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Which species can you plant to increase the nutrients in your soil and boost biodiversity, and which pathogen tackles some of those pesky weeds? Our resident gardening expert, Professor Geoff Dixon, tells us more.
The term ‘sustainability’ for gardening means replacing what you take out of the soil and supporting localised biodiversity. Harvested crops, for example, take out nutrients and water from the soil. Replacements should be supplied that aid biodiversity and have minimal impact, or zero impact, on climate change.
Seaweed (Ascophyllum) has been recognised as a valuable fertiliser source in British coastal areas for centuries. Now, proprietary seaweed extracts are gaining popularity either when applied directly as liquid feeds or sprays, or when added into composts.
Classed as biostimulants, seaweed extracts contain several micro-nutrients and a range of valuable plant stimulatory growth regulators. They encourage pest and disease tolerance, increase frost tolerance, stimulate germination, increase robust growth, and add polish to fruit such as apples and pears.
Seaweed bolsters some of the nutrients lost through gardening. Image from Geoff Dixon.
Benefits of borage
Some plants are very effective supporters of biodiversity. Borage (Borago officinalis), known also as starflower or bugloss, is a robust annual plant of Mediterranean origin with pollinator-attractive blue flowers.
It is very drought resistant and suitable for dry gardens. Although an annual, it is self-seeding and could spread widely. It is very attractive to bees as it produces copious light – and delicately flavoured honey.
Its flowers and foliage are edible with a cucumber-like flavour, making it suitable in salads and as garnishes, while in Germany it is served as grűne soße (green sauce). When used as a companion plant for crops such as legumes or brassicas, it will also help to suppress weeds.
Borage is good for bee and belly. Image from Geoff Dixon.
Weeding out the problem
Weeds are a continuous problem for gardeners and their prevalence varies with the seasons. Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), also known as ‘old man in the spring’, persists whatever the weather.
It is ephemeral but can seed and regrow several times per year. As a result, once established, it is difficult to control without very diligent hand weeding and hoeing out young seedlings before the flowers form.
There is, however, a form of biological control that can aid the gardener. Groundsel is susceptible to the fungal rust pathogen (Puccinia lagenophorae). This pathogen arrived in Great Britain from Australia in the early 1960s. Since then, it has become well established and outbreaks on groundsel start to become obvious in mid- to late-summer, especially in warm dry periods.
A fungal pathogen can kill groundsel, a weed that comes through several times a year. Image from Geoff Dixon.
Severe infections weaken, and eventually kill, groundsel plants. Gardeners should take advantage of the infection and remove the diseased weeds before any seeds are produced.
>> How else has climate change changed the way our gardens grow, and what can be done to alleviate its effects? Geoff Dixon investigates.
Professor Geoff Dixon is author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon. You can find more of his work here.
In her winning essay in SCI Scotland’s Postgraduate Researcher competition, Marina Economidou, first year PhD Student at GSK/The University of Strathclyde, talks about palladium recovery.
Each year, SCI’s Scotland Regional Group runs the Scotland Postgraduate Researcher Competition to celebrate the work of research students working in scientific research in Scottish universities.
This year, four students produced outstanding essays in which they describe their research projects and the need for them. In the second of this year’s winning essays, Marina Economidou explains the need for palladium recovery and making it more efficient.
Pictured above: Marina Economidou
U-Pd-ating the workflows for metal removal in industrial processes
Palladium-catalysed reactions have great utility in the pharmaceutical industry as they offer an easy way to access important functional motifs in molecules through the formation of carbon-carbon or carbon-hetero-atom bonds.
The superior performance of such reactions over classical methodologies is evident in modern drug syntheses, where Buchwald-Hartwig, Negishi or Suzuki cross-coupling reactions are frequently employed.
However, the demand for efficient methods of palladium recovery runs parallel to the increased use of catalysts in synthesis. The interest in metal extraction can be attributed to several reasons.Cross-coupling steps are usually situated late in the synthetic route, resulting in metal residues in the final product. In addition to possessing intrinsic toxicity, elemental impurities can have an unfavourable impact on downstream chemistry.
Hence, their limit must be below the threshold set by the International Council for Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use (ICH).
The need for palladium recovery
However, the importance of palladium recovery does not only arise from the need to meet regulatory criteria. The volatility of palladium supply as a result of geopolitical instabilities has been a focus of attention this year, with Russia producing up to 30% of the global supply and prices reaching an all-time high of £81,179 per kilogramme.
Therefore, aside from the need to remove metals from the product for regulatory reasons, there is a desire to recover metals from waste streams as effectively as possible due to their finite nature and high costs.
The sustainability benefits of recovery for circular use are an additional incentive for an efficient extraction process, as catalysts can be regenerated when metal is returned to suppliers.
The increasing pressure for greener processes and more ambitious sustainability goals – such as GlaxoSmithKline’s environmental sustainability target of net zero impact on climate by 2030 – also contribute to the need for further refinement of working practices.
>> SCI's Scotland Group connects scientists working in industry and academia throughout Scotland.
Palladium has many uses including in catalytic converters, surgical instruments, and dental fillings.
Improving extraction processes
It is essential to have well-controlled and reproducible processes for pharmaceutical production, as redevelopment requires further laboratory work and additional time and resources.
With several industry reports on the inconsistent removal of palladium following catalytic synthetic steps, there seems to be a knowledge gap as to which factors affect the efficiency of extraction and why there can be significant differences between laboratory and plant conditions.
The focus of my PhD is investigating the speciation of palladium in solution in the presence of pharmaceutically relevant molecules, to offer an insight into the efficiency of metal extraction at the end of processes.
By understanding the oxidation state and coordinative saturation of the palladium species formed in the presence of different ligands, a better relationship could be established between the observed performance of metal extraction processes under inert and non-inert conditions.
With the wide breadth of ligands and extractants that are now commercially available for cross-coupling reactions, my ambition is to generate a workflow for smart condition selection that not only achieves selective metal recovery, but is scalable and can be transferred to plant with consistent performance.
The cost and preciousness of metal catalysts are both factors that prohibit their one-time use in processes. Understanding how palladium can be extracted and recovered in an efficient manner will not only deliver reliable processes that meet the demands of the market in the production of goods, it will also lead to economic and environmental benefits.
>> Angus McLuskie’s winning essay on replacing toxic feedstocks.
>> Our Careers for Chemistry Postdocs series explores the different career paths taken by chemistry graduates.
There is still work to be done to redress racial inequality in chemistry, and across science in general, but relatable role models can have a positive influence on the next generation.
Homophily. Ever heard of it? Me neither, until 30 minutes ago. Homophily basically means that we are more likely to connect with people who are similar to us in some way.
In work terms, homophily could be a relatable role model. So, as an Irish science writer, I admire Flann O’Brien for his ability to decongest complicated subjects with such wit and flair (not so much for hiding whiskey in the toilet during interviews). For a young chemist, a role model could be someone from a similar background who excels in a job she or he would love to have.
But what happens if you just don’t see relatable role models in your chosen field? What if systemic failings make the profession less attractive and harder to trace the path to success?
Unfortunately, systemic failings, the relative lack of homophily, and pervasive inequality were among the findings of Missing Elements – Racial and ethnic inequalities in the chemical sciences, a report released by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in March.
The report highlighted the barriers facing Black chemists in the UK, and it certainly didn’t hold back. In the Foreword, Dr Helen Pain, RSC’s Chief Executive, said: ‘The data and evidence collected in this report are clear: we are failing to retain and nurture talented Black chemists at every stage of their career path after undergraduate studies.’
The report found that just 1.4% of postgraduate students, 1% of non-academic chemistry staff, and 0% of chemistry professors are Black. It added that Black chemists face barriers in industry too, and that people from minoritised communities are under-represented at senior levels across the workforce.
It proceeded to mention six themes that affect the retention and progression for Black chemists, including the impact of homophily, which it defined as ‘the tendency for people to form connections with people similar to themselves.’
The importance of mentors
When I read that, a little bell chimed in my head. When my colleague Muriel Cozier interviewed three eminent Black chemists last year – Cláudio Lourenço, Jeraime Griffith, and Dr George Okafo – each mentioned the need for relatable role models to increase the representation of Black chemists.
When she asked Cláudio about specific impediments that prevent young Black people from pursuing chemistry, he said: ‘I think one of the biggest barriers that prevent people from pursuing careers in science is the lack of role models. If we only show advertisements for chemistry degrees with White people, it’s not encouraging for Black students to pursue a career there.
‘The same goes for when we visit universities; role models are needed. No one wants to be the only Black person in the department. Universities need to embrace diversity at all levels.’
George made a similar point. He emphasised the need for young chemists to surround themselves with mentors. ‘I think it is important to look for role models from the same background to help inspire you.’ When Muriel asked him which steps could be taken to increase the number of Black people pursuing chemistry as a career, he added: ‘Have more role models from different backgrounds. This sends a very powerful message to young people studying science reinforcing the message… I can do that!’
When asked about his message for Black people following in his footsteps, Jeraime said: ‘Seek out mentors, regardless of race, who can help you get there. Don’t be afraid to email them and briefly talk about your interest in the work they’ve done, what you have done, and are doing now.’
Jeraime also cited lack of representation as a barrier that prevents more young Black people from entering chemistry. ‘Lack of representation I think is the number one barrier,’ he said. ‘Impostor syndrome is bad at the best of times, but worse still if there’s no representation in the ivory tower.’
The issue of inequality in chemistry is large – far too large for a mere 752-word blog – but as we celebrate the achievements of Black chemists everywhere this week, it is clear just how much of a positive influence role models such as Cláudio, George, Jeraime, and countless others can have on the dreams and aspirations of young chemists.
Written by Eoin Redahan and based on previous reporting by Muriel Cozier.
How do you go from a Chemistry degree to a business development specialism? We hear Mark Dodsworth’s story.
Tell us about your career path to date.
I graduated from the University of Sheffield with a degree in Chemistry, which included a one-year placement at GSK in Stevenage. Working in heterocyclic chemistry at GSK gave me valuable experience, which ultimately helped me secure my first role in industry.
I joined Vernalis Research in Cambridge as a Synthetic Chemist. After more than five years there, I moved to Manchester to work with the CRUK Drug Discovery team as a Medicinal Chemist.
I am now coming up to three years working for Teledyne ISCO – a US company that specialises in the supply of purification equipment to the scientific community. My job role is Business Development Specialist for the Midlands and Wales.
This job involves focusing on the business growth of Teledyne ISCO products throughout the region with new and existing customers. I also provide ongoing support to our growing customer base, whether that be technical or application related.
What is a typical day like in your job?
Day-to-day, my job role varies significantly, which makes it exciting and dynamic. No day or week is ever the same. It could involve anything from responding to customer enquiries by phone or email, discussions around how our equipment can help with the needs of a group or company, or travelling to a customer to run a demonstration of the equipment.
Installation and training new users is a part of the job that I particularly enjoy. We also do exhibitions, which is a great way to show new customers our equipment, and network with existing customers. Some exhibitions also give us the chance to present to an audience.
Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?
A job in business development is so much more than I realised. I’ve always really enjoyed helping people, and this job allows me to do that in so many ways, whether it’s providing equipment that makes the chemist’s life easier and helps them with a problem that they’ve been struggling with, or through application support. I love the networking, getting to know people, and hearing about their work too.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Currently the biggest challenge is being at home quite a lot. We can do a lot of support through Zoom, but I’ve missed not seeing our customers and having face-to-face interactions with them.
As part of a sales role, there is a degree of cold-calling required. This is a skill that I didn’t have as a chemist and so I did find it challenging. Ultimately, you are just looking to find those who are interested in your product. A ‘no, thank you’ isn’t anything to be afraid of – you just haven’t found the right customer for you.
How do you use the skills you obtained during your degree in your job?
There are many translational skills that you develop as a chemist and times when these skills come in handy. Presentation skills come in useful when presenting at conferences or to senior management.
Communication skills are important when you are transferring information. Not everyone interprets information the same way, so being clear with the meaning of your words is also important.
Time management and organisation are key to this role too. For example, making customer appointments and allowing time for travel. You also need to make the most of your own time, too, by being organised – for example, seeing multiple customers in one location.
As a result, my calendar is usually planned a month in advance, so organisation skills really help here in the planning of your work.
Is there any advice you would give to others interested in pursuing a similar career path?
This was not a career path I’d ever considered, as I’d always been focused on synthetic chemistry throughout university. The main motivator for me was having the opportunity to work closer with CombiFlash systems, as I’d used these systems throughout my career at GSK, Vernalis and CRUK.
My advice would be to discuss [the roles you are interested in] with as many people currently working in that field as you can. I spent time discussing this kind of role with my friends and networking within the science community before deciding to make the move.
>> Get involved in the SCI Young Chemists’ Panel.
>> Read more about how Rachel Ellis began her career in drug development.
Written by SCI’s Young Chemists’ Panel. Read more of their blogs.
The Commonwealth Games has landed in Birmingham. Before the Games began, viewers were treated to an extraordinary opening ceremony (featuring a giant mechanical bull) and its artistic director, Iqbal Khan, was lauded for his ingenuity.
But such ingenuity shouldn’t surprise any of us, for Birmingham has long been a place of outsized invention. For more than 300 years, the inhabitants of this industrial powerhouse have churned out invention after invention; and its great pragmatists have turned patents into products.
Chemistry, too, owes a debt to the UK’s second city. Whether it’s the first synthesis of vitamin C, the invention of human-made plastic, adventures in mass spectrometry, or electroplated gold and silver trinkets, Birmingham has left a lasting legacy.
Here are five chemists whose innovations may have made an appearance in your life.
Plaque commemorating Alexander Parkes in Birmingham, England. Image by Oosoom
Look around you. Look at the computer screen, the mouse button you click, and the wire casings everywhere. Someone started it all. That man was Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first human-made plastic.
The son of a brass lock manufacturer from Suffolk Street, Birmingham, Parkes created 66 patents in his lifetime including a process for electroplating delicate works of art. However, none were as influential as the 1856 patent for Parkesine – the world’s first thermoplastic.
Parkes’ celluloid was based on nitrocellulose that had been treated by different solvents. In 1866, he set up the Parkesine Company at Hackney Wick, London, but it floundered due to high cost and quality issues. The spoils of his genius would be enjoyed by the rest of us instead.
Sir Norman Haworth
Sir Norman Haworth may have been born in Chorley, Lancashire, but his finest work arguably came after he became Director of the Department of Chemistry in the University of Birmingham in 1925. Haworth is famous for his groundbreaking carbohydrate investigations and for being the first to synthesise vitamin C.
By 1928, Haworth had confirmed the structures of maltose, cellobiose, lactose, and the glucoside ring structure of normal sugars, among other structures. Apparently, his method for determining the chain length in methylated polysaccharides also helped confirm the basic features of starch, cellulose, and glycogen molecules.
However, Haworth is most famous for determining the structure of vitamin C and for becoming the first to synthesise it in 1932. The synthesis of what he called ascorbic acid made the commercial production of vitamin C far cheaper – the benefits of which have been felt by millions of us.
For his achievements in carbohydrates and vitamin C, Haworth received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1937 (shared with Paul Karrer). He was the first British organic chemist from the UK to receive this honour. Haworth even had a link to SCI, having been a pupil of William Henry Perkin Junior in the University of Manchester’s Chemistry Department.
Blue plaque for Francis William Aston. Image from Tony Hisgett
Another Nobel Prize-winning chemist from Birmingham is Francis William Aston. The Harborne native won the 1922 prize for discovering isotopes in many non-radioactive elements (using his mass spectrograph) and for enunciating the whole number rule.
For a time, academia almost lost Aston, as he spent three years working as a chemist for a brewery. Thankfully, he returned to academic life and obtained concrete evidence for the existence of two isotopes of the inert gas neon before the first World War.
After working for the Royal Aircraft Establishment during the Great War (1914-18), he resumed his studies. The invention of the mass spectrograph proved pivotal to his discoveries thereafter. Using this apparatus, he identified 212 naturally occurring isotopes.
George Elkington patented the electroplating process developed by John Wright. Image from Spudgun67
It isn’t surprising that George Elkington should become an SCI favourite, as he blended both scientific ingenuity with business. The son of a spectacle manufacturer patented the first commercial electroplating process invented by Brummie surgeon John Wright in 1840.
Wright discovered that a solution of silver in potassium cyanide was useful for electroplating metals. Elkington and his cousin Henry purchased and patented Wright’s process before using it to improve gold and silver plating.
The Elkingtons opened an electroplating works in the city’s now famous Jewellery Quarter where they electroplated cutlery and jewellery. And they didn’t do too badly out of it. By 1880, the company employed 1,000 people in seven factories.
1906 advertisement for Birds Custard powder. Image from janwillemsen
In 1837, Alfred Bird was in a pickle. He wanted to serve his dinner party guests custard, but his wife was allergic to eggs and yeast, and egg was the main thickening agent of this delicious gloop.
Instead of serving something else, the chemist shop owner invented his own egg-free custard by substituting cornflour for eggs. His guests found it delicious and Bird’s Custard was born.
Not content with this innovation, Bird is also credited with being the father of modern baking powder. Once again, his wife’s allergies were said to be the inspiration, as he wanted to create a yeast-free bread for her. In bread and custard, true love always finds a way.
Paulina Quintanilla has developed a clever way to maximise the froth flotation technology used to extract more valuable minerals from rocks. The SCI Scholar and Poster Competition winner chatted to us about her process and how it could make mineral processing more efficient.
How would you describe your froth flotation technology in simple terms?
Froth flotation is the most widely used technology to separate valuable mineral particles from waste rock. The process is carried out in stirred tanks in which chemical reagents and air are added. Some of these reagents, called collectors, make the valuable mineral particles hydrophobic, which means that they repel water.
Consequently, the valuable mineral particles attach to the air bubbles, covering them and generating bubble-particle aggregates. The bubble-particle aggregates rise to the top of the tank, forming a froth that overflows as a mineral-rich concentrate, while the waste rock leaves from the bottom of the tank as tailings.
Froth flotation is also relevant in several other industrial applications, such as water treatment and paper de-inking.
Schematic of the froth flotation process. Image by @AMPRG_Imperial.
How would you describe your froth flotation technology in simple terms?
This research focuses on optimising the froth flotation process using a control strategy called model predictive control. To this end, mathematical models were developed to represent the phenomena inside a flotation tank. These models are then used to ‘predict the future’ so that decisions can be taken now (we can control the process) to improve the froth flotation performance.
Model predictive control is a powerful optimisation strategy that has been widely used in other processes, including in the petrochemical industry, but it is still very new in the mineral processing industry.
One of the main advantages of this research is that the models are physics-based. This means that they were developed from the fundamental physics of the process rather than from data, which makes them useful under any operating conditions, for any flotation tank size. This is particularly interesting for application in the large flotation tanks used on an industrial scale.
How could this work benefit industry and make processing more efficient?
Building clean technologies for the transition to 100% green energy is creating a massive demand for a range of minerals. For example, copper mines would have to ramp up production considerably to satisfy the extra 7% predicted demand. Meeting that demand, however, is becoming more and more challenging as ores are becoming lower grade, deeper, and more complex.
This implies that there is an urgent need to optimise current processes to extract the necessary minerals and metals more sustainably and efficiently. As froth flotation is a large-scale process, even small improvements in the separation efficiency would translate into important increments in production.
Overflowing froth seen from the top of an industrial-scale tank. Image by @AMPRG_Imperial.What is the potential of this work in terms of copper recovery?
We demonstrated that improvements of between 8 to 22% in metal recovery were achieved by implementing a model predictive control strategy at the laboratory scale, revealing an untapped potential for implementation at an industrial scale. This research could serve as a promising next step for the mining industry to meet future metal and mineral demands by extracting more metal for the same amount of resources, such as water, energy, and chemicals.
>> Interested to find out more about SCI Scholarships?
Your flotation tanks are actually based in Chile. How do you operate them remotely?
I am currently implementing an online model predictive control strategy in a laboratory-scale flotation bank in Chile. I monitor and control this experimental rig from home, in the UK.
The experimental rig was automated in such a way that all the instruments (e.g. air flow meters, controllers, pumps, etc.) are connected to a module called ‘Programmable Logic Controller’. This module is then connected to a workstation computer, which I access from my laptop in the UK.
The Programmable Logic Controller allows me to obtain measurements in real-time and control the system. In this case, the measurements are used to update the mathematical models, while the system is controlled by changing the ‘revolutions per minute’ of the pumps (to change the pulp levels) and/or moving the air valves (to change the airflow rates).
Experimental campaign in 2018 – aerial view of a 300m³ froth flotation tank. Image by @AMPRG_Imperial.
Could this process be used to extract other materials? If so, which ones?
While froth flotation is widely used to separate sulphide minerals of copper, it is also used to separate other sulphides, such as those containing lead, zinc, and molybdenum.
You won an SCI Scholarship. How did you use the funds you received to develop your research?
I used the generous SCI scholarship to partially fund a two-month visit to the laboratory in Chile. I set up new connections for remote control by installing new instrumentation to make it even more automated, and I carried out preliminary online control experiments. Since then, all the control experiments have been carried out from my laptop at home.
I also used the scholarship to fund my participation in several conferences, including one in person in Athens, Greece, in 2021. I have participated in Scholar Days in 2020 and 2021, in which I presented advances in my PhD research to a wide audience. This year, I presented my PhD research results at SCI headquarters for the first time and participated in the Poster Showcase, where I won first place.
Paulina presenting at the SCI Scholars' Showcase in July 2022. Image: SCI/Andrew Lunn
What are your future plans for this innovative technology (and other potential research)?
I plan to keep up the momentum of researching froth flotation optimisation, as I believe that there is still a long way to go for improvement, particularly at an industrial scale. Model predictive control has not been widely explored within the mineral processing industry despite the fact that it has shown great potential. There is still a gap between academia and industry that should be bridged, sooner rather than later, to improve the performance of the process.
Apart from the model predictive control strategy using physics-based models (including the one I have investigated during my PhD research), many other control strategies show great potential to be tested and implemented at an industrial scale.
This is particularly applicable in mineral processing plants, as most of them collect a huge amount of data that could serve as valuable inputs for further improvement and optimisation, using novel engineering tools such as artificial intelligence and digital twins.
Paulina is part of the Advanced Mineral Processing Research Group at Imperial College London, whose research includes fluid dynamics of flotation tanks and multi-criteria decision-making for sustainable mining and mineral processing.
A range of greenhouse gas removal technologies may be necessary if we’re to reach Net Zero by 2050. In the second of our two-part geoengineering feature, Eoin Redahan looks to the sea, the sun, and mineral weathering, and at the ethical concerns such technologies raise. Missed Part One? Find it here.
‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.’
These famous words from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner aren’t the only famous part of his epic poem. The term albatross around one’s neck comes from it too.
After shooting a friendly albatross at sea, the poem’s narrator was forced by the ship’s crew to wear the dead creature around his neck – and grievous luck was to follow. Well, our blue planet has an albatross around its neck in the form of climate change.
Perhaps the solution to it lies all around us – water, water, everywhere…
In theory, we can use our oceans to pull CO2 from the air on an enormous scale. All it may take is clever intervention – potentially ruinous, albatross-shooting intervention.
Nevertheless, the World Economic Forum lays out the tantalising potential. ‘Ocean-based CO2 removal can help us achieve “net negative emissions” as the seas hold 50 times more carbon than the atmosphere,’ it says.
‘The ocean [is] a sink for nearly one third of anthropogenic carbon emissions and more than 90% of the resulting heat… If we are going to manage atmospheric CO2 levels to our advantage, we will need to leverage the ocean’s existing ability to govern the global carbon cycle.’
Frontier has targeted the development of scalable sources of alkalinity. The reasoning behind it is that with CO2 being an acidic molecule, rising CO2 concentrations could be neutralised through alkalinity. It has mentioned using mine tailings to remove up to 0.5 gigatonnes of CO2 from the air each year; but the major caveat here is that it needs to be done safely.
Planetary Technologies has ventured into this space armed, essentially, with a bicarbonate of baking soda that could draw in CO2 and sequester it for millenia.
The company explains its process: ‘We start by carefully extracting key parts of the mine tailings including recovering battery metals (like nickel and cobalt) and silica (sand) and then take the remaining purified metal salt solution into a special electrolyser. There, using clean, renewable electricity, the salt and water are split to make hydrogen (a clean, emissions-free fuel), and a pure alkaline hydroxide.
‘It’s from this point that we transport the bulk alkaline materials to our ocean outfalls site where the alkalinity is introduced to the surface ocean that then draws in CO2, sequestering it as already abundant bicarbonate and carbonate ions in seawater.’
So, by decreasing the acidity of the ocean, it would have a greater capacity to absorb CO2 from the air. The key, however, is to reduce this to a viable price point.
Mineral weathering is another contender in the CO2 removal mix. One technology that recently received $2.4m in funding is Seattle-based Lithos’ enhanced weathering process – a mineral weathering process that could capture CO2 at a gigatonne scale. According to Frontier, Lithos spreads basalt on croplands to increase dissolved organic carbon, before eventually being stored as ocean bicarbonate. The idea is to maximise CO2 removal while bolstering crop growth.
Closer to home, SAC Consulting in Edinburgh will receive £2.9m to capture the methane produced by cattle and cut emissions from the livestock farming sector; Synthetic Biology in San Francisco has received an R&D grant to synthesise a polymer within algae that is capable of sequestering atmospheric CO2 at a large scale; and Charm Industrial is converting plants into a carbon-rich liquid that is pumped underground.
To do the latter, Charm grows cellulosic biomass that captures CO2 from the atmosphere. It is then harvested, ground, and heated, before being turned into a bio-oil that is pumped underground.
Even the concrete beneath our feet could be used as a carbon sink. CarbonCure is injecting CO2 into its concrete mixes, which it says is not only comparable in cost to traditional concrete, but stronger.
And then, we have solar engineering – arguably the first technology that comes into many of our minds when we think of carbon removal. All sorts of geoengineering technologies exist in this sphere including cirrus cloud thinning, stratospheric aerosol scattering, and marine cloud brightening.
Interestingly, Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Programme referred to geoengineering as ‘a set of emerging technologies that could manipulate the environment and partially offset some of the impacts of climate change’.
Therein lies the problem for many. What are the consequences of ‘manipulating the environment’, especially if these technologies fall into unscrupulous hands?
In her excellent blog for SCI on geoengineering, Rhiannon Garth-Jones referred to the Haida Corporation Salmon trial. In this trial, 120 tonnes of iron compound were deposited in the migration routes of pink and sockeye salmon in the Pacific Ocean, which resulted in a several-month-long phytoplankton bloom.
It was seen by many as a success. The phytoplankton fed fish and increased biodiversity and the iron sequestered carbon; but Environment Canada believed the corporation violated national environmental laws by depositing iron without a permit.
History teaches us that profit vs. planet tussles don’t always go the way we would like, and the consequences of these technologies going into the wrong hands could be catastrophic.
On 29 June, The World Economic Forum called for a code of conduct for ocean-based CO2 removal; and the American Geophysical Union, a group of climate and planetary scientists, is leading the way in developing an ethical framework for climate intervention engagement.
We’re all feeling the effects of climate change. As I write this piece on 19 July, it is 39°C here in Greenford, London. 39°C in London! The earth is cracking, planes are circling (because the runways are melting), and grass fires are blazing in Croydon.
On days like today, it feels like we need all the innovation we can get.
From the Black Death to the Covid-19 pandemic, great adversity has also led to great advances. So, which inventions have emerged from times of hardship? Eoin Redahan finds out.
‘World events shape innovations. The World Wars shaped innovation, and the pandemic has shaped innovation,’ said Paul Booth OBE, in his outgoing speech as SCI President.
‘It is possible to accelerate innovation – we’ve demonstrated that.’ Paul Booth OBE, outgoing SCI President at SCI’s AGM, July 2022. Image: SCI/Andrew Lunn
The pandemic taught us a lot about ourselves. It taught me that eating my body weight in sweets was a great way to destroy my teeth, and it brought home to many the futility of the five-day commute. On a more abstract level, it taught governments and policy makers just how much can be achieved in a short space of time when necessity demands it. The vaccines that swam around our veins bore testament to this.
The pandemic has shaped innovation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in medicine. It isn’t the first awful event to provide a hotbed for change, and it won’t be the last. ‘It is possible to accelerate innovation,’ Paul said. ‘We’ve demonstrated that.’
As bad as the Covid-19 pandemic was, the Black Death makes it look very tame indeed. It is estimated that the Plague, which was its worst from 1346-53, took up to 200 million lives in Eurasia and North Africa.
Amid the carnage, it is also said to have given us a system to mitigate infectious diseases with which we are familiar, including isolation periods. According to Britannica, ‘public officials created a system of sanitary control to combat contagious diseases, using observation stations, isolation hospitals, and disinfection procedures.’
The terrifying doctor will see you now.
The Plague also said to have inspired greater experimentation in pharmacology. In a sense, it also helped democratise medicine, with medical textbooks shifting from Latin to the vernacular. As John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, noted: ‘Both medical and religious practice now shifted toward the laity.’
But perhaps the most memorable advance from this time was the strange, beak-like masks worn by some doctors during the Plague. These masks were a crude (and frankly terrifying) way to protect the doctors from the disease in the air. The doctors even filled these masks with herbs in an effort to protect against pathogens.
Of course, wars have also led to military innovation at breakneck speed. During the American Civil War, the Minié ball was created. It spun faster than other bullets and could travel half a mile – unlike pre-Civil War bullets, which went a mere 300 feet.
Officers of a monitor-class ironclad warship, photographed during the American Civil War.
This war also led to the ironclad warship, with plates riveted together to protect against cannonballs. However, it should also be noted that many of the most interesting war-borne inventions have ended up having little or nothing to do with military application.
The ‘cotton-like-texture’ of cellucotton led to its brand name Kotex. According to this 1920 advertisement, this ‘wardrobe essential of Her Royal Daintiness’ was available at any shop that catered to women. Different times.
World War I gave us the blood bank, the Kleenex, the trench coat, and the sanitary pad. The sanitary pad has peculiar origins. In 1914, the war resulted in cotton shortages and substitutes were needed. Kimberly-Clark executives duly discovered a processed wood pulp material that was five times more absorbent than cotton, and cheaper to make. The material was used for bandages, and Red Cross nurses realised that this material could be used as makeshift sanitary pads. The company then developed a sanitary pad – branded Kotex – made from cellucotton and a fine gauze.
Material substitution also led to ground-breaking innovation in World War II. According to the National WWII Museum New Orleans, in 1942 Japan cut off the US supply of natural rubber. With the demand for rubber high, US President Franklin Roosevelt invested $700m to make synthetic rubber from petrochemical byproducts at 51 new plants. By 1944, these synthetic rubber plants were producing 800,000 tonnes of the material a year.
Duct tape was developed by Johnson & Johnson during the Second World War, and by 1972 the ubiquitous tape had reached the moon. This makeshift wheel fender repair helped the Apollo 17 mission’s lunar rover to keep lunar dust at bay.
We use many other products invented during the Second World War, including duct tape, which was developed by Johnson & Johnson to keep moisture out of ammunition cases. A fellow called Harry Coover discovered cyanoacrylates – the active ingredient in Super Glue – while he tried to create a clear plastic for gun sights.
And the next time you reheat your dinner, spare a thought for Percy Spencer, the US physicist who noticed the candy bar melting in his pocket when he stood next to an active radar set. This moment of epiphany led to an invention you might know: the humble microwave.
Just as these trying times lead to extraordinary leaps in technology, they also lead to the large-scale rollout of said discoveries. A prime example of this is penicillin. It was first used to treat an eye infection in 1930, but it was only with the horrific fall-out of war that experiments with deep tank fermentation led to its widespread production.
A soldier recuperates in hospital thanks to penicillin in this Second World War poster. Note the not-quite-so-life-saving hospital bed cigarette. Different times, again.
The Penicillin Production through Deep-tank Fermentation paper in ACS notes that: ‘During World War II, the governments of the United States and the UK approached the largest US chemical and pharmaceutical companies to enlist them in the race to mass produce penicillin […] One of these companies, Pfizer, succeeded in producing large quantities of penicillin using deep-tank fermentation.’
The speed of development and global-scale rollout of vaccines against Covid-19 was unprecedented. Science, business and governments worked together to get the world moving again.
And, as we all know, Pfizer was back at it again during the Covid-19 pandemic. Along with AstraZeneca, Moderna, and essentially the entire pharmaceutical industry, it created vaccines that saved countless lives. Governments and policymakers were also reminded just how quickly life-saving technologies can be pushed through when needed.
But the legacy of Covid-19 treatment will stretch further, be it in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, or other fields – who knows what else will come from it?
As Paul Booth said: ‘It is possible to accelerate innovation. We’ve demonstrated that.’
Many believe that greenhouse gas removal technologies will be necessary if we’re to reach net zero by 2050. In the first of our two-part geoengineering feature, we look at some of the difference-makers.
This week, a friend of mine played a tennis match just north of London. The game was due to take place at 18:00 but was deferred for an hour because it was 39°C. This came a day after Rishi Sunak, who may become the UK’s next Prime Minister, warned about going ‘too hard and too fast’ on net zero measures.
It’s looking increasingly likely that the implementation of environmental policies isn’t happening quickly enough; so, if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, we will need to develop technologies that pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Mercury rising: the UK recorded record high temperatures this week.
Certainly, that’s the UK government’s perspective. ‘Greenhouse Gas Removal technology will be essential to meeting the UK’s climate change target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050,’ it said. ‘These technologies will be necessary to offset emissions from hard to decarbonise areas, such as parts of the agriculture and aviation sectors.’
Thankfully, work is underway to make this happen. And it is more than just the pang of the environmental conscience that has stirred the private sector into action. There is much money to be made from geoengineering. Indeed, a CNBC story has estimated that it could be a trillion dollar market by 2050.
The public investment has been relatively modest by some. The UK government recently pledged £54m in funding towards 15 different carbon removal technologies. But some in the private sector have dollar signs in their eyes.
A collaborative called Frontier – funded by Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify, Meta, McKinsey, and tens of thousands of businesses using Stripe Climate – has made an advance market commitment to spend an initial $925m on permanent carbon removal technologies between 2022 and 2030.
‘Models project that by 2050 we will need to permanently remove billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year,’ it states. ‘To date, fewer than 10,000 tons have been removed in total.’ The capital it has committed is designed to help companies developing carbon removal solutions to scale up.
The UK government has mentioned the need for a portfolio of carbon removal technologies to reach net zero. A cursory look reveals that there are many from which to choose, including direct air capture, the manipulation of the sea, advanced weathering, and solar engineering.
These methods are audacious, exciting, and controversial.
The key, as ever, is to come up with low-carbon technologies that are both effective and economically viable. In that respect, direct air capture has emerged as a front runner. This technology often uses giant fans with filters, or chemical processes, to take CO2 from the air.
The difficulty is the amount of energy needed to power these processes and the source of this energy. The cost of removing each tonne of CO2 is also an impediment to growth – something that will need to fall for it to be implemented on a large scale.
Climeworks co-founders Jan Wurzbacher and Christoph Gebald at the Orca plant in Iceland. Image courtesy of Climeworks.
Nevertheless, significant strides have been made in recent times. Swiss company Climeworks raised US$650m in equity for its largest direct air capture plant, and last week it inked a 10-year deal with Microsoft to permanently remove 10,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere on its behalf.
The company’s machines capture CO2 from ambient air by drawing air into the collector with a fan. The CO2 is captured on the surface through a selected filter material that sits inside the collectors. Once the filter is filled with CO2, the collector is closed, and the temperature is increased to 80–100°C, whereupon the CO2 is released.
And what becomes of the CO2 after that? The CO2 at its Orca facility (50km outside Reykjavík, Iceland) will be mixed with water and pumped deep underground. The carbon dioxide will then react with the basalt rock through natural mineralisation and turn into stone.
Climeworks CO2 turned into stone via Carbfix technology. Image courtesy of Climeworks.
And Climeworks isn’t the only one operating in this space. As part of the UK Government’s aforementioned £54m funding, London-based Mission Zero Technologies will receive £2.9 million to build a low-energy, heat-free way to pull CO2 from the air.
Sydney-based AspiraDAC has been backed by the Stripe Climate Fund to remove 500 tonnes of CO2 using its modular, solar-powered system. According to Frontier: ‘Its MOF (metal-organic framework) sorbent has low-temperature heat requirements and cheap material inputs, increasing the likelihood that AspiraDAC can help accelerate the production of lower-cost metal-organic frameworks which, historically, have been expensive and difficult to synthesise.’
The Stripe Climate Fund has also backed 8 Rivers Capital, LLC, and Origen Carbon Solutions, Inc to remove CO2 from the air using its direct air capture (DAC) technology. Frontier said: ‘The DAC technology accelerates the natural process of carbon mineralisation by contacting highly reactive slaked lime with ambient air to capture CO2. The resulting carbonate minerals are calcined to create a concentrated CO2 stream for geologic storage.’
Of course, direct air capture is just one of many CO2 removal solutions. In part two, next week, we’ll look at other promising technologies.
In his winning essay in SCI Scotland’s Postgraduate Researcher competition, Angus McLuskie, Postgraduate Researcher at the University of St Andrews, explains his work in replacing non-renewable and toxic feedstocks with novel sustainable catalytic processes to produce useful chemicals.
Each year, SCI’s Scotland Regional Group runs the Scotland Postgraduate Researcher Competition to celebrate the work of research students working in scientific research in Scottish universities.
This year, four students produced outstanding essays in which they describe their research projects and the need for them. In the first of this year’s winning essays, Angus McLuskie outlines his work in improving the production of urea derivatives and polyureas.
Urea derivatives hold a substantial global market, which is dominated by their use as fertilisers in the agrochemical sector, in addition to smaller-scale technical applications as glues, resin precursors, dyes and pharmaceutical drugs. Furthermore, polyureas are important protective coatings, with a global market exceeding £800 million a year.
Currently, urea derivatives and polyureas are produced on an industrial scale using highly toxic chemicals such as phosgene, (di)isocyanates and carbon monoxide. These reagents are detrimental to human health, as evidenced by the release of methyl isocyanate gas from the Bhopal Union Carbide factory in 1984, which led to thousands of deaths and a global outcry.
Phosgene was itself used as a battlefield chemical weapon in World War I, and is sourced from fossil-fuel-derived carbon monoxide. The result is a process with significant health and environmental impacts.
As part of a global drive to tackle climate change and move towards a circular economy, the objective of our research is to replace non-renewable and toxic feedstocks with novel sustainable catalytic processes to produce useful chemicals and materials.
In pursuit of greener methods, we have recently discovered synthetic methodologies, using a catalyst of manganese, to couple dehydrogenatively (1) methanol and (di)amines and (2) formamides and amines to make symmetrical (poly)ureas and unsymmetrical urea derivatives respectively (ACS Catal., DOI:10.1021/acscatal.2c00850).
Angus with his poster on Mn-Catalysed Dehydrogenative Synthesis of Urea Derivatives and Polyureas.
The only process byproduct, molecular hydrogen, is valuable in itself, and the non-toxic reagents of methanol or formamide can be sourced from renewable feedstocks. For example, Carbon Recycling International, an Iceland-based company, has developed methods to generate methanol industrially through the direct hydrogenation of CO2 (ATZextra Worldw., DOI:10.1007/S40111-015-0517-0). Formamides can be made from formic acid, which may be produced from biomass or CO2.
The synthesis of urea derivatives using this approach has been reported previously using iron and ruthenium catalysts, but these present individual limitations. Iron catalysts result in poor yields and substrate scope, while ruthenium catalysts are expensive and raise sustainability concerns due to ruthenium’s low abundance in Earth’s crust (Chem. Sci. J., doi.org/10.1039/C8SC00775F and Org. Lett., doi.org/10.1021/acs.orglett.5b03328).
The synthesis of polyureas via this approach has only been achieved before using a ruthenium catalyst. With a manganese-based pincer catalyst, we succeeded in making a broad variety of symmetrical and unsymmetrical urea derivatives as well as polyureas at high yields and under a low catalytic loading of 0.5-1 mol%. As the third most abundant transition metal in Earth’s crust, manganese is much cheaper than ruthenium, which improves the economic viability of the process for industrial applications.
Breaking new ground?
This is the first example of the synthesis of polyureas from diamines and methanol using a catalyst of an Earth-abundant metal. We have demonstrated for the first time the synthesis of a potentially 100% renewable polyurea from methanol and a renewable diamine Priamine, which is commercialised by Croda. This could be of interest to emerging businesses for making bio/renewable plastics.
Angus hopes his research will help us develop urea-functionalised agrochemicals and pharmaceutical drugs in a more efficient, greener way.
This initial proof of concept is exciting, but there are challenges to overcome for commercialisation. Evidently, the cost is important, and since the catalyst is much more expensive than reactants, such as amines and methanol, the cost is directly linked to the catalyst’s activity; a homogeneous catalyst that is non-recyclable and offers a turnover number of 100-200 makes the process expensive.
We are now focusing our efforts on enhancing the efficiency of the catalyst to increase cost-effectiveness, which will also allow us to make commercially important urea-functionalised pharmaceutical drugs and agrochemicals with greater efficiency and reduced impact on the environment, human health, and economy.
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.
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 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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.