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Tom Wright
Tom Wright

In the early 1900s, an Italian chemist, enraptured with the fast-developing worlds of physics and chemistry, looked towards a glowing future. In this he was far from alone – in 1909, Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto was published, rapturously praising a future of high-speed

cars and industrial cities.

 

 

However, excited as he was by industrial progress, the true inspiration for chemist Giacomo Ciamician came not from the factories beginning to cover the landscape, gobbling coal and spewing smoke. Ciamician’s vision of the future came instead from earnest study of the powers of the humble plants of the meadow.

 

Ciamician is almost forgotten today,but…

he was a truly remarkable character – a passionate scientist who articulated a vision of green chemistry almost a century before the idea became popular, right at the dawn of the industrial age.

Known as one of the ‘fathers of the solar panel’, he even had a solar-powered light bulb to illuminate his  lab work. Fascinated and humbled by the chemical prowess of plants, Ciamician studied biochemistry rigorously, attempting to work out what it was that enabled plants to use light for chemistry. In this he was an early pioneer of ‘bio-mimicry’ – attempting to mimic the remarkable properties of the natural world for human ends. He believed that the use of light as both a reagent and a source of energy for chemical reactions could transform industrial civilization, allowing chemistry to abandon harsh temperatures and reagents and accomplish

the greatest results through the slightest means’.

 

 

In a 1912 lecture to an international chemical congress, Ciamician outlined his vision of the future, in words that are as urgent today as they were prescient back then:

 

“On the arid lands there will spring up industrial colonies without smoke and without smokestacks; forests of glass tubes will extend over the plains and glass buildings will rise everywhere; inside of these will take place the photochemical processes that hitherto have been the guarded secret of the plants, but that will have been mastered by human industry which will know how to make them bear even more abundant fruit than nature, for nature is not in a hurry and mankind is.

And if in a distant future the supply of coal becomes completely exhausted, civilization will not be checked by that, for life and civilization will continue as long as the sun shines!

 

Faced with the contemporary energy and climate crises,  we can gain courage from Ciamician’s early example and look for inspiration from nature to develop a truly green industry and society.

 

In my next post I’ll  look at how the field of photochemistry pioneered by Ciamician is beginning to make an impact in my own discipline of organic chemistry.

 

For more about Ciamician, ChemSusChem has a good outline of his work:

DOI: 10.1002/cssc.200700015

images credits: wikipedia