Science buffs across the world are in for a smashing good time interspersed with interactive history, how-tos and humor.
A new Google Arts & Culture-featured exhibit launched in May is exploring the cultural influence of mechanochemistry, the science of using mechanical force to initiate a chemical reaction. The digital exhibit, Mechanochemistry: The Science of Crush, is the first in a planned series and a joint effort between the Philadelphia-based Science History Institute (SHI) and the National Science Foundation-funded Center for the Mechanical Control of Chemistry (CMCC) at Texas A&M University.
The CMCC is a research community comprised of a multi-institution team of scientists whose mission is to creatively engage the public in science while integrating research and education both internally and through outreach initiatives. Texas A&M chemist James D. Batteas, principal investigator of the CMCC and holder of the D. Wayne Goodman Professorship in the Texas A&M Department of Chemistry, says the idea behind creating the exhibit was to present the history of mechanochemistry and the direction that it’s going to the general public.
“Mechanochemistry is basically where mechanics and chemistry meet; through the application of mechanical force, you can actually help derive a chemical reaction,” Batteas said. “We thought that bringing this to a worldwide audience via the internet would be one of the most direct ways in helping communicate the type of science we’re interested in, where it comes from and what we can do with it.”
Google Arts & Culture exhibits are an immersive way to experience art, science, history and culture from more than 2,000 partner museums and institutions. Utilizing high-resolution image technology, visitors can virtually tour collections and galleries from around the world for free. Viewers of the mechanochemistry exhibit will get an in-depth look at the many ways the technique has been utilized throughout history, from grinding grains in ancient times with mortars and pestles to major scientific advancements using modern technology.
The easy-to-use and universally accessible online platform already has helped the mechanochemistry exhibit attract visitors from more than 100 countries, notes Robert Carpick, John Henry Towne Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The exhibit is beautiful, compelling and fun,” said Carpick, a CMCC co-investigator who teamed with Batteas on the project’s overall planning and execution. “It exceeded my expectations in terms of not only the professional look and the rich information content, but also the degree to which it is engaging and interactive, with audio-visual components and examples from history and modern practice to show how this discipline has been around for a long time but still has many mysteries worth unlocking.”
One of mechanochemistry’s earliest depictions in science literature dates back to the fourth century B.C. when Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, described grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a copper mortar and pestle to produce mercury. While grinding and milling became commonly practiced in early laboratories, it was British scientist Michael Faraday who, in 1820, helped bring mechanochemistry methodologies to mainstream research circles when he detailed his so-called “dry way” of carrying out chemical reactions.
Roger Turner, a research curator at the SHI, began assisting the CMCC in planning and designing the exhibit in November 2020. Turner scoured the SHI’s digital collection of more than 9,000 items for images and videos that best illustrate the evolution of mechanochemistry, noting that the Google Arts & Culture medium was the most ideal way to reach a broad audience.
“We’re able to tell stories that weave together video, sound and high-resolution images of historical paintings, then make those rich stories available to internet users around the world,” Turner said. “Science is crucial to how we live and the choices we have to make every day. We want to help people who are curious about science see the connections between familiar things that are easy to grasp and cutting-edge research that may shape the future.”
Despite its early beginnings, mechanochemistry’s popularity waned by the 20th century as more scientists gravitated toward heat, light and electricity to conduct chemical reactions. Thanks, however, to a growing interest in sustainable chemistry in recent years, mechanochemical synthesis is once again on the upswing because of what it lacks — the need for the often-toxic solvents required by most reactions.
The Batteas Research Group specializes in investigating mechanochemistry on the nanoscale by applying precise chemical forces to molecules to observe how energy is absorbed and how reactions occur on a particle-by-particle basis. The team then uses these findings to gain a better understanding of how to apply the methods in environmentally friendly industrial processes.
Nathaniel Hawthorne ’21, a chemistry graduate student in the Batteas group who served as a liaison between the CMCC and the SHI during their collaboration on the exhibit, says the emergent advantages of mechanochemical synthesis can have a major impact on the production of materials ranging from everyday commodity chemicals to pharmaceuticals.
“It is exciting to be a part of the field when people are taking a closer look at how we can utilize mechanical forces for the betterment of mankind through things like reducing chemical waste, friction and wear,” Hawthorne said. “Mechanochemistry has great potential for making chemical processes greener. Decreasing the amount of solvents and chemical waste produced during a reaction can only have a positive benefit.”
Batteas notes that the long-term objective is to develop their results into a predictive synthetic tool so that one day the mechanical control of chemical reactions can be routinely and reproducibly performed in large-scale reactors.
“Right now, the new tools that we’re beginning to apply to these studies are really shedding a lot of light on how these processes occur,” Batteas said. “I envision us really being able to write down the ground rules for how to do detailed and reusable chemical synthesis using mechanochemistry.”
Funding for the digital exhibit was provided by the NSF Center for the Mechanical Control of Chemistry (Grant No. CHE-2023644) and Texas A&M University. The Centenary Project and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston also supplied related content along with the SHI.
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About the Center for the Mechanical Control of Chemistry: The NSF Center for the Mechanical Control of Chemistry (CMCC) is a team of chemists and engineers studying how the precise application of mechanical forces can be used to alter chemical reaction rates and pathways at surfaces and interfaces. As a Center for Chemical Innovation funded by the National Science Foundation, the CMCC brings together researchers with diverse expertise to support high risk, transformative science to energize the chemistry research community to take on grand challenges and to creatively engage the public in science while integrating research with education both internally and through multiple outreach activities. Learn more at https://www.chem.tamu.edu/cmcc/.