The 'Hidden' Chemistry in Everyday Life

Understanding the chemical makeup and workings of everyday “stuff” unlocks the mysteries of our world.

Oct 17, 2016 5:00 AMNov 20, 2019 9:05 PM


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Photo Credits: Geoff Coates, Cornell University

Don’t discard that orange peel!

A Cornell University research team, supported by the NSF, has discovered how to make plastics from a carbon-based compound, called limonene, found in 95 percent of an orange peel’s oil. The compound is oxidized, forming limonene oxide, and combined with carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to form a new type of eco-friendly plastic. By using agricultural waste and the gas our bodies expel when we exhale, scientists are making plastics out of two waste products.

The ability to create plastics, which are typically petroleum-based, from orange peels and other plant scraps makes these renewable resources worth saving.

Photo Credits: National Science Foundation

From water bottles and playground equipment to personal care products, it can seem the world is made of plastic. A type of polymer, plastic consists of long molecule chains made up of repeating units. Versatile, cheap and relatively easy to produce, plastics are also durable — perhaps too durable.

Derived from petrochemical resources (natural gas or petroleum), plastics can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, or decompose. That can be a problem for a society that uses — and throws away — a lot of plastic.

The NSF is funding chemists at the Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota working to custom design polymers into plastics that are more environmentally friendly, from production and use, to disposal.

Pictured here: a polymer is tested for its stretchability.

Photo Credits: Yoke Khin Yap (Super hydrophobic boron nitride films)

Crystals surround us. These solid materials contain highly ordered atoms, molecules or ions, usually arranged in a geometric shape. Table salt or sugar, when examined closely, are small crystals. Diamonds, often coveted for their physical qualities and hardness, are another type of crystal.

Rarer than diamonds, the wurtzite-like crystal structure of boron nitride is considerably harder. In fact, it’s the hardest known crystal in the world. And because it remains stable at higher temperatures (unlike diamonds), it may have a number of practical applications, including in the tips of drills and other heat-generating tools.

Scientists funded by the NSF are working to synthesize, characterize and functionalize boron nitride nanotubes and boron nitride nanoribbons to create new electronic and optical materials with tunable properties.

Photo Credits: David Gruber, Baruch College, City University of New York

Jellies are not the only organisms that glow in the dark. An estimated 90 percent of deep sea marine life, such as the coral seen here, has bioluminescent properties in one form or other.

As scientists continue their efforts to unravel the chemical mysteries of our world, the NSF continues its support of chemical sciences research, including research at the interface of biology, chemistry and engineering.

NSF further commits to supporting chemical research in clean energy, sustainability, neuroscience, nanomaterials and quantum phenomena. NSF-funded chemists use experimental tools, computational modeling and data science to explore the molecular frontier.

The images in this National Science Foundation gallery are copyrighted and may be used only for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial purposes. Credits must be provided.

Photo Credits: Osamu Shimomura, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts

Bioluminescence is a living organism’s ability to convert chemical energy into visible light. In jellyfish, an enzyme causes the oxidation of a light-emitting chemical compound, producing an unstable, excited state. As the compound decays back to a ground state, light is emitted.

A scientist supported by the NSF was the first to isolate the green fluorescent protein (GFP) in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria. (GFP acts in concert with another protein, aequorin, to produce green light.) GFP, which can be transplanted into other species, has become a valuable tool in contemporary bioscience. Researchers use it, for example, to watch nerve cells develop and cancer cells spread.

Photo Credits: National Science Foundation

Wish your smartphone was smarter, lighter and more sustainable? Perhaps it’s time to ring a chemist.

The NSF is currently supporting researchers who are looking to develop the next generation of electronic circuits, starting with the basic computer chip.

While computer chips are typically made of bulky carbon compounds, scientists at the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry at Oregon State University are looking to replace these bulky compounds with metal oxides, which would allow more transistors to fit on a chip. Not only will the new chips be faster and cheaper to make, the process of making them will be cleaner.

The Center is one of nine NSF-funded Centers for Innovation that focus on major, long-term fundamental chemical research challenges.

Photo Credits: Adam Paxson, Kyle Hounsell, Jim Bales, James Bird, Kripa Varanasi

Not all surfaces and materials respond to water in the same way. Hydrophobic surfaces, for example, shed or repel water due to an absence of attraction. Hydrophilic surfaces, on the other hand, are water-loving and more receptive to water’s advances. While some surfaces and materials might possess one or the other of these characteristics, other surfaces can possess both.

Scientists funded by the NSF are studying a Namibian beetle, whose backside is a patchwork of hydrophobic and hydrophilic areas that help to collect and disperse water as needed. When thirsty, the beetle simply tilts up its backside, allowing accumulated water droplets to fall into its mouth.

Engineers are now mimicking the beetle’s back and reproducing similar hydrophobic-hydrophilic surfaces, materials and products at the nanoscale. Already, as a result of this work, superhydrophobic chemical coatings have reached the marketplace by way of water-repellant shoes, shirts and mobile phones. Further applications could include everything from energy-saving power plants to self-cleaning windows.

Photo Credits: Image courtesy professor Kellar Autumn, from Autumn, K., et al. 2002. Evidence for van der Waals adhesion in gecko setae. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 99, 12252-12256

To their human neighbors, geckos may seem commonplace enough. Their ability to adhere to most surfaces – whether vertical, sheer or wet – is anything but ordinary, however.

When geckos place their footpads on a wall surface, the atoms of the millions of setae (tiny hair-like structures) on their pads interact with the wall’s atoms. The chemical bonding that results rearranges the electrons, creating an electrodynamic attraction known as van der Waals forces.

Inspired by geckos’ sticky feet, scientists are developing adhesive tapes – by rooting columns of nanotubes in flexible polymer pieces – that stick many times better than a gecko’s foot. As they work to optimize the function and strength of synthetic adhesives, scientists see applications in everything from microelectronics to improving everyday household goods such as tape.

Pictured here: Gecko feet, showing different toe pad structures.

Photo Credits: Peter Allen, University of California, Santa Barbara

Sunday marked the start of National Chemistry Week, which is an effort to build awareness and promote the value of chemistry in our daily lives. From sea spray to plastics, understanding the chemical makeup and workings of everyday “stuff” unlocks the mysteries of our world and beyond.

Pictured here: a representation of graphene molecules. Graphene, a one-atom thick layer of carbon, is one of the thinnest, strongest known materials. NSF-funded research on graphene could one day yield lower-cost, ultra-low power, next generation electronics, perhaps with the unique ability to fold, bend and twist.

For more than 60 years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has served as a global leader in supporting innovative research in the chemical sciences, from creating eco-friendly bioplastics to isolating and developing luminescent proteins for use in the biosciences. Here's a look at some of the ways the NSF works to advance America’s competitive edge through chemistry researcher, education and literacy.

To learn more go to

Photo Credits: Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, Department of Basic Medical Sciences; Center for Paralysis Research, Purdue University

Anyone who has had a caramel macchiato or overdosed on Halloween candy knows sugar well. But sugar, a carbohydrate, can do more than simply satisfy your sweet tooth. The molecule’s stable, dissolvable structure can also serve as scaffolding to build structures one-billionth of a meter in size.

Researchers used spun sugar – hardened sugar syrup drawn out into long strands as seen in cotton candy and cake decorations – to build bundles of hollow, synthetic tubes. They started by first coating the sugar strands with a degradable polymer, then dissolving the sugar in water, leaving behind the hollow polymers. Researchers note these tiny artificial tubes could one day serve as conduits for regenerating nerves severed in accidents or damaged by disease.

Pictured here: false-colored image of sugar strands (yellow) with a polymer coating (blue) taken with a scanning electron microscope.

Photo Credits: Paesani Group, University of California, San Diego

The representation at left shows a cross section of organic molecules on a model of sea spray — a natural, marine aerosol — consisting of water (blue), sodium ions (green) and organic molecules (magenta and white).

Seawater contains high levels of salt and other dissolved substances. Scientists previously thought ions — charged particles such as sodium or chloride, which bond to make salt — got buried in bodies of water. Computer-generated models of sea spray, however, show that at least some ions remain in the surface layer of water. That’s important because exposed ions on the seawater’s surface and in sea spray may react with chemicals in the atmosphere. Sea spray plays an important role in cloud formation and composition, which in turn affects the climate.

To better understand the relationship between sea spray and clouds, NSF-funded researchers are making waves – literally – at the Center of Aerosols Impacts on Climate and the Environment in San Diego, California. By recreating the ocean-atmosphere environment, researchers can study how chemical changes in seawater impact cloud formation and better understand how sea spray aerosols affect weather patterns and climate change.

Photo Credits: Peter Michaud, Gemini Observatory

At any given time, clouds cover about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and together produce a net cooling effect on the planet. They also play a role in the formation of secondary organic aerosols – air pollutants produced when sunlight, organic molecules and airborne chemicals come together and interact. Now, the NSF is helping researchers develop new chemical models that will provide better estimates on the global contribution of these aerosols. The models can be incorporated into global or regional models for studying climate change, visibility and air quality.

Pictured here: A lenticular cloud above Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano, site of the Gemini Observatory. NSF supports the two twin optical-infrared telescopes that comprise the Observatory – Gemini North in Hawaii and Gemini South in Chile.

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