Aidan Mouat credits “dumb luck” for setting him on a path from chemist to CEO. Mouat has for the past six years run Hazel Technologies, which invented a small packet of chemicals to keep food fresh longer before reaching grocers.
If your store shelves are stocked year-round, you might wonder why these pouches are useful in the first place. What you don’t see is what gets thrown away. The reality is that the world produces “a colossal amount of food waste,” Mouat says. “We have a food system that is focused very heavily on production, instead of efficiency.” So, Mouat and his company co-founders devised a way to help prevent produce spoilage on its way from farm to store.
An ancient chemical process enabled Earth to become a lush place teeming with life. Now researchers are replicating this process in an attempt to slow global warming.
Every plant, animal, and person owes their life to one sequence of chemical reactions: photosynthesis. The process, which converts water and carbon dioxide into food using sunlight, first evolved in cyanobacteria more than 2 billion years ago.
That’s right. Plants weren’t the ﬁrst organisms to develop photosynthesis, though they are better known for it. Cyanobacteria are the ones that originally ﬁlled the atmosphere with photosynthesis’s gaseous by-product, oxygen (O2), which set the stage for more diverse life on Earth.
As beneﬁciaries of photosynthesis, humans depend on plants in a sort of carbon seesaw. Plants take in CO2 and release O2. They store that carbon as sugar. Hanging vines, grass, and trees all grow by pulling carbon atoms out of the air. We do the reverse, taking in O2 and releasing CO2. Finally, everything we eat completes the handoff: Human eats plant (or the animal who already did), human exhales, plant stores carbon, and the cycle continues.
This seesaw is part of the much broader carbon cycle that has affected the radiation balance of our planet. Cutting down huge swaths of forests and the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels causes the levels of CO2, a major greenhouse gas, to rise. And plants on Earth along with other natural parts of the carbon cycle can’t restore the balance on their own.
But what if we could copy what plants do to grab some of that excess CO2 to make fuels sustainably, instead of relying so heavily on fossilized carbon?
Take a minute to think about what you’re wearing right now. Not the colors or cuts of fabric you grabbed out of your closet this morning—but the textiles your clothes are made of.
Before your clothes became clothes, they were raw resources that were collected, processed, woven into textiles, then cut and sewn into the garments on your back. And their life cycle doesn’t end there. Nearly 90% of clothing takes an inevitable trip from closet to landfill. The problem is that although this process provides short-term convenience for customers and the fashion industry, in the long run, it’s not sustainable. Making and transporting clothes consumes raw materials and, at every step in the process, emits greenhouse gases.
Ask Brandon Presley about any twist and turn in his chemistry journey, and he’ll tell you about people: The high school teacher who gave him the courage to sink his teeth into chemistry; the family and friends who encouraged him; and the mentors and colleagues who gave him focus when he’d spread himself too thin. For Presley, that deep connection between chemistry and people motivates him every day.
Yajaira Sierra-Sastre is always looking for new worlds to explore. As a young girl growing up in Puerto Rico, she gazed at stars through a clear night sky. “My first passion was for anything related to astronomy and planets and stars and space,” she says. Sierra-Sastre fell in love with science during childhood, and went on to study chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez.“I could see chemistry all around me,” Sierra-Sastre says. After graduating, she started on a path to connect her studies with the real world in as many new ways as possible. “I had this desire of just going out on an adventure.”
In the 20 years since, she has used her degree to teach high school chemistry; earn a PhD making nanomaterials for space experiments; help create new types of textiles and batteries; spend months living in a Mars simulation; and oversee the research projects that keep printed money secure.
Laura Hoch’s career began with a murder. Well, not a real murder—a murder-mystery game staged by her high school chemistry teachers in central Pennsylvania.
“There would be all these clues, and then you put together a forensic report based on all you’ve been able to find out by analyzing stuff,” she says. “It wasn’t on my radar to be a chemist, but I just had that memory of chemistry being really fun and interesting.”