Chemistry Trends in 2020

Chemistry Trends You Should Know for 2020

We have your recap from the experts on the year that was, and they tell you what to look out for in the year ahead.

By C&EN Media Group

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This past December, Chemical & Engineering News hosted a lively discussion with well-known science editors who have their fingers on the pulse of innovation in chemistry. Lauren Wolf and Michael Torrice of C&EN were joined by Nature Chemistry’s chief editor, Stu Cantrill, and senior editor Christopher Chang of ACS Central Science. These experts recapped their favorite moments in chemistry from 2019 and predicted what the future of science holds. 

Hottest Trends in Chemistry – 2019

Before diving into the predictions for the biggest chemistry advances of 2020, the panel revisited some of the hottest chemistry trends from 2019, including:

Most Exciting Manuscripts

This was a year of fantastic advances, so picking just a few standouts was an enormous challenge. However, Chris and Stu shared their favorites with attendees.

Chris’ Picks:

A MOF-based water harvester.  Getting enough water in arid climates is a major global problem, that is likely to get worse with climate change. Harvesting water from air is one way to address water scarcity, but the technology has a ways to go before it can become a universal solution. This year, researchers created a MOF-based water harvester “that’s driven by light,” says Chris. “It’s very basic yet translational. Fantastic demonstration of chemistry.” DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.9b00745.

Want to see more from C&EN on the topic? Click to read ‘Device draws drinking water from desert air’.

The Natural Products Atlas. Scientists have made rapid progress in identifying molecules made by microorganisms from across the globe. These natural products can have miraculous properties, but there hasn’t been a database to house the thousands of known chemical structures, hindering natural product science. But now we have the Natural Products Atlas, an open access, community-maintained database of microbial natural product structures. At 24,594 structures and counting, new worlds of research are opening up.

Read more about it in ACS Central Science, DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.9b00806.

Stu’s Picks:

A new form of carbon. In recent years, researchers have discovered a series of exciting carbon allotropes including fullerenes, carbon nanotubes, and graphene, each opening up new areas of research and discovery. This year, a new carbon allotrope was added to the arsenal: cyclo[18]carbon. The creation of this ring of 18 carbons by atom manipulation opens the way to build other novel carbon molecules. DOI: 10.1126/science.aay1914. 

All-benzene intertwined structures. In another exciting development in the world of carbon nanostructures, researchers developed a new strategy for creating interlocked rings of carbon molecules. This carbon knot had some interesting behaviors that may spur a deeper understanding of carbon nanostructures as well as inspire some new applications. DOI: 10.1126/science.aav5021.

Get caught up. Read C&EN’s article, ‘Knot your usual hydrocarbons’.

Molecules of the Year

Many memorable molecules made headlines this year, and C&EN  compiled the most memorable of them all. After wading through a vast sea of chemistry new stories from this year, a few of our editors’ favorite molecules reported in 2019 included all-benzene intertwined structures, hexagonal planar structure, a new carbon allotrope, antiaromatic cage, and C60 methane trap

Readers online also voted on which of these molecules stood out the most this year. The winner was antiaromatic nanocage! View the results at

Biggest Chemistry Research Trends of 2019

The plastic problem is real, and Stu is happy to see an emerging trend of research into the chemical recycling of plastics. “Environmental concerns seem to have been hitting the headlines more in 2019 than ever before (and rightly so) and the issue of plastic waste is a significant one,” he says.

Where will all our plastic go? Learn how plastic makers are looking for a solution in C&EN’s article ‘Plastic has a problem; is chemical recycling the solution?’

Drug discovery protocols are changing, thanks to PROTACs, proteolysis targeting chimeras, and similar molecules. PROTACs work by exploiting the cell’s machinery for protein degradation to take out a target protein, opening up new avenues for developing effective medications.“The use of PROTACs and related targeted chimeras for basic and, hopefully, translational drug discovery,” says Chris.

Read C&EN’s article about how targeted protein degraders are redefining how small molecules look and act.

Green chemistry seems to be on everyone’s minds these days, and electrochemistry may offer a way to make industrial synthesis greener. For example, the Haber-Bosch process for producing ammonia, an essential ingredient of fertilizer, produces an enormous amount of greenhouse gases. Researchers are trying to make a sustainable fertilizer with an alternative approach employing an electrolyte. “Developing chemistry like this will be crucial in finding solutions to climate change,” says Michael. 

Learn more about how researchers are tackling sustainable fertilizer production with an alternative electrolyte.

Big Chemistry Trends of 2020

According to the webinar panelists, these areas of chemistry research are predicted to feature prominently in 2020. Below we’ve paired each prediction with further reading.

Green Chemistry.

This one won’t go away, for good reason. Chris’ pick specifically in this field? “A focus on the nitrogen cycle, particularly in ammonia electrosynthesis, nitrate/nitrite reduction in relation to clean water and agriculture, as well as new sustainable methods for C-N bond formation.”

Interested in going green? Read more from C&EN.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Stu says, “I expect even more chemists to embrace the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning on research to help with prediction and discovery. Related to this, I think automation will also place a more prominent role in chemical research.” 

Michael agrees, “I see a trend continuing in drug development in which scientists give a machine learning algorithm a target and it finds a drug candidate, plans its synthesis, and tells robotics how to make it.”

Read about how AI identifies drug candidate in weeks.

Gut Bacteria.

Lauren says, “Researchers published a report this year that gut microbes could digest ⅔ of a group of 270-some small-molecule drugs. This has big implications.”

Hungry for more? Read C&EN’s article covering how gut bacteria feast on the pills we pop.

Recycling Batteries. Lauren also thinks, “140 million electric vehicles are predicted to be on the road by 2030. The need for recycling our batteries is high.”

Learn about recycling’s benefits, challenges, and potential improvements in C&EN’s article ‘It’s time to get serious about recycling lithium-ion batteries.

Final Thoughts

Last year at this time, the C&EN Media Group team signed off on a similar blog post with a host of activities around the International Year of the Periodic Table. Throughout 2019, we played IYPT bingo, held a social media contest with KNF, challenged the chemistry community to name as many molecules as they could under 1 minute, and more.

What’s ahead then for 2020?  

Download our 2020 Editorial Sponsorship Calendar and learn more about the topics we have planned, from celebrating women in chemistry, to our database of the Global Top 50 companies. You can also email us at

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