Confessions Of A Chemist: I Make Molecules That Shouldn’t Exist

At drinks parties and dinners, if someone asks what I do for a living, I always say: “Synthetic chemist … I make new molecules … especially those that shouldn’t exist.” People typically respond that they were not very good at chemistry at school – or they enquire about explosions and smells. And there, usually, the conversation ends.

I worry that chemists are missing a self-promotion trick. While physicists can argue the need to understand the fundamental nature of the universe by studying subatomic particles at the Large Hadron Collider, we chemists beaver away using and developing fundamental knowledge of how to connect molecules together. We routinely have to overcome basicthermodynamics, which would stop any of us from existing if they controlled the universe – the building blocks of life would simply end up as carbon dioxide, water and ammonia.

I suspect chemistry’s problem is that much of it is just too useful and everyday – though not all of it, as we shall see. Chemistry tends to have recognisable applications such as making drugs, paints, plastic, synthetic fibres and electronics. The Hadron Collider, on the other hand, benefits from looking spectacular and performing abstract feats that’s appeal lies in their distance from the world that we know.

My Work

For the past 40 years, I have worked on the chemistry of the heavier group 16 elements, including sulphur, selenium and tellurium. These have always fascinated me – in part, because the reaction chemistry is quite unpredictable. My early work was on sulphur-nitrogen compounds. Sulphur and nitrogen are quite unusual in that they both exist in nature as their basic elements. With some ingenuity it is possible to form simple compounds containing only them – a classic case of overcoming the thermodynamics that are responsible for the elements being “stable”.

One example is tetrasulphur tetranitride (S4N4), an orange solid with an interesting cage structure which was first made 180 years ago. The compound is perfectly stable – at least unless there is a tiny bit of heat from friction. That makes it explode violently to give sulphur and nitrogen as thermodynamics takes over.

full article over at IFLScience