Beyond Spaceships and Robots: How Science Fiction Predicted Chemistry’s Futuristic Innovations

    I am a big fan of speculative fiction, which means I enjoy horror (Stephen King’s my favourite author), fantasy, and science fiction. So, when I came across this article about science fiction predicting developments in chemistry, I had to read it. For one, because it was about science fiction, and for another because you don’t generally associate the genre with chemistry.

    The first thing that pops into my head when someone says sci-fi is space travel. If not that, then a future where artificial intelligence (AI) and computers have automated everything. Or, robots, perhaps. Like Terminator or Robocop. Then, I might think of time travel (although that seems to be a concept that has the most plot holes. It’s not easy to pull off convincingly).

    But, it stands to reason that the ‘science’ in science fiction would include all sciences. So, why not chemistry?

    The thing is, as the Chemistry Is All Around Us Project website explains, there’s plenty of chemistry going on in science fiction. It’s just that it’s in the background. So, we do encounter new materials, alloys, and elements. We do see characters dealing with a different chemical composition of the atmosphere on alien planets. We even have a classic which talks about the universe’s reliance (addiction?) on a chemical which is simply called “spice” (which must flow!)

    So, whilst we’ve established that chemistry is very much a part of sci-fi, what has the genre predicted about developments in the field of chemistry?

    Sci-Fi and Chemistry: Breaking the Fourth Wall

    Plastic-Eating Bacteria

    Futuristic TV shows have made plenty of predictions about the technology of the future. For example, Star Trek predicted flip phones and flat screen televisions. Of course, one could say that might be a case of reality emulating fiction. The people who designed those electronic items might have been inspired by their favourite show’s depiction of said objects.

    However, no one can claim evolution is a Trekkie, now, can they? Well, technically, this particular prediction was not from Star Trek. It was from a 1972 novel called Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters, which featured bacteria that could eat and process plastic.

    Now, everyone knows plastic is not biodegradable. It takes hundreds of years to break down… et cetera et cetera. But, in the immortal words of Ian Malcolm, life…uh… finds a way. And, whilst bacteria that eat plastic might seem like, well, science fiction, they are now a reality.

    To make the situation even more science fiction-y, scientists are working on identifying the enzymes these bacteria use in their digestion process to see if they could make them more efficient. So, they plugged the enzyme structure into a neural network which analysed it to figure out how it could be tweaked to make it more effective and efficient. In the not-so-distant future, we might even have recycling plants that break down plastic with the help of bacteria.

    Lab-Grown Meat

    Veganism and vegetarianism are becoming popular because of the ethical and logistical considerations around meat production. Ethical, because killing animals for their flesh might be considered cruel. Logistical, because, as the human population grows, you need larger farms and grazing areas to keep up with the meat production. At some point, it will become unsustainable.

    And, yet again, science comes to the rescue. 

    Well, both science and sci-fi. See, vat-grown meat has been quite popular in futuristic stories. Even the replicator in the Starship Enterprise could be seen as a version of 3D-printed food. And, now, animal cells are being used to develop into muscle, fat cells, and connective tissue using a bit of cell biology, nutritional chemistry, and chemical engineering.

    Since it is biologically meat, its taste and texture are exactly like the real deal, unlike other meat substitutes. However, it is completely cruelty-free and in the process of becoming affordable.

    Instant Diagnostics

    The lab-on-a-chip concept was put forward around 20 years ago. The idea behind it was a tiny device, which could do biological and biochemical tests. Its scope was supposed to include diagnostics, DNA analysis, and chemical synthesis.

    In the sci-fi world, something like this was seen in 1997 in the movie Gattaca, but it’s not a completely out-of-this-world idea anymore. You may have seen it in action (although to a much-simplified level) in a COVID lateral flow test. 

    However, we are now at a point where a group of researchers at Stanford University were able to sequence an entire human genome in just over five minutes. Compare that to the thirteen years it took to sequence, and you’d realise that the future is now.

    The truth is, science is taking incredible strides, which means chemistry is also making rapid progress. Maybe we aren’t that far away from Iain M Banks’s future where we’d be able to physically and genetically change our gender at whim, a la The Culture Series.

    Chemistry is using AI to get further and further, boldly going where… you know the rest. We are seeing innovations in the flow chemistry technology industry, where companies like Syrris are making equipment that streamlines research and development. We just have to wait and see which sci-fi prediction becomes reality next.

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