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freelance science writer based in Cambridge, sciencebase.com

Many of the greatest chemical discoveries of recent years have leaned towards the biological, the structure of DNA, how RNA transcribes the genetic code to make proteins, the workings of the cellular powerhouse ATP. On the other hand, ‘real’ chemistry is so often pushed aside by the biological, and more recently by the musings of nanotechnologists. But, to my mind some of the most significant findings have lain strictly in the hard chemistry camp. For instance, the manufacturing and construction industries, engineering and agriculture would all but grind to a halt without our knowledge of the inorganic chemistry of ammonia, lime and sulphuric acid.

In one sense, these apparently simple compounds emerged from the smoke and mirrors of medieval alchemy. It was the need for speed and a growing population provoked by the industrial revolution that led to the development of catalysed manufacturing methods for producing the necessary huge volumes.

Ammonia, lime, and sulphuric acid have countless uses, but it is their ability to form agricultural fertilisers that is their most significant achievement.

Without inorganic chemistry we would starve.