Three Times That a Simple Chemical Reaction Changed History

Science tends to be full of strange coincidences, curious little happenstances that may seem simple at a glance, yet are remarkably profound once you really take the time to consider them. While most of us only tend to hear about these breakthroughs after they’ve made their rounds in academia and are published in papers or reported on the news, what we often don’t realize is the sheer amount of effort that actually went into their inception.

However, while it can seem as though these scientific discoveries were borne out of a lab after careful methodology, there have also been other times that the outcome was wholly unexpected. Whether a researcher reached for the wrong test tube when studying certain reagents, or perhaps when Chemical A was accidentally mixed with Chemical B in an experiment, serendipity does occasionally drive results – and when it does, it can literally change the world as we know it!

The Invention of Soap

It’s no secret that water and oil don’t mix. Any attempts to try to emulsify them will just lead to separate layers of these two fluids forming, yet not ever integrating. The reason they can’t get along is due to something called “polarity,” which can be traced back to the fact that water does happen to be polar, while oil isn’t. This may not seem like that big of a deal, but the next time you try to do dishes without a small squirt of soap, you may change your mind.

So, what’s the solution? Saponification. To put it simply, the ability to make both polar and nonpolar parts occur is where we get soap. In the past, humans had to heat up a questionable cocktail of animal fat, ash, and salt in a bath of water to be able to properly clean a surface. Today, though, we’re able to mix either potassium hydroxide (caustic potash) or sodium hydroxide (lye) with fatty acids to get the modern soap that we know and love. And our hygiene levels are no doubt very grateful for this invention!

The Discovery of Ammonia

Ammonia doesn’t really seem that remarkable on its own, does it? For most of us, it tends to conjure up the mental image – or rather, the mental scent – of urine. Sure, it’s a powerful chemical, but what’s so important about this discovery that made it completely overhaul the world as we know it? In a word, it’s fertilizer. In fact, it’s one of the most widely used fertilizer ingredients used today, and about 80% of ammonia production goes to keeping our farming production chugging along smoothly.

Yet the discovery of ammonia was another one of those chemical surprises that caught the scientific community off guard. Created by a duo of brilliant minds, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, they were able to combine a clever melange of high pressure with extreme heat in an iron catalyst. Their methodical mixing scale-up calculations of hydrogen and nitrogen gasses were able to draw a fairly considerable amount of ammonia from these elements, giving us the chemical that we depend upon so greatly today.

The Creation of Penicillin

One of the greatest scourges of humanity is none other than disease. In the past, if we got sick, we just had to cross our fingers and hope for the best. If we were lucky, the infection was nothing more than a simple cough or case of the sniffles. For those who were somewhat less fortunate, though, the bacterial infection could have signaled pneumonia or meningitis or some other potentially lethal illness. Penicillin, though, changed how we approached treatment.

Dubbed the modern “wonder drug,” this medicine has transformed the way we treat disease. Back in 1928, a microbiologist and physician by the name of Alexander Fleming noticed that a particular strain of fungus on his Petri dishes blocked the growth and proliferation of bacteria. Despite his efforts to tap into this mold’s potential, he still came up empty-handed. It took another eleven years for a pharmacologist by the name of Howard Florey to purify it and make it usable, and this medicine made it possible for us to curtail a myriad of infectious diseases.

Indeed, the scientific progress hasn’t always been as fastidious as we might have originally thought. Conversely, the stereotypical scientist in their lab coat – shouting “Eureka!” at their peers as the unexpected happens – contains perhaps more than a bit of artistic embellishment. Nonetheless, it’s when these two mindsets meet that the magic happens. The combination of the unexpected with the tireless efforts of our scientific community has brought us to where we are today. And we have them, as well as chemistry, to thank for it!