from molecular building blocks a final material and its shape.” J. Justin Gooding, Editor-in-Chief of ACS Sensors

What is the chemical nature of memory and thought? While it’s a long-standing question reaching back to Aristotle, advances in microscopic and chemical measurements of the brain will allow us to answer this longstanding question in the coming decade.” – Jonathan Sweedler, Editor-in-Chief of Analytical Chemistry

Biochemistry on earth is based on abundant water being available, hydrocarbon-based biochemistry, and temperatures in the vicinity of 300 K, plus or minus 50 degrees. Could there be life forms in the universe that are based on radically different chemistry than the biochemistry of earth and that might thrive under conditions far more “extreme” than even the most extreme conditions supporting life on earth?” – Charles Sanders, Interim Editor of Biochemistry

Efficient water purification worldwide.” – Sharon Hammes-Schiffer, Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Reviews

Understanding the complexity of systems in order to use chemistry to model natural biology.” – Robin Rogers, Editor-in-Chief of Crystal Growth & Design

Health-related issues including cancer, neurological disorders, and drug toxicity.” – William Jorgensen, Co-Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation

How to predict catalytic activity or new catalysts for organic transformations.” – Greg Scholes, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters

“We are still not able to prepare complex organic molecules well. The general perception and the message coming from many organic chemists is that organic chemistry can make everything, the definition of success being the preparation of a minute amount of a compound after a massive investment of resources. This mismatch between necessary investment of resources and outcome clearly points to the fact that the organic community is still very far from making it possible to prepare complicated molecules easily. There is a huge need for a great improvement, probably combining new strategies with new methods, often catalytic, but also adding engineering aspects and learning from biology.” Kai Rossen, Editor-in-Chief of Organic Process Research & Development

What do you think the most important unsolved problems in chemistry are? Leave your choices for important chemistry topics in the comments below.

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