Big Chemistry: From Gasoline To Wintergreen

Most of us probably have some vivid memories of high school or college chemistry lab, where the principles of the science were demonstrated, and where we all got at least a little practice in experimental methods. Measuring, diluting, precipitating, titrating, all generally conducted under safe conditions using stuff that wasn’t likely to blow up or burn.

But dropwise additions and reaction volumes measured in milliliters are not the stuff upon which to build a global economy that feeds, clothes, and provides for eight billion people. For chemistry to go beyond the lab, it needs to be scaled up, often to a point that’s hard to conceptualize. Big chemistry and big engineering go hand in hand, delivering processes that transform the simplest, most abundant substances into the things that, for better or worse, make life possible.

To get a better idea of how big chemistry does that, we’re going to take a look at one simple molecule that we’ve probably all used at one time or another: the common artificial flavoring wintergreen. It’s an innocuous ingredient in a wide range of foods and medicines, but the infrastructure required to make it and all its precursors is a snapshot of just how important big chemistry really is.

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