Sustainability & Environment

What is the verdict on the 100% sustainable fuel Formula 1 plans to use in its cars, and is the new E10 fuel this season doing any good? We asked David Bott, SCI’s Head of Innovation.

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. This phrase comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, and it refers to the Greeks’ gift of a giant wooden horse to their enemies during the Trojan War. But this was no gift at all.

This warrior-filled, hollow wooden horse that the Trojans wheeled inside the gates of Troy was a ploy from the Greeks to get inside the city’s impenetrable city walls and ambush their enemy. It turned out things weren’t quite what they seemed.

Just as Trojans became wary of giant wooden horses, we should be wary of Net-Zero pledges. These promises seem impressive but, if you look inside, they might not be quite as beneficial to the environment as advertised – at worst, they could be hollow.

Whenever an organisation talks of carbon credits, makes a vague reference to biomass or a grand pledge with little detail, it is worth closer investigation.

Formula 1 recently made a sustainability pledge of its own. Following its decision to use E10 fuel in the cars this season (a mixture of 90% fossil fuel and 10% ethanol), it has announced plans to use a 100% sustainable drop-in fuel in its vehicles as part of its plans to reach Net-Zero by 2030.

On first reading, the terms Net-Zero and Formula 1 don’t sit easily together. Isn’t this the sport where 20 cars can burn more than 100kg of fuel each per race? The same travelling circus in which cars, teams, and drivers are flown and ferried all over the world for more than eight months of racing?

By its own calculation, in a November 2019 report, Formula 1 is responsible for 256,551 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year. To put that figure into perspective, you would need to drive for 6,000km in a diesel car to generate a single tonne of carbon emissions – multiply that by 256,000, and Net-Zero feels some distance away.


What about the E10 and proposed drop-in fuels?

Both Formula 1’s new fuel and pledges merit closer inspection. Regarding the move to the E10 fuel in Formula 1 cars, David Bott, SCI’s Head of Innovation, wasn’t exactly gushing.

‘E10 is an evolutionary backwater – adding just 10% ethanol does nothing for emissions,’ he said. ‘A quick enthalpy calculation shows the energy in the fuel has decreased, so you need more.’

The proposed move to a ‘100% sustainable drop-in fuel’ used in standard internal combustion engines is seen by many as a positive move. Formula 1 says the fuel will be made using components from either carbon capture, municipal waste, or non-food biomass.

Each of these ‘components’ on its own is worth exploration. For example, what types of municipal waste do they mean, which types of non-food biomass are they talking about, and what about the manufacturing process?

Biomass

Biomass fuel is controversial due to concerns over carbon sequestration and land use.

The passage of time will reveal more but, again, David has questioned the green credentials of the proposed fuel. He said: ‘What Formula 1 is proposing to do is analogous to sustainable aviation fuel – to make octane from a non-fossil source of carbon.’

‘[To do this], you can use biomass or “synthetic”, which basically means distillate plastic waste. It is effectively using fossil carbon that was used for something else; so, it doesn't make the situation any worse, but neither does it really contribute to lowering emissions. It’s just short-cycle carbon.’


Freight with difficulty

The mention of aviation is pertinent when it comes to Formula 1. The emissions generated by the 10 teams’ vehicles across 21 Grands Prix, including races and testing, account for just 0.7% of Formula 1’s total emissions. But by far the biggest contributor to its CO2 emissions are logistics – the movement of equipment from venue to venue by land, sea, and air.

Shipping

The equipment used in Formula One must be transported from continent to continent by sea, land, or air.

After that comes business travel at 27.7%, which includes the air and ground transportation of all individuals, as well as the hotel footprint from all Formula 1 teams’ employees and major event staff. So, it’s clear that the main environmental problem isn’t the fuel used during the races; it is all of the other transport emissions.

To be fair to Formula 1, the sport has made an effort to make operations greener, including powering its offices using 100% renewable energy and taking measures to make freight more efficient.

However, any claims that it is motoring to Net-Zero by 2030 need to be chased with a liberal swig of scepticism. A Net-Zero 2030 goal provides a nice headline, but how you get there is the story.

Sustainability & Environment

The wild weather fluctuations wrought by climate change are stressing out our plants. Our resident gardening expert, Professor Geoff Dixon, explains how.

Pests and diseases are familiar causes of plant damage and loss. Less familiar, but becoming more frequent, are stresses resulting from environmental causes.

These are termed abiotic stresses because no living organism is involved. This means there are no visible signs of pests or pathogens. Diagnosis and treatment are, therefore, less straightforward. These causes are a result of interactions between the plant genotype and the prevailing or changing environment.

Damage may only become apparent after harvesting and at the point of consumer use. A typical example of this is internal browning or breakdown of Brussels sprouts. Larger sprouts are more susceptible to stress, with dense leaf packing in the bud, particularly in early and midseason cultivars.

SCI Blog - 24 June 2022 - image of browning Brussel sprouts

The internal browning of Brussels sprouts is a consequence of plant stress.

A suggested cause is water condensing within the bud, which restricts calcium transport and leads to marginal leaf necrosis (death). This resembles the exudation, or perspiration, of water from leaf edges when growing plants absorb excessive water, flooding the vascular systems following very heavy rainfall and hot weather.


Moisture damage

Oedema is another moisture-induced disorder. Symptoms include unattractive wart-like swellings coalescing on leaves and stems, particularly on Brussels sprouts, cabbages, and cauliflowers. These may rupture, becoming corky with a yellowish or brownish appearance.

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Moisture-induced damage to cabbage leaves.

These symptoms result from high soil moisture content and high relative humidity associated with hot days and cool nights. Both internal browning and oedema can be minimised by improving soil structure, encouraging rapid drainage by deep cultivation or growing plants on raised beds.

Improving soil structure is becoming an important way to control salt accumulation. Soil structure can be badly damaged by flooding that brings in polluted water. In subsequent vegetable and fruit crops, plant water uptake, nutrient use efficiency, and photosynthesis are all impaired. The effects are seen in poor germination, burnt leaf margin, stunting, and wilting. This damage will be particularly severe with highly organic soils.

SCI Blog - 24 June 2022 - image of white onions in soil surrounded by salt

Salt accumulation in onion crops. Improving soil structure is one way of addressing this problem.

Abiotic disorders are becoming more common in commercial crops and this is likely to be reflected in gardens and allotments. That is an effect of climatic change, with generally hotter and wetter conditions interspersed by droughts and freezing events.

As a result, plant growth is erratic and exhibits abiotic disorders. Plant breeders, especially in Asia, are actively seeking genetic solutions that will create crops capable of withstanding erratic environments. In parallel,the agro-chemical industry is producing environmentally sustainable compounds and biostimulants to help combat these problems.

>> How else has climate change changed the way our gardens grow, and what can be done to alleviate its effects? Geoff Dixon explored this issue further.

Professor Geoff Dixon is author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

Sustainability & Environment

Fossil fuels don’t just keep our motors running. They don’t just heat our homes. They form the basis of many of our everyday products.

Problem is, fossil carbon is cheap and reliable. Nevertheless, bit by bit, many companies are weaning themselves off petrochemical feedstocks.

For Unilever, that means dishwasher liquids with cleaning agents made from fermented sugar. For Croda, it means using corn to create a bio-ethylene oxide that can replace some surfactants in its personal care products.

So, what other moves have organisations made lately to create greener feedstocks?

1. Castor seed building blocks

SCI Blog - 22 June 2022 - image of castor seeds

Arkema is using castor seed in a huge range of products.

Arkema has received certification for its castor seed-based materials in products that include cosmetics, fragrances, lubricants, and pharmaceuticals.

The Paris-based speciality materials company says it will use castor seed for 100% of its monomer, polymer, and oleochemical production in its plant in Singapore.

Part of the problem with developing green feedstocks is making them financially viable and resilient. Growing these feedstocks sustainably is also important. For example, palm oil contains many products that make it a useful feedstock for those in the chemicals industry, but the way it is farmed, and its effect on the soil, are routinely criticised.

To that end, Arkema says that 13,300 hectares used to grow its crops (primarily in Western India) are sustainably farmed under the Sustainable Castor Caring for Environmental and Social Standards code.


2. Nutrient recovery

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Unused nutrients from agriculture could be turned into biofertiliser.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) is taking part in a project with Northwest Florida Water Management District and May Nursery that will demonstrate nutrient recovery technology.

According to the US EPA, the aforementioned parties will demonstrate how unused nutrients from agriculture can be captured and turned into a biofertiliser that will help farmers along the way to more circular agricultural processes.

>> How do we make a large-scale move to greener feedstocks? Several of SCI’s Corporate Partners weighed in on the issue.


3. An alternative to plastic wrapping

SCI Blog - 22 June 2022 - image of thyme oil in glass jar

Thyme oil’s antimicrobial properties could help extend the shelf life of fresh food.

Researchers at Rutgers and Harvard have created a plant-based spray coating for fresh food packaging, which they believe could reduce our reliance on petroleum-based packaging.

The researchers liken their technology to the webs that shoot from Spider-Man’s wrist. Their stringy material is spun from a hair-dryer-like heating device that is shrink-wrapped over foods as diverse as avocado and sirloin steak.

Their biopolymer contains natural antimicrobial agents – thyme oil, citric acid and nisin – to fight spoilage. The wrapping can also be easily rinsed off and degrades in the soil within three days.


4. Degraded by the light

SCI Blog - 22 June 2022 - image of rainbow light refracting off glass

North Dakota researchers have developed a plastic that degrades in a wavelength of light not contained in the spectrum of sunlight on earth.

Biodegradation is a prickly issue. Many are sceptical about the way biodegradable plastic bags interact with the natural environment, and others argue that we should focus on upcycling products rather than downcycling them.

That’s partly what makes a new bio-based vanillin plastic so interesting. A team of US researchers from the Center for Photochemical Sciences, Bowling Green State University, and North Dakota State University has created lignin-based polymers that degrade when exposed to light of a specific wavelength – a wavelength not contained in the spectrum of sunlight that reaches the earth.

The result of this, they claim, is that up to 60% of the monomers could be polymerised again with no loss of quality. So, in theory light-triggered degradation could make it much easier to re-use these materials.

>> Natural materials, such as hemp, are becoming ever more important. So, what makes it so special?

Careers

What does an academic’s day look like during term time and in the summer? And how do you get from being a student to teaching at university level? Dr David Pugh, MChem in Chemistry at the University of York, told us about his journey and the skills needed to do his job well.

 David Pugh

Dr David Pugh

Tell us about your career path to date.

I look after the delivery of practical chemistry teaching in our undergraduate teaching laboratories in the University of York’s Department of Chemistry. This includes both planning what we are going to teach and teaching students in the lab. I actually came to York for my undergraduate degree and have never left! I completed an MChem degree here, before carrying out a Ph.D here under the supervision of Professor Richard Taylor.

What is a typical day like in your job?

In-term and out-of-term days are like two different jobs. When students are here, the days mostly revolve around delivering teaching in the lab. There are lots of organisational aspects to ensure everything runs smoothly and that everyone (students, demonstrators, technicians etc) knows what’s going on, as well as the teaching.

Out of term time, my job is much more around planning for the future, both the logistics of who’s going to come into the lab when, and the actual teaching content. We’re regularly changing parts of the course, and looking for better approaches with the practical teaching to try to ensure we deliver practicals that are effective in the skills they teach, with the right level of complexity.

>> Interested in a career in chemistry publishing? Then see how Bryden Le Bailly, Senior Editor at Nature, went about it.

So, a day out of term time might see me trying to come up with timetables and planning what goes where, or I might be spending time in the lab trying to develop new practicals or refine existing ones.

Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?

Teaching students! This is the most enjoyable part of the job – interacting with the students and seeing them slowly develop their practical abilities. It’s especially nice when you see students you’ve taught from when they arrived at university to studying for a PhD and demonstrating in the labs.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

I find developing new practicals for teaching particularly challenging. When you’re a researcher, the outcome of the practical is the key reason for carrying out the lab work: whether it’s to synthesise a new compound or obtain some data to analyse.

With teaching, it’s different. We’re interested in practical processes and whether they are effective at teaching the students.

Teaching labs have many constraints, and practicals need to be designed to take these into consideration. For example, we think about: reaction times, safety of materials, reaction hazards, new skills introduced, practice at existing skills, costs of materials, equipment availability, how many people could carry out the practical, complexity of any analysis, how the labs relate to theory content, and how long it will take students etc.

Developing new practicals that suit the requirements can be really challenging – and you never know exactly how it will turn out until you run it with students for real.

Dr. David Pugh (in the blue coat) with Year 3 students.

Dr David Pugh (in the blue coat) with Year 3 students.

How do you use the skills you obtained during your degree in your job?

I think the use of the practical skills I learnt will be self-evident in this job, so I’ll focus on some of the other skills. Communication skills are essential, whether using oral skills to explain subjects to students (individually or in groups), giving presentations (e.g. practical briefings), or using written skills (through the lab scripts).

Troubleshooting instruments is a really valuable skill, as the loss of an instrument could really affect students’ progress on a lab day – so being able to quickly fault find and fix is really useful.

And, of course, the skill of being able to learn something you didn’t know how to do is crucial. Chemistry will keep changing, with new areas coming into existence. For example,. programming and computational chemistry are core components in our undergraduate degree programme now, but I had no previous experience in those areas.

Are there any other skills required in the work you do?

Good IT Skills and administrative skills have proved essential. So much of the successful running of the labs comes down to organisation. Being able to manipulate student lists, experiments, marks, attendance data etc is a crucial part of the role – I’d really struggle without effective database and spreadsheet skills that can quickly and efficiently generate the data I need.

Is there any advice you would give to others pursuing a similar career path?

If you do pursue this career path, make sure you network with others doing the same kind of role. Meeting and discussing teaching approaches with those who can really relate is so useful, and makes you really think about how you design and deliver your teaching.

This became even more useful at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, when we met regularly to work together to solve the challenges of practical teaching without labs.


>> Would you like to get involved in the SCI Young Chemists’ Panel? Find out more here.

>> Excited about a career in next generation drug development? Read how Rachel Ellis got involved

Agrifood

What is so special about rainbow chard pigments, and what does this tasty plant have in common with cacti? The SCI Horticulture Group explains all, ahead of their appearance at BBC Gardeners’ World Live in Birmingham from 16-19 June.

The origins of chard

Chard (Beta vulgaris, subspecies vulgaris) is a member of the beetroot family and is grown for its edible leaf blades and leaf stems. Chard, sugar beet, spinach and beetroot have all been domesticated from the same wild ancestor species – sea beet (Beta vulgaris, subspecies maritima). Another food crop from the same botanical family is quinoa.

SCI Blog - 15 June 2022 - image of rainbow chard growing in ground
The term chard comes from the 14th century French word carde, which means artichoke thistle.

Nutritional properties

Chard's leaves are a valuable source of mineral nutrients, with a normal serving of 100g containing: 24% of our daily magnesium needs, 17% of iron, 16% of manganese, and 12% of both potassium and sodium. The same portion can provide 22% of our daily vitamin C needs, 13% of vitamin E, and 100% of our vitamin K.

>> What gives chillis their heat? The SCI Horticulture group has explored the weird and wonderful world of chillis.

The edible petioles (leaf stems) of Swiss chard are typically white, yellow, or red. Lucullus and fordhook giant are cultivars with white petioles. Canary yellow has yellow petioles and red-ribbed forms include ruby chard and rhubarb chard. Rainbow chard is a mix of coloured varieties, often mistaken for a variety unto itself.

The pigments that produce these colours belong to a special group – known as the betalains. These pigments are found only in species of one small section of the plant kingdom called caryophyllales. The pigments in the rest of the plant kingdom have different chemical structures, made up of only carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, whereas the betalain chemical structures also contain nitrogen.

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Rainbow chard contains betalains, as do cacti, pokeweed, and (above) bougainvillea.

The many uses of chard pigments

The colourful pigments in plants not only contribute to the beauty of our gardens – they advertise the presence of flowers to pollinators or fruits to dispersal agents. Others deter herbivores by tasting bitter or act as a sunscreen to protect from strong ultraviolet light.

The vivid pigments found in chard are particularly useful. Betanin is the best-known pigment from this group and gives rise to the striking colour of beetroot. It is used commercially as a natural food dye, can help preserve food, and contains antioxidant properties.

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Betanin, the pigment that makes beetroot (and poop) red.

Some people are unable to metabolise betanin, which gives rise to a phenomenon known as beeturia – where human waste is coloured red by the betanin.

Cooking with chard

When cooking with chard, it can be treated as two separate vegetables – the leafy part and the crunchy petiole. Blitva is a traditional Croatian dish made from the leafy part, often cooked along with potatoes and served with fish.

SCI Blog - 15 June 2022 - image of Blitva

Blitva is made with chard, potato, olive oil, and garlic.

Chard stalks sautéed with lemon and garlic forms another popular side-dish, while lovers of Italian cuisine can turn rainbow chard into a pesto with pine nuts, parmesan and basil.

Find us at BBC Gardeners’ World Live

From 16-19 June, the SCI Horticulture Group will tell the public all about the hidden chemistry behind their favourite fruit and vegetable plants at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham for BBC Gardeners’ World Live. If you’re curious to learn all about rainbow chard, chillis, and strawberries, pop by and say hello!.

>> Written by the SCI Horticulture Group and edited by Eoin Redahan. Special thanks to Neal Price from Chillibobs, Martin Peacock of ZimmerPeacock, Hydroveg, and The University of Reading Soft Fruit Technology Group for supporting the work of the SCI Horticulture Committee at BBC Gardeners’ World Live.

>> The SCI Horticulture Group brings together those working on the wonderful world of plants.

Agrifood

Which molecules give strawberries their distinctive smell, how are experts using different types of light to grow them all year round, and just how many of them do we eat? The SCI Horticulture Group told us all about this beloved fruit ahead of their appearance at BBC Gardeners’ World Live in Birmingham from 16-19 June.

Where did strawberries originate?

The woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) was first cultivated in the 17th century, but the strawberry you know and love today (Fragaria x ananassa) is actually a hybrid species. It was first bred in Brittany, France, in the 1750s by cross-breeding the North American Fragaria virginiana with the Chilean Fragaria chiloensis.

The strawberry is a member of the rose family, as are many other popular edible fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, and plums. It is the most commonly consumed berry crop worldwide.

SCI Blog - 10 June 2022 - sketch of strawberries and cream on tennis racket
People in the UK consume an average 3kg of strawberries every year. Perhaps a certain sporting event has something to do with it…

How many do we eat?

A staggering 9 million tonnes of strawberries are produced globally each year, and their popularity certainly extends to UK shores, and not just during Wimbledon. In the UK alone, the average per capita consumption of strawberries is about 3kg a year!

Domestic strawberry production provides almost all the required fruit for the UK market from March to November; and in 2020, 123,000 tonnes of strawberries were produced within the UK.

This stands in stark contrast to the 50,000 tonnes produced in 1985, when UK strawberries were only produced during June and July. Researchers are currently trying to extend the UK growing season to all year round.

SCI Blog - 10 June 2022 - sketch of women about to eat strawberry
She certainly likes the smell of strawberries, but what gives them that distinctive aroma?

What about the chemistry of their distinctive smell?

The characteristic strawberry aroma consists of many different volatile organic chemicals – more than 360 have been observed in fresh strawberries. Which molecules are present, and in what concentrations, depends on the particular cultivar and how mature or ripe it is.

The most common kinds of chemical are furanones and esters. Esters (such as methyl butanoate) account for more than one third of the observed molecules and 25–90% of the volatiles from any one cultivar.

These molecules are responsible for the fruity and floral notes of the aroma. The most characteristic furanone that gives rise to the characteristic strawberry odour is DMHF.

SCI Blog - 10 June 2022 - image of strawberries turned into two santas
Pictures like this only increase demand for strawberries out of season.

How to produce strawberries all year...

To optimise strawberry growing conditions, researchers are investigating the influence of temperature, photo-period (response to daily, seasonal, or yearly changes in light and darkness), growth hormones, night-break lighting and CO2 enrichment on flowering and fruiting timing, yield, and quality.

Optimal chilling models are also being developed for both June-bearers and ever-bearers. Critically, a careful and detailed evaluation of the environmental and economic costs of producing winter UK strawberries compared to imports is being undertaken.

Extending the growing season in the UK would have a number of benefits, such as; meeting the increasing demand for out-of-season strawberries while increasing food security, reducing food miles, contributing to public health, providing continued employment, and supporting sustainable farming.

>> Are you a keen gardener? Our resident gardening expert, Geoff Dixon, provides plenty of gardening tips for you on the SCIBlog.

Improving the fruit's nutrient profile

The nutrient content of strawberries is dependent in part on the plant’s growing conditions. The interaction between light intensity and root-zone water deficit stress is being examined to improve berry nutrient content. Researchers are also investigating how to apply this to commercial strawberry production in total environment-controlled agriculture systems.

See how a college in Finland is harnessing LEDs to power a vertical strawberry farm!

LED light colour and strawberry growth

Light emitting diode (LED) lighting increases yields in out-of-season strawberry production. LEDs have a higher energy efficiency than traditional horticultural lighting and come in a range of single colours with varying efficiencies and effects on plant growth.

Red LEDs convert energy into light (and drive photosynthesis) most efficiently, followed by blue, green, and far-red, respectively. However, red light alone is not sufficient for optimum plant growth. Blue light controls flowering, promotes stomatal opening (pores found in various parts of the plant), inhibits stem elongation, and increases secondary metabolites (organic compounds produced by the plant), thereby improving flavour.

Additional green LEDs, which appear white, improve visibility for workers. These lights can also penetrate deeper into the plant canopy, improving photosynthesis. Far-red light produces shade avoidance responses such as canopy expansion and earlier flowering, which can be beneficial for increased light capture and earlier fruiting.

SCI Blog - 10 June 2022 - image of strawberry slice on petri dish>
Confirmed strawberry.

Who is carrying out strawberry research in the UK?

The Soft Fruit Technology Group at the University of Reading is just one of the institutions providing research to support the UK strawberry industry. The main areas of research are plant propagation, crop management, and production systems.

Find us at BBC Gardeners’ World Live

From 16-19 June, the SCI Horticulture Group will tell the public all about the hidden chemistry behind their favourite fruit and vegetable plants at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham for BBC Gardeners’ World Live. If you’re curious to learn all about strawberries, chillis, and chard, pop by and say hello!

>> Written by The SCI Horticulture Group. Special thanks to Neal Price from Chillibobs, Martin Peacock of ZimmerPeacock, Hydroveg, and The University of Reading Soft Fruit Technology Group for supporting the work of the SCI Horticulture Committee at BBC Gardeners’ World Live.

Science & Innovation

Is it dipping your finger into a glistening bowl of mercury? Is it symmetry? Is it the patterns of crystal growth or is it to be found in nature – in the neatness of evolution? In his thought-provoking SCItalk, Philip Ball explored the beauty of chemistry.

When you write fiction, you’re supposed to wake all the senses. So, don’t just tell readers what something looks like. Tell them how it feels. Tell them how it sounds. Tell them how it tastes. For beauty exists in the smell of perfume as someone walks by, just as it resides in the colours of bloom. One of the beauties of chemistry – like nice writing – is that it also evokes all of the senses.

That was what drew Philip Ball to chemistry: the profusions of colour, the explosions, the reek of sulphur, dipping his finger into a bowl of mercury as a lad and wondering how this dense, silvery liquid hadn’t made his hand wet.

And yet, chemists – and scientists in general – seem to have a complicated relationship with beauty. Part of this is down to what different groups see as beautiful. ‘When scientists talk about beauty,’ he said, ‘they think they’re talking about what artists are, but they really aren’t.’

Chemical garden

A chemical garden formed from copper nitrate in sodium silicate solution by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu.

For a physicist, an equation might capture the essence of beauty. For a chemist, it might be the shape of a crystal growth formation. Ball argued that chemists tend to be Platonists – that they locate beauty in symmetry (for Plato, he added, art was too messy ever to be beautiful).

Chemistry’s reputation as a staid science isn’t helped by the fact that it has long hidden its light from the world. Much beauty is confined to those who view it under microscopes. It is only relatively recently – with the proliferation of high-resolution imagery – that the public has finally looked upon the beauty of chemical gardens, processes, and configurations in all their stunning detail.

Even so, despite the bewitching quality of seeing copper hydroxide billowing like a jellyfish, and the jagged architecture of lead formations, much of chemistry’s beauty lies in its dynamism, rather than the confines of the still frame.

The inspiration of nature

And yet, it wasn’t ever thus. Chemistry in bygone centuries was viewed slightly differently. ‘Of the chemistry of his day and generation, [the German philosopher] Kant declared it was a science, but not Science,’ Ball noted.

Similarly, in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley painted chemistry in a different light to how it is seen today. ‘Chemistry is that branch of natural philosophy in which the greatest improvements have been and may be made,’ her character, Professor Waldman, said.

Cyanotype

The sheer beauty in science has long been appreciated, as is seen in this cyanotype photogram made by Anna Atkins in her 1843 book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

So, why the small s? Why was it seen, not as a soft science, but one with a softer underbelly – like a stone-faced steel worker who secretly writes poetry? Perhaps it has to do with the link to creation. ‘Chemists display, arguably, the greatest creativity in the sciences,’ Ball said. ‘[They have] the urge to make stuff.’

This creativity is often guided by the beauty of the natural world. Ball argues that some scientists are guided by the sheer beauty of nature, by finding the unexpected in things we have seen so many times before.

On the screen, he put up a picture of what looked like the intricate component of a motor, which turned out to be the natural motor structure within bacteria driving its very survival. He mentioned the pigments within flower petals, so delicately tuned by evolution.

Bacteria motor 

An extraordinary bacteria motor (left). Image from paper on: Structural basis of assembly and torque transmission of the bacterial flagellar motor. Created by Zhejiang University researchers..

Simply put, the elegant solutions found by nature are inspiring. ‘It made me think about what Einstein said,’ he added. ‘The Theory of Relativity was so beautiful to him that he believed nature had to work this way.’

And some chemists are drawn by a different type of aesthetic: the beauty of the method. Just as a football fan might rhapsodise about the arc of a perfectly struck free-kick as it curves beyond the keeper’s reach, some chemists see something in the process. ‘For some chemists, there’s a beauty in the synthesis,’ Ball said; and other chemists, he added, will have their own aesthetic responses to an approach, be it elegant or otherwise.

Why shouldn’t the work of a chemist be driven, in part, by beauty? And why should the arbiters of the aesthetically pleasing be confided to the arts? For Philip Ball, the chemical world is one of artistry, dynamism, and beauty. For him, science provides a new lens, new tools for seeing, and new ways for looking at the world around us.

‘Science doesn’t de-enchant the world,’ he said. ‘On the contrary, it re-enchants it.’

Philip’s book, The Beauty of Chemistry, is published by MIT Press.

Agrifood

What makes chilli peppers so spicy and how do they help with pain relief? The SCI Horticulture Group explained all ahead of their appearance at BBC Gardeners’ World Live in Birmingham from 16-19 June.

This June, the SCI Horticulture Group will tell the public all about the hidden chemistry behind their favourite fruit and vegetable plants. One of the main plants they will feature at the National Exhibition Centre is the humble chilli pepper – and these famous fruit-berries conceal more secrets than you might think…


Where does the chilli originate?

The chilli pepper (Capsicum spp.) is a member of the Solanaceae, the plant family that includes edibles such as potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, but also poisonous plants such as tobacco, mandrake, and deadly nightshade.


Who brought the chilli pepper to these shores?

The chilli was brought to Europe in the 15th century by Christopher Columbus and his crew. They became acquainted with it on their travels in South and Central America and, shortly thereafter, to India via the Portuguese spice trade.


How varied is the genus?

Of the 42 species in the capsicum genus, five have been domesticated for culinary use. Capsicum annuum includes many common varieties such as bell (sweet) peppers, cayenne and jalapenos. Capsicum frutescens includes tabasco. Capsicum chinense includes the hottest peppers such as Scotch bonnet. Capsicum pubescens includes the South American rocoto peppers, and capsicum baccatum includes the South American aji peppers.

From the five domesticated species, humans have bred more than 3,000 different cultivars with much variation in colour and taste. The chilli and bell peppers that we eat are the fruit – technically berries – that result from self-pollination of the flowers.

>> The SCI Horticulture Group brings together those working on the wonderful world of plants.


And we eat a lot of them?

Today, chilli peppers are a global commodity. In 2019, 38 million tonnes of green chilli peppers were produced worldwide, with China producing half of the total. Spain is the largest commercial grower of chillies in Europe.

Capsaicin molecule

Capsaicin helps give chilli peppers their heat

What makes chillies hot?

Capsaicin is the main substance in chilli peppers that provides the spicy heat. It binds to receptors that detect and regulate heat (as well as being involved in the transmission and modulation of pain), hence the burning sensation that it causes in the mouth.

In humans, these receptors are present in the gut as well as the mouth (in fact, throughout the peripheral and central nervous systems) – hence the after-effects of eating too much chilli. Capsaicin, however, is not equally distributed in all parts of pepper fruit. Its concentration is higher in the area surrounding the seeds.

>> Get tickets for Gardeners’ World Live 2022 and pop by our stand to say hello!


How do you measure chilli heat?

The Scoville Heat Unit Scale is used to classify the strength of chilli peppers. Scoville heat units (SHU) were named after American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville who devised a method for rating chilli heat in 1912.

SCIblog - 31 May 2022 - Chilli Chemistry - image of Dragon's Breath Chillies

The ludicrously hot Dragon’s Breath chilli

This method relied on a panel of tasters who diluted chilli extract with increasing amounts of sugar syrup until the heat became undetectable. The greater the dilution to render the sample’s heat undetectable, the higher the SHU rating. Pure capsaicin measures 16,000,000 SHU.

The capsaicin content of chilli peppers varies wildly, as is reflected in the SHUs of the peppers below:

  1. Bell (Sweet peppers) = 0 SHU
  2. Jalapeno = 5,000 SHU
  3. Scotch Bonnet = 100,000 SHU
  4. Naga Jolokia = 1,040,000 SHU
  5. Carolina Reaper = 1,641,183 SHU
  6. Dragon’s Breath = 2,480,000 SHU

Dispersal vs. protection – why do chillies contain capsaicin?

The seeds of chillies are dispersed in the wild by birds who do not have the same receptors as mammals and, therefore, are unaffected by capsaicin. Perhaps chillies have evolved to prevent mammals from dispersing their seeds?

Capsaicin has also been shown to protect the plant against fungal attack, thus helping the fruit to reach maturity and the seeds to be dispersed before succumbing to rot. This antifungal property can also be put to good use in helping to preserve foods for human consumption.


How did chilli help win a Nobel Prize?

Capsaicin was pivotal in the research that led to the award of the 2021 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.

The two US-based scientists received the accolade for describing the mechanics of how humans perceive hot, cold, touch, and pressure through nerve impulses. The research explained at a molecular level how these stimuli are converted into nerve signals, but the starting point for the study was work with capsaicin from the humble chilli pepper.


Capsaicin in medicine

Capsaicin is used as an analgesic (a pain reliever) in topical ointments, nasal sprays, and patches to relieve chronic and neuropathic pain. Clinical trials continue to investigate the potential of capsaicin for a wide range of additional pain indications and as both an anti-cancer and anti-infective agent.


>> Special thanks to Neal Price from Chillibobs, Martin Peacock of ZimmerPeacock, Hydroveg, and The University of Reading Soft Fruit Technology Group for supporting the work of the SCI Horticulture Committee at BBC Gardeners’ World Live.

>> Our resident gardening expert, Geoff Dixon, provides plenty of gardening tips on the SCIBlog.

Science & Innovation

Have you ever seen a snowflake up close? Have you smelt fertiliser on a country drive? Chemistry is the most sensuous of the sciences, and it may just be the most beautiful too. In our latest SCITalk, Dr Philip Ball showcases the breathtaking beauty of chemistry.

Main image: A chemical garden formed from copper nitrate in sodium silicate solution by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu.

Even the most disciplined of us falls into these rogue states from time to time, minutes of total absorption unrelated to work or duty. For some, it is the humble cat video. For others, it is the endless tapestry of Twitter.

Image of crystals of nicotinic acid by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu

Crystals of nicotinic acid by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu.

For me, this morning, it was a time-lapse video of crystal growth patterns. The world temporarily stopped moving as I fell headlong into high-resolution pictures of icy fronds appearing and clusters of spikes combining to form crystalline towers. Who knew potassium nitrate, ammonium chloride, and monopotassium phosphate could be so beautiful?

It turns out, Dr Philip Ball did. He knows all about the beauty of chemistry – from its profusions of colour to the hypnotic beauty of snowflakes forming.

Image of oxygen bubble from decomposing hydrogen peroxide by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu

Oxygen bubble from decomposing hydrogen peroxide by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu.

Dr Ball argues that chemistry is the most sensuous of the sciences. Which of us hasn’t smelt the stink of sulphur or the sting of ammonia in our nostrils? When he unveils vivid, other-worldly pictures of chemical gardens, or even when we see a close-up of water being added to a bowl of M&Ms, it’s hard to disagree with his view.

This Wednesday evening, 25 May 2022, Dr Ball will deliver his SCI Talk about the beauty of chemistry and his book of the same name, which he put together with photographers Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu. Using microphotography, time-lapse photography, and infrared thermal imaging, they have captured astonishing photos of chemical processes.

They have captured a beauty seldom seen, except by chemistry’s day-to-day practitioners. They show us the chemistry of champagne in a new light and the transformations of evaporation and distillation. They unveil the strange world of chemical gardens – from the blue tendrils of copper nitrate in sodium silicate solution, to the silky precipitation of silver chromate.

Image of precipitation of silver chromate by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu

Precipitation of silver chromate by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu.

Some defend the beauty of science by conflating it with the pursuit of truth. As the famous snippet from Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn goes: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’ Yet, it’s clear that the beauty of chemistry does not need to be defended in such abstract terms. It’s there in champagne bubbles and the deft configurations of a snowflake. You just need to look into a microscope - or plunge mind-first down a YouTube rabbit hole.

Register here to watch the Beauty of Chemistry SCItalk this Wednesday 25 May 2022.

Agrifood

How do green spaces, gardens as well as fruit and vegetables impact our health and wellbeing? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.

‘We are what we eat’ is an aphorism that is becoming much better understood both by the general public and by healthcare professionals. Similarly, ‘we are where we live’ is gaining greater appreciation. Both these pithy observations underline the social and economic importance of horticulture and the allied art of gardening.

SCIblog - 12 May 2022 - We are what we eat and we are where we live - image of flower display

An exuberant display of flowers – what can be better for the soul?

Few things stimulate the human spirit more than a fine, colourful display of well grown and presented flowers. Seeing and working with green and colourful plants is increasingly recognised for its psychological power, reducing stress and increasing wellbeing. In our increasingly urbanised society, with myriads of high-rise housing blocks, the provision of well-tended parks and gardens is not a luxury – it is essential.

Hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see and sit in green spaces. Equally, providing access to gardens and gardening for schools should be a vital part of the children’s environment. They gain an understanding of biological mechanisms and the equally important need for conserving biodiversity and controlling the rate of climate change.

The recently published National Food Strategy emphasised the importance of fruit and vegetables as a major part of our diets. Both fruit and vegetables provide essential vitamins, nutrients and fibres which consumed over time diminish the incidence of cancers, coronary, strokes and digestive diseases.

SCIblog - 12 May 2022 - We are what we eat and we are where we live - image of apricots

Apricots are high in catechins.

Eating varying types of fruit and vegetables increases their value – apricots, for example, are high in catechins which are potent anti-inflammatory agents. Members of the brassica (cabbage) family are exceptionally valuable for mitigating diseases of ‘modern society’. All contain glucosynolates, which evolved as means for combating pest and pathogen attacks and co-incidentally provide similar services for humans. Watercress – an aquatic brassica – is rich in vitamins A, C and E, plus folate, calcium and iron. Its high water content means portions consumed fresh or as soups are low in calories.

SCIblog - 12 May 2022 - We are what we eat and we are where we live - image of watercress

Watercress – an aquatic brassica boasts numerous health benefits.

These messages and facts are now being recognised both publicly and politically, and not before time. For the past 50 years the universal panaceas have been pharmaceutical drugs. In moderation, these have been of immense value. Use to excess is both counterproductive and needlessly expensive health-wise and financially.

Returning to Grandma’s advice, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’, supports both individual and planetary good health.

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

Science & Innovation

An Artificial Intelligence tool that could change the way we treat heart disease wowed the judges at this year’s Bright SCIdea competition. Now that the dust has settled, we asked Raphael Peralta, from the winning CardiaTec team, about winning the competition, the need for this technology, and tips for future participants. After winning this prestigious competition and coming away with the £5,000 first prize, the future is bright for co-founders Raphael Peralta, Thelma Zablocki and Namshik Han. So, how do they reflect on the story so far?

Bright SCIdea 2022 - Team CardiTec

Team CardiaTec (UK)

Tell us about CardiaTec
Cardiovascular disease is the world’s leading cause of death, and affects countless lives. Despite this, investment and innovation within the space has been severely stagnated, especially in comparison to fields such as oncology. The current treatment landscape remains unchanged, and treatments are most often prescribed in a standardised, one-size-fits-all approach. However, people are fundamentally different, and as shown by the Covid-19 pandemic, similar groups of people can experience a disease in a significantly different manner, and as such it is very important to understand biological processes at a patient level to produce effective therapeutic outcomes.

CardiaTec is leveraging artificial intelligence to structure and analyze large scale biological data that spans the full multiomic domain. This allows for a comprehensive understanding of disease pathophysiology to better develop novel and effective therapeutics for cardiovascular disease.

Casting your mind back to the moment you were announced the winner of Bright SCIdea 2020, what were your initial thoughts?
We thought we had a good opportunity to win it, but obviously when it was announced, it was a great feeling. Winning this competition is a further validation that what we are generating has real world value.

It was a great judging panel, with a breadth of experience across drug discovery and the pharmaceutical industry. We were up against immense global competition and the fact that we won shows that there’s a need for novel innovation in the cardiovascular space to ultimately drive the development of new therapeutics that are going to help change people's lives.

How did you think of the idea? Was there a ‘eureka’ moment?
The way the initial idea came about was through the identification that the cardiovascular space had a massive unmet need compared to other spaces such as oncology. I had worked with a cardiovascular company doing some consulting work and this is where it came to light.

In combination, multiomic techniques are becoming increasingly accessible in line with technological developments, which have made processes of next generation sequencing and proteomic profiling increasingly cheaper. These processes generate large amounts of data, which then lend themselves to applications of machine learning to derive biologically meaningful insights. These process, although becoming increasingly familiar in areas such as oncology, are highly underrepresented in cardiovascular disease, and thus there spans opportunity to develop completely unique and novel insights.

How does the technology work?
Here, CardiaTec uses data across genomics, epigenomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics, to generate novel biological insights with the help of AI and machine learning applications. Taking these many ‘omics’ into consideration is what defines a ‘multiomic’ approach. Biology is complex, and trends require full multiomic assessment to truly understand where dysregulation of specific processes is occurring, to then inform the best means of intervention.

CardiaTec is developing a platform, which with time will grow to become one of the most comprehensive foundations of cardiovascular disease biology. Results and outcomes are iteratively incorporated into the model, and new hypotheses are tried and tested across a range of pre-clinical settings. Collectively, CardiaTec aims to generate novel drug targets that can be used to help reduce the burden of disease in current and future patient population.

In the process of getting to the final, there were several opportunities to engage with entrepreneurs, investors, business leaders, and experts in intellectual property (IP). Can you share key takeaways from these sessions?
One of the most important things you can do is speak to people. Every business starts from an idea. As you start developing, you change and refine the business model. We take every chance to engage with people who have industry experience. It’s really important that we take the advice of these people on board; this is especially true in the field of biotechnology where you take risks across the technology side, the commercial side, and the biological side. It takes a lot of experience to mitigate those risks.

How difficult has it been taking that idea and turning it into a viable business proposition?
Thelma and I came out of the MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise at the University of Cambridge. It gave us this really strong foundation to start building. We also had the biological knowledge from our previous degrees. This framework, where we had key opinion leaders and great people in the field with whom we could bounce ideas off, was the first step. We saw that the idea was really positive and was received well by a lot of people. So, we thought: ‘we’re onto something’.

When building a biotech company, if you’re not passionate about it and don’t want to spend a lot of your time dedicated to the project, then it’s not going to take off. You need to be there to make changes, and really embrace and understand where you believe it’s going to go in line with the advice you've been given and the insights that you have generated.

We’re not only interested in understanding the intricate nature of biology. We’re also interested in how this has real life application in changing people’s lives. Every person we speak to has been affected in some way by cardiovascular disease.

I noticed that your presentation was really polished. Do you have any tips for people presenting in the final?
We’ve presented a lot of times so I think practice makes perfect. With a presentation, you need to be able to tell a story. It’s all about the storyline and building that image. You have to take care and be diligent in the process. Take time to make sure everything is structured correctly and that the story flows. Don’t be afraid to present to a lot of people who will give you advice. Take the time to make the amendments and run it through again and again, and see what the response is. So, take your time on the presentation to get your story across.

You were both very calm when the judges’ questions came. How did you prepare for these questions?
Out of this Cambridge network, the people we spoke to all asked the right questions. You see the pattern of these questions. They all want to know similar things. So, once we identified that pattern, we wrote down the questions that were important from our conversations and we practiced responses to these questions, which were by this point, fully embedded into the company’s business model; which then lends itself to an insightful, actionable response.

How are you going to use the £5,000 prize money and what’s next?
We’ll put the prize money towards refining of some of our technology. In terms of what’s next, Thelma (Zablocki), Namshik (Han), and I are dedicated to this company. We want to see it through and eventually make a drug that ends up reaching patients. This will take a long time.

To see that in the real world, where someone’s getting prescribed a drug that you discovered would be incredible.

>> For more on this year’s Bright SCIdea final, go to: https://www.soci.org/news/2022/3/bright-scidea-final-2022.

Careers

Dr Yalinu Poya Gow’s eventful career has taken her from Papua New Guinea and China to Glasgow, with an impressive array of awards collected along the way. She spoke to us about her successes, overcoming challenges, and feeding the world’s growing population through ammonia synthesis.

SCIblog - 05 May 2022 - image of Dr Yalinu Poya Gow

Dr Yalinu Poya Gow

Tell us about your career path to date.

I was born and raised in Lae, Morobe Province, in Papua New Guinea. I did all my schooling there, then moved to Port Moresby, the capital, to do my university studies. I attended the University of Papua New Guinea and graduated in 2011 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Science, majoring in Chemistry. After graduation, I worked at the Porgera Gold Mine in the pressure oxidation circuit as a Process Technician.

In 2014, I moved to China and did a Master’s in Inorganic Chemistry, majoring in Heterogeneous Catalysis, and received the Outstanding International Student award. In Autumn 2016, I was accepted into the University of Glasgow and began my PhD in Chemistry, majoring in Heterogeneous Catalysis.

I completed my PhD studies December 2019 and graduated in June 2020. My PhD research was on making catalysts suitable for small-scale ammonia production, such as on a farm. Ammonia is a simple compound that is primarily used to make synthetic fertilisers to grow food to feed 40% of the world population; as a result, there is great interest in sustainable ammonia production on a small-scale.

I have received a total of 18 awards and honours in relation to my PhD work, including: the 2020 Commonwealth Chemistry award winner in Green Chemistry; the 2019 Green Talent Award from the German Ministry of Education and Research; and the Plutonium Element Award by International Union of Pure Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) as one of the top 118 chemists in the world under the age of 40; and first place in a Society of Chemical Industry PhD Student Competition.

My research has been highlighted and featured by the American Chemical Society, Scottish Funding Council, Society of Chemical Industry and QS Top Universities. In addition, I have been honoured by the University of Glasgow for my ammonia synthesis research and named 2020 University of Glasgow Future World Changer.

Which aspects of your work motivate you most?

The aspect of my job and research that motivates me the most is contributing to a greater cause. I play a role in contributing towards improving the livelihoods of billions across the world. I am also an educator, teaching students across the world, so in a sense I am developing the world’s human resource: equipping scientists and engineers into bettering themselves and the world. This is my motivation.

SCIblog - 05 May 2022 - image of a tractor working the field

Ammonia synthesis research is key in helping us feed the world’s rapidly growing population.

What personal challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

The personal challenge that I face is being undervalued. I, as a scientist, am usually overlooked. You see, everyone talks about sustainability, climate change, and what we should do to overcome these challenges, but when it comes to getting the job done, young scientists like me who have a lot to offer are being overlooked by institutions and organisations despite meeting criteria.

The thing with me is that I came the hard way, I worked extremely hard to get where I am and do not sway from paths nor give up easily. I continue to grow in my passion in science and research despite the limited opportunities. I believe all good things come to those who work hard and are patient.

>> We have spoken to many amazing women chemists. Read more about Dr Anita Shukla and the drug delivery systems she is developing.

What is the greatest future challenge for those in your industry and at home, and how could these be addressed through your work?

The greatest challenge is the lack of opportunities. Catalysis is somewhat a niche field when it comes to research fellowships, industrial jobs, or anything in between. Catalysis can help solve some of our problems, but it is often overlooked. Ammonia synthesis is a testament to how catalysis feeds 40% of the world population. When you take into account the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and the world’s growing population, ammonia synthesis should be highly worthy of consideration.

It is the same in where I come from. Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands have brilliant and naturally gifted people. The only challenge is the lack of opportunities and services.

Which mentors have helped you along the way and how did they make a difference?

Mentors that have helped me along the way were my parents, who always believed in my potential, instilled in me hard work and discipline, and always reminded me that I have a purpose. I also have had the support of my science teachers at school, undergraduate lecturers and postgraduate supervisors. They are all heroes and heroines of science and have shaped my life greatly!

What is the current state of play within your sector with respect to equality, diversity, and inclusion – and is enough being done to attract and retain diverse talent?

I am a Pacific Islander woman in Chemistry. I am a minority in the world and more so in my field. Opportunities should be given to us as we do not just represent ourselves, we represent an entire people of the Pacific.

That is the whole reason why I wanted to do a PhD in Chemistry with an underlying theme of sustainability, so I can give something back and help my people because they are the ones who face the drastic effects of climate firsthand.

Many people speak of inclusivity on paper, but it needs to come into fruition. Inclusivity is not just a box to tick. There is so much diverse talent out there – brilliant, and qualified people from minority ethnicities.

Is there any advice you would give to young professionals and young people from Papua New Guinea?

Never give up – that is all. Where you come from, your past or present, status in life, background, gender, age, what you look like, these should not hold you back from achieving your goals. Yes, life is hard, but you have a purpose.

Some have it easy, most of us have it hard, but we are tough and resilient people. Eventually, you will reach your goals one day, look back and see that all the hardship faced along the way was totally worth it.

>> Interested in a career in science communication? Then read Suze Kundu’s story.