Unveiling ‘Chemical Curiosities’: A New Academic Society to Nurture Sedbergh Pupil’s Passion for Chemistry

Three enthusiastic scientists from the school; Jack, Mason, and Benedict, have joined forces to establish “Chemical Curiosities,” a fresh academic society. Their aim is to create a platform that ensures the school’s dedicated chemists have the opportunity to nurture their interests both now and in the future. The debut presentation on Friday evening was conducted by Benedict, who delved into a discussion on the tumultuous history of chemistry misuse.

Benedict began by explaining the fundamental and all-pervading nature of chemistry, highlighting some of the most significant chemical discoveries ever made:

  • The process of pasteurization has been called one of the most important discoveries in science and chemistry because of the numerous lives that it has saved through preventing disease. Discovered by French scientist Louis Pasteur in the 1800s, pasteurization was a method by which milk was heated to a high temperature and then cooled down quickly before it was bottled. This helped the milk stay fresh for a long period of time
  • The discovery of penicillin is credited to Alexander Fleming, a Scottish scientist and Nobel Prize winner in 1928. Fleming found that growing Penicillium Rubens created a property that could be used as an antibiotic. He named this discovery penicillin. Penicillin was the 1st antibiotic and kicked off a new branch of science upon its discovery 
  • Cracking is a technique used in oil refineries whereby large and complex hydrocarbon molecules are broken down into smaller and lighter components that are more useful for commercial or consumer use. Cracking is a critical stage in the process of refining crude oil.
  • Distillation is a technique of capturing essential oil from flowers or plants using water vapour, other methods are also used such as maceration and enfleurage. Maceration is a method similar to extraction, where essential oils are extracted by soaking the flowers in water, oil or a solvent.  Enfleurage is a two-step process of drawing a fragrance into a fat or oil base and then extracting it with alcohol.
  • The Haber-Bosch process enabled humans to produce ammonia on a large scale at a higher efficiency than ever before. The process was ground-breaking, and the discovering duo earned two Nobel Prizes, in 1918 and 1931, for their work on large scale, chemical processes. The Haber Process now produces 450 million tonnes of ammonia, most of which is used to produce ammonium nitrate for fertiliser. The abundance of synthetic fertiliser has led to a decrease in guano harvesting around the world, consequently leading to fewer seabirds becoming extinct and less damage to cave ecosystems

Benedict then moved on to a range of horrifying examples of misuse of chemistry that spanned from pharmaceutical companies to psychedelic drug development to chemical warfare.

  • Daraprim – In 2015 Turing, acquired the rights to a decades-old drug called Daraprim, which is a critical treatment for individuals with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS. Upon acquiring the rights to this drug, Shkreli (CEO of Turing) raised Daraprim’s price from $13.50 to $750 per tablet, a 5,000% increase.
  • Ecstasy – the “godfather of psychedelics,” Alexander Shulgin revolutionized the synthesis and exploration of psychoactive compounds. His groundbreaking work includes the creation of MDMA (ecstasy) and the 2C series, providing profound insights through meticulous self-experimentation. Critics argue that his work poses ethical and safety concerns related to potential misuse, health risks, and the lack of regulatory oversight.
  • Corporal Fritz Haber, who became the director of the German Chemical Warfare Service, began the age of deadly chemical warfare, when he ordered the release of 5,730 canisters of chlorine gas in 1915, killing over one thousand people. When he realised that the pale green colour of cholorine could give away its presence, he worked quickly to develop new harmful gases, including mustard gas and Carbonyl Dichloride (Phosgene).
  • Hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous gas that interferes with cellular respiration, was first used as a pesticide in California in the 1880s. German research then led to the development of Zyklon A in the early 1910s, a pesticide that releases hydrogen cyanide upon exposure to water and heat. It was banned after World War I when Germany used a similar product as a chemical weapon. 
  • In 1938, 3 chemists working in Berlin split a uranium atom for the first time in human history. After they identified the huge amount of energy released when a uranium atom is split scientists realised that it could be used to create a very powerful bomb.
  • With the aim of creating a substance that could effectively burn at high temperatures and adhere to targets, chemists in World War II created Napalm by combining naphthenic and palmitic acids with a metal compound, such as aluminium or magnesium soap. This mixture forms a sticky and highly flammable gel that adheres to surfaces, increasing the incendiary effect.
  • White phosphorus, a highly reactive and flammable substance, was initially used in various industries. However, its application in warfare evolved with the development of incendiary munitions. The bombs were designed to burst upon impact, releasing white phosphorus, which ignites upon contact with air.

Follow Sedbergh: