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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.

SCI Blog - 24 June 2022 - image of close up of damaged cabbage leaf

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

SCI Blog - 22 June 2022 - image of small green leaf growing out of soil

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.

SCI Blog - 15 June 2022 - image of bright pink flowers

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.

SCI Blog - 15 June 2022 - image of chemical structure of betanin

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.

Sustainability & Environment

Re-using waste materials and converting them into chemicals will help us create a closed-loop system. Ahead of the SCI Engineering Biology symposium on 23 May, Martin Hayes, Biotechnology Lead at Johnson Matthey, spoke about some exciting approaches and the challenges involved in making the low-carbon transition.

The journey to Net Zero is well underway, with a number of countries already committed to Net Zero by 2050. To achieve this ambitious goal, companies and governments must take a new approach to waste, shifting from linear processing to a circular model.

This involves recycling and reusing products to create a closed-loop system that uses fewer resources and reduces waste, pollution and carbon emissions. As we journey towards Net Zero, these ‘circularity’ principles are increasingly embedded in the research and design of products.

Re-using waste from chemical processes

As a leader in sustainable technologies, Johnson Matthey (JM) is striving to help the chemical industry transition. Martin Hayes, Biotechnology Lead, explains: ‘More and more companies are starting to move away from linear chemical processes to circular ones, which is definitely a step in the right direction.

‘They’re looking at how the waste from chemical processes may be the source for biological processes. Biological entities such as enzymes or organisms can even recover precious metals from waste streams, maximising value while reducing waste.’

>> How are young chemists tackling climate change? Read more in our COP26 review.

In other cases, gas fermentation can upgrade waste products, particularly carbon dioxide and hydrogen, and convert them into chemicals. Hayes explains: ‘In this instance JM joins biology and chemistry to get the desired end product without affecting the customer experience, but making the process much cleaner.’

SCIblog - 3 May 2022 - Engineering biology for low-carbon chemistry - image of pomegranates that have gone bad

Fermented food waste could be converted into chemical building blocks.

Food waste is another contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. A circular approach may consider fermenting food waste to convert it into useful chemical building blocks. ‘What is valuable about this is that these chemicals are not produced from virgin fossil material,’ he adds.

Collaboration and feedstock issues

To realise the potential in these technologies and new businesses, it’s important to take a collaborative approach and for multi-disciplinary teams to work together. Hayes continues: ‘We know that getting the biology to the end product requires engineers, chemists, microbiologists, and biochemists – different scientists working together with commercial expertise to make a product that is sustainable, has a low environmental footprint, and is still profitable.

‘We work collaboratively in partnership because we recognise we need to develop these solutions in ways that reflect the needs of each client and the broader society.’

But the scale of the issue shouldn’t be underestimated. On the one hand, those biological entities will require engineering to become efficient catalysts, working selectively with less-than-ideal feedstocks under demanding reaction conditions. On the other hand, scaling up and optimising processes such as fermentation can be resource intensive and involve large volumes.#

SCIblog - 3 May 2022 - Engineering biology for low-carbon chemistry - image of Johnson Matthey logo

Johnson Matthey will be Platinum sponsors for the upcoming Engineering Biology symposium | Editorial image credit: Casimiro PT / Shutterstock

This type of catalyst customisation and process intensification calls for a multi-disciplinary team: bioinformaticians, molecular biologists, chemists and chemical engineers working together.

While the UK leads in renewable technologies, it is also important to think in terms of connected systems rather than isolated applications of technology. That broader perspective in a circular system will get us towards Net Zero and is embodied by the SCI’s symposium on Engineering Biology with which JM is proud to be associated as a (fittingly) Platinum sponsor. This is a topic which is entirely consistent with, and supportive of, JM’s vision of a cleaner, healthier world.

>> Sign up here for SCI's Engineering Biology – applications for chemistry-using business on 23 May.

>> How do we move to non-fossil fuel feedstocks? Here’s our report on the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee Discussion Meeting on 28 March.

Sustainability & Environment

By rethinking the way our products are designed and changing the way we use plastics, we can tackle the blight of marine litter and the general accumulation of plastic waste. But, as Professor Richard Thompson said in our latest SCItalk, systemic issues and historical excesses have made this no easy task.

Contrary to popular perception, plastic is not the villain. When it comes to marine littering, we are the ogres, with our single-use bottles bobbing in the oceans and the detritus of our everyday lives littering the coastline.

We are the reason why 700 species are known to encounter plastic debris in the environment. It is because of us that plastics have beaten us to the bottom of the deepest oceans and glint in the sun near the summit of Mt. Everest.

According to Richard Thompson, of the Marine Institute School of Biological and Marine Sciences at the University of Plymouth: ‘Plastic debris is everywhere. Its quantity in the ocean is likely to triple between 2015 and 2025.’

As Professor Thompson pointed out all of these facts to his audience in our latest SCItalk on 23 March, he outlined potential solutions. However, there is no ignoring the depth of the issues at hand when it comes to the litter in our seas.


The problems

1 - The weight of history

Society has gradually woken up to the menace of discarded plastics and, laterally, to the threat of microplastics and nanoplastics. The problem is that we left the barn door open decades ago. So, all of those plastic microbeads from shower gels, fibres from clothing, and tyre wear particles polluted our seas for many years before it came to public and scientific attention.

Professor Thompson said that 300 papers were published globally on microplastics in the last academic year alone, but research in the area was relatively thin on the ground before Thompson and his colleagues released their pioneering study on microplastics in Science in 2004.

2 - Bad habits

‘The business model for the use of plastics hasn’t really changed since the 1950s,’ Professor Thompson said. According to him, we have had 60 years of behavioural training to just throw products away, and our waterways reflect this attitude.

According to Professor Thompson, 50% of shoreline litter items recorded during the 2010s originated from single-use applications. Without a sea change in our attitude towards single-use items, this problem will persist.

>> Why are we ignoring climate change and what can we do about it? Read more on our blog post.

SCIblog - 21 April 2022 - Marine Litter - image of nanoplastics found on a beach

Microplastics have been subject to great scrutiny, but much of the research is quite recent.
3 - We need to talk about nanoplastics

The problems with larger plastics and even microplastics are now well documented. The worrying thing, according to Thompson, is that there are knowledge gaps when it comes to nanoplastics in the natural environment. What are the effects of nanoplastic ingestion? What are the effects of human health? Time will tell, but Thompson was keen to ask if we really need that information before we take action.

He was more sanguine about the effects of microplastics. ‘The concentration of microplastics is probably not yet causing widespread ecological harm,’ he said, ‘but if we don’t take measures, we’ll pass into widespread ecological harm within the next 50-100 years.’


The solutions

It seems counterintuitive to think of petrochemical plastics as a sustainable solution; and yet, despite the environmental problems posed by their durability, they do have a role to play in a greener approach.

‘If used responsibly, plastics can reduce our footprint on the planet,’ Thompson noted. Indeed, the lightweight plastic parts in our cars and in aviation can actually help reduce carbon emissions. But despite their merits, how do we keep plastic litter from our seas?

1 - Design for end of life… and a new one

To illustrate a flaw in the way we design plastic products, Professor Thompson gave the example of an orange coloured drinks bottle. While the bright colour may help sell juice drinks, there is an issue with recycling these coloured plastics because their value as a recyclate is lower. Clear plastics, on the other hand, are much more viable to recycle.

He argues that many products aren’t being designed with the whole lifecycle in mind. ‘We’re still failing to get to grips with linking design to end of life,’ he said, before highlighting the importance of communicating how products should be disposed of right from the design stage.

Basically, our products should be designed with end of life in mind. ‘If we haven’t even designed a plastic bottle properly,’ he lamented, ‘what hope do we have with something that’s more complicated?’

SCIblog - 21 April 2022 - Marine Litter - image of colourful plastic bottles

Those brightly coloured plastic bottles look nice and fancy, but they can be challenging to recycle in a circular economy.
2 - Ever recycle? Ever fail? Recycle again. Recycle better

Professor Thompson argued that better practices are needed to help divert materials away from our seas (and it should be noted that there are other types of discarded materials to be found there). If we recycle greater quantities of end of life plastic products and bring them into a circular economy, he said, ‘we’d decouple ourselves from oil and gas as the carbon source for new production because the carbon source we use would be the plastic waste’.

He said more could also be done with labelling so that customers know whether, for example, a product is compostable and which waste stream it needs to be placed in to achieve that. He also noted that addressing our single-use culture would be a good place to start if we want to change the business model of linear use.

3 - Broaden the discussion and pull those policy levers

The good news is that there is an appetite for change. ‘Ten years or so ago there was no consensus that there was a problem,’ Thompson noted. ‘I would argue that this has changed.’ However, he also feels that it is essential to gather reliable, independent evidence to inform interventions, rather than espousing solutions that could make things worse.

‘We need to gather that evidence from different disciplines,’ he said. ‘We need to have at the table product designers and couple them with the waste managers. We need to have economists at the table. We also need to bring in social scientists to look at behaviour. We’ve got to think about this in the round.’

He also felt that policy measures – such as mandating recycled content – could be a good option, along with better design and disposal.

The tools we need to tackle plastic pollution are already at our disposal. We just need to act more responsibly – which, unfortunately, has been part of the problem all along.

As Professor Thompson said: ‘It’s not the plastics per se that are the problem – it’s the way we’ve chosen to use them.’

>> For more interesting SCI talks like Professor Thompson’s, check out our YouTube channel.

>> Find out more about the work of Professor Thompson and his colleagues here: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/marine-litter.

Agrifood

There was a happening in York recently – a Hemp Happening – organised by SCI’s Agrisciences Group and Biovale. It took place at York’s STEM Centre and explored the issues around growing and using industrial hemp. Despite these issues, there is a growing demand for hemp fibre and shiv as we look to use sustainable natural fibres and move to a low-carbon economy.

In 10 years’ time, you’ll walk out of your hemp-insulated home, wearing your hemp fibre t-shirt, polishing off the last of your hemp and beet burger, before heading to work in your hemp seed oil-powered car.

Is this scenario fantastical? Yes, obviously, but as delegates attending Hemp Happening explained on 6 April, all of these products exist right now. The sheer breadth of them underlines what a useful and versatile material hemp is. If enabled through policy, hemp could play a big part in our low-carbon future. Here are five ways it could make a significant difference.


1. Carbon sequestration

Hemp has much-vaunted carbon-sequestering potential which, given our climate change travails, could prove extremely useful. Some experts say it is even better at capturing atmospheric carbon than trees. According to SAC Consulting, industrial hemp absorbs nine to 13 tonnes of CO2 per hectare. To put hemp’s absorption capacity into context, hemp market specialists Unyte Hemp said it absorbs 25 times more CO2 than a forest of the same size.

Of course, that’s all very well, but how do you make sure this carbon remains sequestered?


2. A future heavyweight champion?

One fitting home for hemp (and the carbon it has captured) is in construction, especially given the carbon-intensive nature of the industry. So, with the pressure intensifying to replace and retrofit the UK’s inefficient building stock, hemp is well placed to reduce emissions and improve building performance.

Hemp is not just used in insulation materials due to its excellent thermal performance characteristics. It is also used in rendering buildings and for non-load bearing blocks in construction. Indeed, hempcrete blocks, which are made from hemp shiv, lime, and sand or pozzolans, have a net carbon negative footprint.

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Hemp is used in everything from food supplements to medicines, cosmetics, and construction products.

3. Farmer’s friend

Hemp also helps the earth. As flash flooding strips our soils, the plant’s root density and deep structure protects against soil erosion and mitigates compaction. Hemp also provides nutrients to help maintain soil health, making it useful in crop rotation.

As insect populations dwindle, the role of pesticides and herbicides are coming into sharper relief. In that respect, hemp has a natural advantage over other crops as it doesn’t require pesticides and fertilisers.


4.The Swiss Army knife of materials

We have long heard of the health benefits of hemp-derived products such as cannabidiol oil (or CBD oil), but pretty much the whole plant can be used. Its seeds are rich in omega-3, omega-6, and fatty acids, and help fend heart problems.

As mentioned above, the fibrous part of the plant sequesters carbon and produces low-carbon materials for construction, while its roots are used to treat joint pain and for deep tissue healing.

And then we have hemp for bioethanol production and even hemp seed veggie burgers. The list goes on; so, there are many ways for farmers to make money from it.

>> What can be done to make our soils healthier? Take a look at our blog on solving soil degradation.

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Hemp has excellent insulation properties.

5. Non-thirsty textiles

I bet you know at least one person with a bamboo t-shirt or socks. Hemp has similar textile potential to its super material cousin. As the fashion industry interrogates its wayward past, the pressure will increase to lighten the footprint of clothing materials. Estimates vary, but hemp is said to need less than half the water required to cultivate and process than cotton textiles and its toughness is handy in long-lasting carpeting.

Mr Elephant, could you step through please?

Hemp has been heralded as a wonder material for decades but there is that elephant in the room. The restricted uses of hemp-related materials curb the extent to which it can be grown in the UK. At the event, delegates noted that outdated legislation, lack of government support, and education are among the factors holding back the growth of hemp on an industrial scale.

And yet, there is growing demand for natural materials that tackle climate change, especially those that sequester carbon. With pension funds increasingly divesting from fossil fuels, and the ever growing importance of corporate sustainability in business, sustainable materials such as hemp are now more attractive.

Arguably the most exciting contribution of the day was the mention of zero-cannabinoid industrial hemp. Even though the THC content levels present in hemp are low (compared to the high levels found in marijuana) and it’s unattractive as a THC source, hemp is still very strictly regulated in the UK compared to North America and the rest of the EU.

One participant mentioned that hemp genes could be edited to remove the cannabinoid – and, if that were to be achieved, it could change everything. Then we would really see hemp happening in the UK.

>> Interested in more events like this one? Visit our Events pages.

Careers

Interested in a career in chemistry publishing? Then see how Bryden Le Bailly, Senior Editor at Nature, navigated the path from academia to science communication.

Tell us about your career path to date.
I am a Senior Editor at Nature magazine, overseeing what we publish at the chemistry/biology interface. I completed a MSci in Chemistry at the University of Bristol, followed by a PhD in Organic Chemistry at the University of Manchester in which I looked at signalling with synthetic systems in membranes. I was always interested in education generally, and a great teacher of mine told me Chemistry would have enough to keep me engaged. She wasn’t wrong.

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Bryden Le Bailly, Senior Editor at Nature magazine

A short post-doctoral position let me carry on research for a year, but I became more certain that a career in academia wasn’t for me. I enjoyed the idea of research more than its realities, and academia didn’t really work with other life choices I wanted to make. Editorial work suits this balance far better while staying close to the science.

Coupled with my interest in science communication, it looked like a good fit. To read and discuss exciting, cutting-edge research didn’t seem too bad a way to make a living. I looked into editorial jobs and, after discussions with a former editor in the Bristol Chemistry department, I started applying for positions at Nature journals. A locum position at Nature Nanotechnology led to me applying for the permanent position at Nature, where I’ve been for a little over five years.

What is a typical day like in your job?
The core of the job is deciding which submissions to review and publish. So, I read, a lot. The areas I cover comprise how molecules are made and how they can be used to interrogate biology or as therapeutic leads, as well as biochemistry, membrane protein biology, and a few other bits and pieces.

If that sounds like a wide range of topics, it is! It’s the same for all Nature editors. This keeps the job varied and interesting. The rest of the job stems from the papers I handle: overseeing peer review, taking decisions post-review, and what reviewer requests need addressing before we can proceed.

This all involves discussions with my fellow editors. In addition, I speak to Principal Investigators (PIs) and other lab members about work coming out of their labs that might be suitable for Nature.

After we decide we’ll publish something, I look for other ways we can promote the work. I pitch papers we are publishing for associated coverage in News & Views, features, or to go on the magazine cover.

Finally, Nature editors commission reviews and perspectives on topics we think are important and timely, and we discuss with our magazine editors news or topics that we believe should be covered journalistically.

Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?
Travelling for the job has to be one of its best perks. I manage to take around five to six trips a year, locally and internationally, to conferences and labs. Discussing brand new science one-on-one with the foremost experts in that field is a massive privilege.

However, I also enjoy supporting early-career researchers to publish in Nature and guiding them through our selection process and expectations. A longer-term way I have looked to support early career researchers (ECRs) is by delivering writing and publishing Masterclasses.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
Saying no to about 90% of what gets sent to my desk at Nature, despite it being (mostly) great science.

>> Excited about a career in next generation drug development? Read how Rachel Ellis became involved in Rachel's Careers for Chemistry blog.

How do you use the skills you obtained during your PhD/Postdoc in your job?
A good knowledge of organic chemistry and chemical biology is very helpful, not only for assessing manuscripts but also to advise on standards for Nature and the rest of the Nature portfolio. I am glad I chose research projects that required me to learn a range of techniques and delve into lots of different areas. Some of the more tangentially related areas to my studies are core responsibilities for me in my job now.

Which other skills are required in the work you do?
An interest in a breadth of science and willingness to learn are key. You will be exposed to areas you had previously never appreciated or knew existed in this job, and it is important to understand every submission from all its angles, and quickly.

This involves effective communication with other editors. Communication and learning skills also come into play when you’re out and about, where you might discuss 15 different subjects over a poster session at the end of a long day, or during a visit to an institute. Finally, editors need a good eye for detail.

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Bryden has used his background in organic chemistry to forge a career in publishing.

Is there any advice you would give to others interested in pursuing a similar career path?
Firstly, the pace of the job and its expectations are very different from research. Looking at a manuscript from a scientific and editorial standpoint are two very different things. Consider if you have a critical eye when reviewing papers for a journal or reading the literature.

If you can explain to your colleagues or friends why a piece of research is exciting or ground-breaking, this is a good starting point. However, my principal advice would be to talk to editors.

We go to conferences and are happy to discuss the job in more detail. When I first applied for editorial roles, it was helpful to discuss the position with a former editor. When I didn’t get the jobs I applied for, one of the interviewers called me to explain and encourage me in the right direction. This experience was invaluable in getting me to where I am today.

>> Suze Kundu went from academia to presenting TV shows on the Discovery Channel. Trace her storied career path in Suze's Women in Chem blog.

Agrifood

Crop rotation, seaweed extracts, lime, and a range of organic materials can all improve soil health and crop yields. Professor Geoff Dixon shows you several ways to improve your soil.

Rapidly rising costs of living are affecting all aspects of life. Increasing costs of fertilisers are affecting food production, both commercially and in gardens and allotments.

Wholesale prices of fertilisers have jumped four-fold from £250 to £1,000 per tonne within six months. All forms of garden fertilisers are now much more expensive. Crops, especially vegetables, only thrive if provided with adequate nutrition (see nitrogen-deficient lettuce below). Consequently, fertiliser use must become more efficient.

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Nitrogen deficiency in lettuce.

Healthy, fertile soils achieved through good management are key to this process. That ensures roots can take up the nutrients needed in quantities that result in balanced, healthy growth.

Soil pH is a major regulator of nutrient availability for roots. Between pH 6.5 to 7.5, the macro nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are fully available for root uptake. Below and above these values, nutrient absorption becomes less efficient.

>> How much soil cultivation do you need for your vegetables? Find out more in Prof Dixon's blog on cultivation.

As a result, soluble nutrients are wasted and washed by rainfall below the root zones. Acidic soils can be improved by liming in the autumn. Sources of lime derived from crushed limestone require up to six months to cause changes in soil pH values. Lime should be used in ornamental gardens with caution as it can result in micronutrient deficiencies.

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Iron deficiency in wisteria.

Soil health and fertility are greatly increased by adding organic materials such as farmyard manure and well-made composts. Increasing soil carbon content helps mitigate climate change while raising fertiliser use efficiencies.

Beneficial soil biological life such as earthworms, insects, benign bacteria and fungi are greatly encouraged when you increase soil humus content. Using crop rotations, which include legumes, raises natural levels of soil nitrogen. This is a result of legumes’ symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Leafy vegetables such as brassicas require large amounts of nitrogen and, hence, should follow legumes in a rotation. Avoiding soil compaction encourages adequate aeration, benefiting root respiration and providing oxygen for other organisms.

Organic materials are of great value in ornamental gardens when applied as top dressings in late autumn or early spring. This provides two benefits: a slow release of nutrients into the root zones as decomposition occurs, and prevention of weed growth.

Inorganic fertiliser use can be further minimised by using proprietary seaweed extracts. These contain macro- and micro-nutrients plus several natural biostimulant compounds that aid healthy ornamental plant growth and flowering (illustration no 3 rose Frűhlingsgold).

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Rose frűhlingsgold

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

Careers

In the first of our new Careers for Chemistry Postdocs series, Rachel Ellis, Senior Client Proposal Coordinator at drug development company Quotient Sciences, speaks about putting her chemistry skills to the test in a new setting and integrating scientific knowledge with people skills.

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Rachel Ellis, Senior Client Proposal Coordinator at Quotient Sciences

Tell us about your career path to date
In my current role as a Senior Client Proposal Coordinator, my primary responsibility is to support the Business Development team by collating technical information from the different business units at Quotient Sciences to prepare proposals that meet the prospective clients’ needs, spanning multiple disciplines of drug development.

I work with subject matter experts in Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API) synthesis and scale-up, carbon-14 isotope labelling, formulation development, analytical services and drug product manufacturing to generate complex written proposals for clients looking to accelerate their drug development programmes.

I started my career in chemistry with a Master’s degree from The University of York, which encompassed a year-long industrial placement with a speciality chemicals company in the Netherlands. This was a fantastic opportunity to put my chemistry skills to the test for the first time in an industrial setting and informed my decision to explore a career in chemistry outside of academia.

Following completion of my degree, I started working life as a Research Chemist within a global contract research organisation (CRO). The position was a perfect fit for my interests at the time; it was organic synthesis-focused, within the pharmaceutical sector and involved face-to-face interaction with clients.

After 18 months in the role, I identified my strengths in communication and relationship building so took the decision to pursue a career outside of the laboratory, moving into scientific recruitment where I could apply my scientific knowledge and soft skills in equal measure. I spent four years in scientific recruitment where I developed an array of new skills including networking, negotiating, influencing, account management, people management and performance evaluation.

Following a busy four years, I decided to take some personal time to focus on priorities outside of my career and embarked on a twelve-month career break. This was a fantastic opportunity to reassess my skills, interests and objectives, which ultimately brought me into my current role in proposal development. The position perfectly integrates my scientific knowledge and people skills and offers opportunities for continuous development in a dynamic sector.

What is a typical day like in your job?
A typical day as a Proposal Coordinator involves the evaluation of proposal requests from clients, technical discussions with subject matter experts to define project requirements, the preparation of comprehensive proposals including technical writing, pricing assessments and resource planning and any additional client engagement activities to support the proposal award.

Typically, I would lead the preparation of several proposals at any one given time which may include one or more drug development services.

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Rachel Ellis seeks to help deliver life-changing medicines in her current role.

Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?
I particularly enjoy engaging with new clients to discuss how we can support them to accelerate the delivery of life-changing medicines to the market with greater speed and efficiency. I also enjoy the diversity of tasks involved in my role (scientific discussions, technical writing, pricing activities and project planning) and the balance between working independently and collaboratively as a team.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
As my role involves supporting multiple proposals at any one given time, time management and prioritisation can be challenging to ensure both internal and external deadlines are met. Organisational skills and open communication are key to ensuring projects are delivered on time and client engagement is maintained.

>> Interested in joining SCI’s Young Chemists’ Panel? Find out more on the Young Chemists Panel's webpage.

How do you use the skills you obtained during your degree in your job?
The breadth of scientific knowledge gained from my degree has provided a robust foundation for my current role and enables my participation in technical discussions across multiple scientific disciplines. Report writing, time management and attention to detail are also key skills that I now apply on a day-to-day basis.

Which other skills are required in the work you do?
My current role requires collaboration between many individuals (both internally and externally) across a multitude of disciplines, including technical experts, project managers, business development teams and financial teams.

Strong interpersonal skills are key to ensuring all parties are engaged and aligned in decision making processes. Effective communication skills are also the foundation for a career within any client-facing environment.

Is there any advice you would give to others interested in pursuing a similar career path?
In general, I would strongly advise investing time to evaluate the variety of roles available within the science sector. Don’t be afraid to explore opportunities outside of the norm. Over the course of my career to date, my eyes have been opened to the breadth of roles available within science that are not necessarily laboratory-based, such as regulatory affairs, quality assurance, medical communications and commercial positions.

I would also advise regular self-evaluation to assess your strengths and areas of interest at any given time to assist in the building of a personalised career development plan. This will help to focus your attention on opportunities to develop the skills you need and seek out exposure to relevant activities either within your current organisation (i.e. attending client calls/visits or developing interpersonal skills through participation in cross-departmental activities) or through voluntary work and networking.

>> Interested in a career in science communication? Read Suze Kundu’s inspiring story.

Health & Wellbeing

We caught a tantalising glimpse of the next generation wearable technology at this year’s Bright SCIdea challenge final.

When we look at our FitBits or Apple Watches, we wonder what they could possibly monitor next. We know the fluctuations of our heartbeat, how a few glasses of wine affect our quality of sleep, and the calories burnt during that run in the park. But what’s next?

If the amazing wearable devices pitched by just three of our Bright SCIdea finalists are anything to go by, then we can look forward to not just next generation health monitoring but possible in-situ treatment too.

Measuring stress and managing diabetes

In recent times, medics have learnt far more about stress and its effect on our health. Indeed, stress was the focus of Happy BioPatch (from Oxford University and Manchester University) technology. The second place team has incorporated an IP-protected enzyme within a patch that measures your stress levels (by detecting the levels of cortisol in your sweat) throughout the day.

This information migrates from body to phone and notifies you if your stress levels are too high. One of many exciting aspects of this technology is that it could be used by physicians to check if patients need treatment for depression and prevent the serious consequences of stress. As one of the judges said, ‘I like it because it’s preventative.’

From mental health to physical health, two of the other finalists use wearable devices to address maladies in in-situ. BioTech Inov, from the University of Coimbra in Portugal, has developed plans for a subcutaneous biomedical device that tracks the blood sugar levels in diabetes patients. This technology would enable the wearer to track their blood sugar levels and let them know if trouble is lurking.

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The latest smart watches track your body temperature, sleep quality, and can even detect electrodermal activity on your skin to gauge stress levels. | Editorial image credit: Kanut Photo / Shutterstock
Releasing heat and magnetic fields

Another intriguing development was the in-device treatment developed by the Hatton Cross team (comprising students from the University of Warwick, Imperial College London and Queen Mary University of London). The team is developing wearable technology that can detect wrist pain from sport, or the types of repetitive stress injuries arising from typing or writing too much.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the technology is the potential for in-device treatment. On the preventative side, the device could use vibration to alert users that their wrists are under strain. They also mentioned using heat from the device, or the release of a 0.05 Tesla magnetic field, to relax the muscles.

Another really insightful comment on the technology came from one of the judges. Dr Sarah Skerratt suggested that this type of technology - which is subtly attuned to the movements of the hand and wrist - could theoretically be used in the early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease. That is not to say there aren’t regulatory issues with developing wearable technologies for medical purposes, as the judges pointed out, but the potential of such devices is huge.

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Wearable devices could be used to help diabetes sufferers, such as this Insulin Management System used by those with type 1 diabetes. | Editorial image credit: Maria Wan / Shutterstock

The staggering thing is that the technologies pitched by the Bright SCIdea finalists are just three of the myriad innovations being developed around the world at the moment.

Thirty years ago, few of us could have imagined that we would have a personal computer, music system, TV, watch, video, phone, camera, and games console all encapsulated within a single box that fits in our pockets. In 30 years’ time, we will scarcely be able to believe the health capabilities of the devices worn on our wrists and bodies.

Perhaps you will have heard of them first during the Bright SCIdea challenge?

Careers

What makes the Canada Awards so special, and which attributes do the winners share? We asked Bob Masterson, chair of SCI Canada’s Nominations Committee.

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Bob Masterson, Chair, SCI Canada Nominations Committee

Why are the Canada Awards special to you?

The chemistry industry in Canada is an important industry – Canada’s third largest manufacturing sector with shipments of more than $80 billion (£48m approx.) a year. Behind that economic impact, however, are people. And, among those people are leaders.

The SCI Canada awards identifies both the lifetime leaders, as well as emerging student leaders in the business of chemistry. This serves to celebrate the achievements and inspire others in their pursuit of innovative chemistries.

What is so unique about the Canada Medal and what attributes have the previous winners had? Similarly, is there anything that binds the winners of these other prestigious awards?

The Canada Medal is unique in part due to its prosperity. It has been awarded since 1939. Looking at past Medal winners in aggregate, one can associate these individuals with being builders. Many individuals do good work in safely and efficiently operating their facilities. The Medal winners, however, are the builders.

They have attracted and deployed significant capital to build out the chemistry industry to ensure future prosperity for all Canadians. This is no small task in an industry dominated by global multinationals and very few truly domestic companies in Canada.

>> Find out more about the group and their awards on our SCI Canada Group page.

Would you mind explaining how the nominations committee comes to a decision on the award winners?

The Committee is made up of individuals with strong connections to industry and academia. They use their own experiences and solicit input from colleagues and other organisations to develop a list of potential candidates.

Committee members wishing to propose a candidate must prepare a short testimonial of why they have identified the candidate. The committee considers those testimonials while also looking for balance and diversity across industry and academia, Canada’s many regions, different types of chemistry, as well as representation across Canada’s highly diverse population.

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The Canada Awards celebrate the best in Canadian chemistry.

Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to in the pre-awards seminar?

The seminar gives us an opportunity to step back and reflect on the role and opportunity of chemistry as Canada transitions to be more sustainable. I look forward to hearing experts and people’s views on the important question of how we get there and what chemistry can contribute.

Why will it be so important to stage the awards in person this year (if possible)?

This year looks to be a special year. It will have been four years since SCI Canada last held an in-person Awards program. We all need some real time with real people. It’s long overdue and, for many, will be the first in-person event of any kind in over two years. I am sure there will be a lot of emotions.

The SCI Canada Awards 2022 will be held on 5 May 2022, in Toronto. Register your attendance on our event page.

>> Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can read more of his work here.

Science & Innovation

From learning what appeals to investors and increasing the public’s awareness of your products, there are huge benefits to be gained from winning competitions such as Bright SCIdea. So, how can you benefit from entering and what’s in store from this year’s shortlisted teams?

There was a fine article recently in Nature that crystallised the many benefits of entering science competitions, which extend far beyond the coveted prize money.

Winning the competition can take your product from obscurity into the eyes and minds of the public. Importantly, winning immediately gives your innovation credibility as your product (and your vision for it) will inevitably have been vetted by a team of expert judges.

You will also gain valuable publicity. Not only will the organisers promote these innovations, the new-found exposure will increase traffic to your own website and social channels.

Another really important facet of these competitions is that they help develop business sense in line with scientific innovation. In the aforementioned Nature piece, Ulrich Betz, Vice-president of Innovation at Merck, said: ‘Joining competitions can be a useful way for researcher-entrepreneurs to learn what appeals to investors and companies — training that many academic researchers lack… Participants have told me they’ve become more confident working in science and business after taking part.’

Indeed, this tallies with the experiences of last year’s BrightSCIdea winners, Metallogen. The team developed a novel nanoparticle spray that assists the natural process of phytoremediation to extract rare metals from mining. These metals can be sold on the market while decontaminating land next to mining sites at the same time.

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Last year’s Bright SCIdea winners used a novel approach to boost metal recovery on old mining sites and decontaminate the land.

However, having an ingenious idea is one thing. Bringing it to market is another. And this is where the training for all the shortlisted teams helped. Metallogen’s John O’Sullivan and Rafael Hunt-Stokes said: ‘The competition has also taught us how to carry out market research and put together a cogent business plan, with the pitching training giving us the ability to convey our business idea in a compelling manner to investors and other stakeholders.’

>> Inspired by Metallogen’s success at Bright SCIdea? Read more about them in our news article.

This year’s Bright SCIdeas

So, from network building to training and advice on key areas such as intellectual property, these competitions can sharpen your innovations and bring them to that all-important next stage. That’s exactly what the shortlisted teams for this year’s BrightSCIdea plan to do.

This year’s entrants have certainly taken it upon themselves to tackle some of society’s grandest challenges. The Eolic Wall team, hailing all the way from the National University of Engineering in Peru and Universidade Estadual Paulista in Brazil, has created a wind energy system to help in our low-carbon energy transition. The Unmasked team (from the University of Durham) is also seeking to address the UK energy crisis while tackling waste by producing insulation materials from disposable face masks.

In health, the BioTech Inov (University of Coimbra, Portugal) team has entered a ‘highly efficient and versatile nanotechnological subcutaneous biomedical device with a high lifespan’, and the Hatton Cross team (from University of Warwick, QMUL, and Imperial College, London) has also submitted a wearable device that aims to enhance the wearer’s quality of life.

In an effort to address mental wellbeing, the Happy BioPatch team (from Oxford University and Manchester University) has created ‘a wearable gadget which continuously monitors cortisol levels aiming to prevent serious consequences as a result of stress’. Finally, the CardiaTec team (from the University of Cambridge) is specialising in tackling cardiovascular disease.

There’s so much to be gained from being part of competitions such as BrightSCIdea. We can’t wait to hear from the leaders of tomorrow.

Who knows? Maybe this will be the first you hear from a future Nobel prize winner?

>> Keep an eye out on Twitter for all of the wonderful innovations in this year’s BrightSCIdea competition at: @SCIupdate.

Agrifood

How do flowers use fragrance to attract pollinators, and how do pollution and climate change hamper pollination? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.

‘Fragrance is the music of flowers’, said Eleanour Sophy Sinclair Rohde, an eminent mid 20th century horticulturist. But they are much more than that. Scents have fundamental biological purposes. Evolution has refined them as means for attracting pollinators and perpetuating the particular plant species emitting these scents.

There are complex biological networks connecting the scent producers and attracted pollinators within the prevailing environment. Plants flowering early in the year are generalist attractors. By late spring and early summer, scents attract more specialist pollinators as shown by studies of alpines growing in the USA Rocky Mountains. This is because there is a bigger diversity of pollinator activity as seasons advance. Scents are mixtures of volatile organic compounds with a prevalence of monoterpenes.

Environmental factors will affect scent emission. Natural drought, for example, changes flower development and reduces the volumes and intensity of scent production. The effectiveness of pollinating insects, such as bees, moths, hoverflies and butterflies is reduced by aerial pollution.

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Pheasant’s eye daffodils (Narcissus recurvus).

Studies showed there were 70% fewer pollinators in fields affected by diesel fumes, resulting in lower seed production. Pollinating insects do not find the flowers because nitrogenous oxides and ozone change the composition of scent molecules.

Extensive studies of changes in flowering dates show that climate change can severely damage scent–pollinator ecologies. Over the past 30 years, blooming of spring flowers has advanced by at least four weeks. Earlier flowering disrupts the evolved natural synchrony between scent emitters and insect activity and their breeding cycles. In turn that breaks the reproductive cycles of early flowering wild herbs, shrubs and trees, eventually leading to their extinction.

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The lilac bush, known for its evocative scent.

Heaven scent

Scents provide powerful mental and physical benefits for humankind. Pleasures are particularly valuable for those with disabilities especially those with impaired vision. Even modest gardens can provide scented pleasures.

Bulbs such as Pheasant’s eye daffodils (Narcissus recurvus) (illustration no 1), which flower in mid to late-spring, and lilacs (illustration no 2) are very rewarding scent sources.

Sweetly perfumed annuals such as mignonette, night-scented stocks, candytuft and sweet peas (illustration no 3) are easily grown from garden centre modules, providing pleasures until the first frosts.

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Sweet peas are easily grown from garden centre modules.

Roses are, of course, the doyenne of garden scents. Currently, Harlow Carr’s scented garden, near Harrogate, highlights the cultivars Gertrude Jekyll, Lady Emma Hamilton and Saint Cecilia as particularly effective sources of perfume. For larger gardens, lime or linden trees (Tilia spp) form profuse greenish-white blossoms in mid-season, laden with scents that bees adore.

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

Careers

Suze Kundu’s career has taken her from nanochemistry to science communication and even to presenting TV shows on the Discovery Channel. So, how did she go from academic to Head of Public Engagement at Digital Science, and what advice does she have for those looking to follow in her footsteps?

You’ve had a really varied career path. How did you get to where you are today?

Varied indeed! I categorise my career into two strands – doing science, and communicating science. And I’ve done both alongside one another for over a decade now. The former UK Chief Science Officer, Professor Sir Mark Wolport, once said that science isn’t finished until it is communicated. This is something that my alma mater, UCL (University College London) not only believes, but also supports.

Given that research is largely publicly funded, researchers owe it to the public to communicate progress and outputs. By creating opportunities for dialogue, this communication becomes a two-way process, which also benefits researchers who can conduct better-informed research that will help more of society.

As such, I was trained in being both a researcher as well as a public engagement practitioner during my undergraduate degree and during my PhD. I’ve been really lucky to have been able to keep both strands of my career running either concurrently or in combined roles. When I was an academic, I would do research, teaching and public engagement as part of my varied day job, and I also kept up with my science writing and TV presenting in my spare time. I now work at Digital Science, which is a research technology company that creates mostly software solutions for different aspects of the research cycle to help it be the best it can be.

At Digital Science, I headed up Engagement for three years, before recently moving on to a role that combines my engagement skills with my chemistry knowledge and my unashamed fangirling over our flagship platform, Dimensions, to support our newest addition to the family: Dimensions Life Science and Chemistry.

All of our software solutions are created with the research community in mind, and are often developed and refined in collaboration with actual users, so we know that our tools can help people overcome research challenges.

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

Thanks to my parents, my school and my university, I grew up fairly sheltered from a range of ‘-isms’ that may have resulted in my being put off a career in science. Being a woman, a woman of colour, and a woman who perhaps doesn’t conform to outdated stereotypes of what ‘scientists’ are like are all things I learnt can be hurdles to overcome in my career.

In many ways, I was glad that I had no idea that academia, for example, was such a challenging environment for underrepresented people, as I am not sure I would have pursued a career in it if I had known. Women in academia are often assigned teaching that covers the basics, and are frequently given tasks that require so-called ‘softer’ skills such as outreach, engagement and the admissions process. In a world where women have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition, this can often lead to burnout.

I did two things to overcome these challenges once I had identified them; firstly, I had some great allies that came to my aid. They helped me objectively highlight the inconsistencies in workload and expectations, and they were always on hand to offer advice to help me overcome hurdles. Secondly, I chose to leave academia for industry. I now work in an organisation where all the diverse facets that make up an individual are respected and welcomed.

My advice would be that, if you think a science career isn’t for you, you may not have found ‘your people’ yet. I assure you, though, that scientific careers are so much broader than just academia and traditional industry roles. Keep looking and use your networks to find your type of organisation, as I can guarantee that they’re out there somewhere.

Women in Chem - Suze Kundu

Suze Kundu

You’re very skilled at communicating complicated topics to non-specialist audiences. How do you do it?

I was lucky enough to attend UCL for my undergraduate and PhD. UCL has a long history of engagement with a range of communities. It is thanks to opportunities I had during my degrees there that I started to really hone my communication skills.

Strangely enough, I think my acting, drama, dance and musical theatre skills have also played a part in building my skills, as there is always an element of performance in everything that we do. You need to know your audience, and know what motivates them, to really engage with them.

I do believe that everyone can learn and develop communication skills though. I’m not saying everyone needs to present evidence in a parliamentary inquest. There are so many different ways to communicate research, whether it is through writing, drawing, even music and dance.

It could even be as simple as just engaging with your PR team to find support in sharing your research more broadly. It’s a really collaborative space though, so if you want to give it a go or learn more, find some people whose communications style you like and get in touch. If they’ve got the capacity I’m sure they will either be able to help, or at least point you in the right direction.

Which mentors have helped you along the way?

Firstly, my parents, who made me believe that I could pursue anything I wanted to and they’ve been nothing but supportive. My husband is also totally wonderful, even though he wishes I worked more sensible hours. Secondly, I have a set of amazing friends that remind me that I can do things, even when I doubt myself.

Finally, there are some amazing heroes-turned-allies out there that have supported me along the way. My top four would be my ever-supportive PhD supervisor Professor Ivan Parkin at UCL, my old chemistry teacher Mr Brian McVicar, my science communication hero Professor Mark Miodownik at UCL, and my academic role model Professor Mary Ryan at Imperial College London. Our CEO at Digital Science, Dr Daniel Hook, is also an inspiration and an example of having both a career in enterprise and leadership, AND a career in academia.

>> Read about Dr Anita Shukla’s groundbreaking work in treating infection and developing drug delivery systems in our interview with Dr Shukla.

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?

In academia, my experiences have not been great. We spend a lot of time, money and effort recruiting a more diverse range of people into science degrees but very little time retaining those people in the profession.

Though things are improving, changing an entire culture is slow going, and I think academia is still fundamentally built on a framework that rewards and promotes cultures and behaviours that do not allow for inclusion.

We have a long way to go to breaking down those barriers to inclusion. We’ve worked with a range of actors in the research industry through the Research on Research Institution (RoRI), but culture change takes time. It requires buy-in at all levels and globally across the profession, as well as a lot of resource to build a better framework of recognition and reward to encourage inclusion and retention within the academic profession.

In industry, I think we are in a much better place in terms of equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility, though there are of course still challenges that need to be overcome. Organisations have more control over how they nurture their employee communities, and I think it can therefore be easier to see changes in culture sooner than in academia.

There is still a long way to go to make things as inclusive as they can be, and to achieve real representation of society in industry, but by working with underrepresented communities we are able to co-create initiatives that will hopefully change things for the better.

Is there any advice you would give to young professionals looking to pursue a career path similar to yours, especially young women?

Do it! Science is such a rewarding profession, and so varied too. You’re able to combine your passion for science with your interest in a whole host of things. Do, however, be aware that you may not immediately find an environment that can support and nurture you in a way that works for you. They are out there though, so keep networking, keep looking, and be your truest self. You’ll find your people soon enough, and from there on in, it’s a great adventure.

Don’t be afraid to try things. You may well surprise yourself and start a career journey down a path you didn’t expect to find yourself on. And remember, no experience is wasted. Your skillset is always building up, and you’ll find yourself applying experiences and knowledge in ways you never expected you would.

Find a mentor or a range of mentors for different aspects of your career, and consider being a mentor for others too. You have a remarkable amount of knowledge and experience to share with others too.

>> In recent months, we’ve spoken to inspiring women who work in science. Read more about the stories of materials scientist Rhys Archer, EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellow and founder of Women of Science, and Jessica Jones, Applications Team Leader at Croda.

Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can find more of his work here.

Sustainability & Environment

Why do we ignore climate change and what can we do about it? That’s what Toby Park, of The Behavioural Insights Team, explained in our latest SCItalk. Eoin Redahan reports.

Do any of these describe you?

A.I recycle whenever I can, but fly twice a year.
B.I switched to a renewable energy provider, but still drive to work twice a week.
C.I make sure all unnecessary lights are switched off in the house, but eat beef occasionally
D.I plan to live a greener lifestyle, but the real difference will be made at government level.

When it comes to climate change, most of us are full of good intentions. We want to do the right thing but when change becomes too difficult or inconvenient, people (like me) lapse into old habits. In his excellent talk, why we ignore climate change and what we can do about it, Toby Park explained these contradictions and outlined how ‘nudge’ behaviour can be used to tweak our habits.

Fundamentally, Park argued that most people mean well. After surveying a couple of thousand people in the lead-up to COP26, the Behavioural Insights Team found that 67% of respondents planned to take at least five new actions to tackle climate change and 99% said they would take at least one.

So, why then do we ignore climate change en masse? ‘We are like swimmers in a stream,’ Park said. ‘We have the opportunity to swim in one direction or another but we are in a stream that has a current.’

Hands holding up recyclable plastic and paper

We’re good at recycling but not as resolute when it comes to taking fewer flights.

Life is hard enough. We tend to do what is easy and affordable, but there are other reasons why we’re not falling over each other to buy electric vehicles or driving to the south of Spain for our holidays instead of flying.

The first is psychological distance. For many people, the prospect of climate change is too distant to take seriously. Unless you have woken up to find your kitchen submerged by flooding, its effects may seem far away; yet, the changes we must make are in the present.

The problem is, it’s sometimes hard to act when you cannot feel the urgency. So, people find it hard to frontload the hardship, as they see it. Park likened it to being told that you must have the hangover before you go drinking – and how many of us would choose that?

Second, we are experts at fooling ourselves. As Park noted, we’re all natural storytellers when it comes to crafting positive images of ourselves. We are the masters of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand we feel virtuous when we recycle paper, plastic, and food scraps, yet we’ll hop on a plane for that wedding in Dublin. 

‘We all have the tension of what’s in our own self interest and what’s altruistic or pro-social,’ Park said, adding a Robert Heinlein quote that encapsulates the human condition. ‘Man is not a rational animal,’ he said. Man is a rationalising animal.’

A third reason why we ignore climate change, according to Park, is that our actions rarely benefit us personally. If you buy an electric vehicle, the price of that new Tesla will sting and you’re not going to benefit from the carbon emissions saved. However, if there is collective action, everyone would benefit from cheaper electric vehicles to less filthy air.

So, what can we do about climate change?

Nudge behaviour

As was mentioned above, one of the foci of the Behavioural Insights Team is encouraging ‘nudge’ behaviour – what Park described as softly encouraging a certain type of behaviour without restricting choice. And it turns out, there are lots of ways to nudge us well-intentioned, self-centred creatures into healthier habit.

Examples of nudge behaviour are everywhere. In Switzerland, energy companies made green energy the default choice and people – out of either convenience or conscience – tended to stick with this option. Park mentioned how one canteen reduced food waste by up to 40% through the introduction of a small friction: removing the plastic trays (Thiagarajah and Getty 2013). In a similar sphere, he said Sainsbury’s Cafe increased orders of its plant-based meal options by calling items ‘field-grown’ rather than ‘meat-free’ or ‘plant-based’.

Park mentioned that we can motivate different behaviour by introducing a social element. He noted that solar panels were found to be socially contagious in California and parts of Europe, while the same has happened in the UK with the introduction of green number plates for electric vehicles.  

Comparing people to their peers is another useful way of changing habits for the better.  Benchmarking people’s behaviour against the norm – such as telling someone they use more energy than most customers – is one way of doing it. Publishing environmental performance league tables for organisations is another to encourage a climate-friendly approach.

If you don’t think these sorts of nudge behaviours don’t work, think of the humble plastic bag tax. When you take your own bags for your weekly shop, you might save just 30p on a £30 shop. But have you done it? And are you doing it still?

Unfortunately, there is no dancing around the fact that 60% of emissions reduction requires behaviour change, according to Park. So, nudge behaviour will help but we’ll be needing more power behind that elbow.

Vegan sausages in pan

What’s in a name? Language can have a profound effect on our choices. Now, who’s for a field-grown breakfast?

‘Small nudges aren’t enough,’ he said. ‘We also need to apply this lens to systemic, transformative change. That means finding smart ways to tilt the functioning of markets.

He said that consistent, long-term decision making is not only important for individuals but for businesses too.

‘Incentives are massively important for corporations,’ he added. ‘That would generally be my first port of call. That’s where the bigger impacts can be found.’

At the end of the talk, a member of the audience asked Park, simply, if there was hope? To answer that, he offered the example of plant-based food.

Not so long ago, many plant-based meat alternatives were the preserve of the few. However, consumer interest in plant-based foods has ‘mushroomed’ in recent years and retailers have responded with a swath of new food products.

‘Change can be runaway and self accelerating, Park said, ‘and we shouldn’t forget that solutions can scale exponentially… New norms can, all of a sudden, spread very quickly.’

>> To listen to Toby’s talk, go to YouTube

Health & Wellbeing

The clichés we use become so downtrodden that we often say them without thinking. How many times, for example, have you said you went with your gut on a certain decision?

As with many of these aphorisms, there appears to be genuine wisdom behind it. Scientists are learning all the time about the links between our guts and our brains, and recent findings from a California Institute of Technology-led (Caltech) study have added to our understanding of what’s going on behind our belly buttons.

This research contends that a particular molecule, produced by our gut bacteria, has contributed to anxious behaviour in mice. The Caltech researchers say that a small-molecule metabolite that lives in the mouse’s gut can travel up to the brain and alter the function of its cells. This adds further grist to the belief that there is a link between our microbiome, brain function, and mood.

The researchers behind the Nature paper say previous studies found that people with certain neurological conditions have different gut bacteria communities. Furthermore, studies in mice revealed that manipulating these communities can alter neurological states.

>> Curious about which herbs could boost your wellbeing and how they work in your body? Then read our recent blog on this topic.

Their study investigated the bacterial metabolite 4-ethylphenyl sulphate (4EPS) that is produced in the intestines of humans and mice and circulates throughout the body. In particular, they focused on the effect of 4EPS on mouse anxiety. For the sake of the study, mouse anxiety measured the creature’s behaviour in a new space - whether it hid in a new space as if from a predator or whether it was willing to sniff around and explore it.

The researchers compared two groups of lab mice: those colonised with pairs of bacteria that were genetically engineered to produce 4EPS, and a second group that was colonised with similar bacteria that couldn’t produce 4EPS. They then observed the rodents’ behaviour after being introduced to a new area.

SCIblog - 24 February 2022 - Mouse has gut feeling - image of a mouse running into a hole in the wall (outside)

Some mice become anxious when introduced to new spaces, and this is reflected both in the gut and the brain.

The results were very interesting indeed. The researchers observed that the group of mice with 4EPS spent far less time exploring this new place and more time hiding compared to the second group of non-4EPS mice. They also found that brain regions associated with fear and anxiety were more activated within this first group.

>> Interested in drug discovery? Why not attend our upcoming event at the Francis Crick Institute, London, UK.

When the mice were treated with a drug that could overpower the negative effects of 4EPS, their behaviour became less anxious. A similar study in Nature Medicine also found that mice were less anxious when treated with an oral drug that soaked up and removed 4EPS from their bodies.

SCIblog - 24 February 2022 - Mouse has gut feeling - image of a young women, stressed with her head in her hands

The Caltech-led research could inform our understanding of anxiety and mood conditions.

‘It’s an exciting proof-of-concept finding that a specific microbial metabolite alters the activity of brain cells and complex behaviours in mice, but how this is happening remains unknown,’ says researcher Sarkis Mazmanian, in whose laboratory much of the research took place.

‘The basic framework for brain function includes integration of sensory and molecular cues from the periphery and even the environment. What we show here is similar in principle but with the discovery that the neuroactive molecule is of microbial origin. I believe this work has implications for human anxiety or other mood conditions.’

So, our predecessors were right: there’s a lot more to those gut feelings than you think.

>> Read the Nature paper on the Nature magazine website.

Sustainability & Environment

How well equipped is the UK’s battery supply chain to meet the growing demand for electric vehicles? We took a closer look to mark National Battery Day.

Main image editorial credit: Phaustov/Shutterstock

For many of us, it’s exciting to see the growth of the electric vehicle industry. Our personal transport will be cleaner. Our roads will be quieter. Indeed, from 2030 the UK government will ban the sale of pure internal combustion engine cars, and the widening role of ultra-low emission zones will hit many motorists in the pocket. Whether we like it or not, change is coming.

That does not mean we are prepared for it. As demand for electric and hybrid vehicles accelerates, and more stringent trade rules put pressure on having a local battery supply chain (stricter Rules of Origin for trade will come into force by 2027), the UK must get its complete supply chain up to speed.

Battery supply chain challenges

For this to happen, chemists, suppliers, manufacturers, innovators, government representatives, and others need to make strides in several areas. Over the past year, a group of more than 50 participants at SCI’s Energising the UK Battery Supply Chain workshops have identified next generation technology, the scale-up of innovative technologies, the skills and knowledge base, and standards for materials testing as areas for improvement.

SCIblog - 17 February 2022 - Improving the UK battery supply chain - image of lithium mining

Brine pools for lithium mining. There is a global clamour for raw materials including lithium.

The UK also needs a consistent stream of key battery materials. It needs technologies that reduce the dependence on some of the current materials for hybrid and electric vehicles. It must integrate efficient battery recycling and manufacturing approaches to reduce its dependence on long-distance imports and much coveted raw materials such as lithium, nickel and cobalt.

It is a big challenge. As David Bott, SCI’s Head of Innovation (who helped run SCI’s five Energising the UK Battery Supply Chain workshops) said, there isn’t enough of a UK electric battery supply chain at the moment.

>> Find out what the experts thought about improving the UK battery supply chain in our Energising the UK Battery Supply Chain Part 5 video.

David did note that the UK Government (through UK Research and Innovation) has been investing in the scale-up of cell assembly through the Energy Innovation Centre at WMG (from 2012/3) and the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (through UKRI and the Automotive Propulsion Centre). It will also support the construction of Britishvolt’s electric battery ‘gigafactory’ in Blyth, Northumberland.

However, he added that: ‘All of them, however, are talking about the assembly of the cells and 60% of the value is in the materials. We need a battery materials supply chain in the UK – not all the way back to mining, of course, but as much as we can.’

SCIblog - 17 February 2022 - Improving the UK battery supply chain - image of an electric vehicle battery

Recent developments in the UK have been heartening, but many more will be needed to create a viable battery supply chain.

Smoother collaboration is also required. ‘We need recognition that the UK needs more support for the chemistry part of the supply chain,’ he said. ‘We need a lot more collaboration – engineers need to understand that chemistry companies would engage more if they understood the size of the opportunity. The main thing we need at the moment is awareness of the opportunities.’

Promising developments

Despite the difficulties, green shoots have appeared recently. In late January, the government announced that it has backed Britishvolt’s aforementioned plans to build large volumes of electric vehicle batteries (through the Automotive Transformation Fund). According to the government, the factory will produce enough batteries for more than 300,000 vehicles a year and create 3,000 direct, highly-skilled skilled jobs. Britishvolt have also announced a partnership with Glencore to recycle battery materials.

>> Sign up for our next Energising the UK’s Battery Supply Chain workshop.

Oxford-based chemical products manufacturer Nexeon has secured US$80 million (about £59 million) in funding to scale up the production of its silicon anode materials. Finally, Sheffield-based sodium-ion battery technology company Faradion has been acquired by Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries for £100 million. A further £25 million will be invested as growth capital to accelerate the commercial rollout of its sodium-ion battery technology.

Faradion says that its sodium-ion technology provides ‘significant advantages compared to lithium-ion technology, including greater sustainability, a patented zero-volt safe transport and storage capability’.

So, there is some good news to celebrate as you gather around with your families to celebrate National Battery Day. The battery supply chain, unfortunately, must wait for another day.

What is the future of electric cars? Find out more in this Autotrader article.

Sustainability & Environment

Machine-made snow has made this Winter Olympics happen in Beijing, but at what cost?

If you take a look at the weather in Beijing right now, you’ll notice that it isn’t really that cold. You can enjoy daily highs of about 8°C in early February, which we’d be happy enough here in London.

These mild conditions have been a problem for the organisers of the Winter Olympics, which are currently taking place in Beijing and environs. Indeed, the distinct dearth of snow has meant that the Beijing Games have become the first to be run largely on artificial snow.

SCIblog - 08 February 2022 - Artificial Snow - image of a number of yellow snow cannons / snow making machines

Snowmaking machines spray artificial snow on a ski slope during the FIS Ski Cross World Cup, a test event for the 2022 Winter Olympics

For some, the presence of 130 fan-driven snow generators and 300 snow-making guns spewing out machine-made snow represents a waste of resources, even if these machines are powered entirely by renewable energy.

In all, 49 million gallons of water will reportedly be used to make the Games possible. So, to say they are water-intensive is something of an understatement. However, the issues don’t end there. There is also an issue with the type of snow produced.

>> What can you do about climate change? Register for this free talk to find out more.

SCIblog - 08 February 2022 - Artificial Snow - image of a skier on a slope

Some claim artificial snow creates more dangerous conditions for athletes.

According to the recent Slippery Slopes report written by the Sport Ecology Group (in conjunction with Loughborough University UK and Protect Our Winters UK), the composition of artificial snow can create dangerous conditions for the athletes. Basically, it creates a faster, harder surface that could result in more severe injuries.

The reason given for this is that artificial snow is almost 30% ice and 70% air, compared to natural snow, which is closer to 10% ice and 90% air. This ‘grittier ice-pack’ creates tougher conditions for athletes, many of whom travel at great speeds down steep slopes.

In the same report, former Winter Olympian Laura Donaldson explains why these machines create suboptimal snow. ‘The artificial snowflakes they generate have cylindrical structures (unlike the far more intricate structure of natural flakes),’ she said, ‘which mould together to form bulletproof ice conditions.’

Furthermore, this less permeable layer of ice may hinder the growth of vegetation, and the noise of the machines disrupts wildlife. In some resorts, chemicals are also added to create longer lasting snow.

At Beijing, the organisers claim not to have used chemicals in the snow-making process. However, others rely on machines and chemical-kind for a helping hand. According to the Sport Ecology Group report, a pesticide was used at the 2010 Games in Vancouver to allow the water to freeze at higher temperatures; and snow hardeners such as salt and fertiliser have been used to improve snow quality on cross-country skiing trails.

If hosting the Winter Olympics in an area without much snow seems crazy to you, it might not be quite as daft as you think. The bleak reality is that global warming is reducing the number of venues that can host this enormous event without artificial help.

According to an academic paper by Scott et. al. in 2014, only six of the last 19 Winter Olympics host cities will still have the climatic conditions to do so by the 2080s. Of course, that doesn’t take artificial snow into account.

So, when you see Qatar being awarded the 2050 Winter Games, don’t tell me you haven’t been warned.

Science & Innovation

How do you create an investor-ready intellectual property (IP) approach to help you secure that all-important funding? We asked Charlotte Crowhurst, patent attorney at leading European IP firm, Potter Clarkson.

As businesses focus on growth in the post-pandemic world, innovation is vital. Being able to turn good ideas into a commercial success – at scale – can have a transformational impact on the wider economy. Scientists and engineers have been front and centre in providing solutions to the health crisis, but they will also play an essential role in the economic recovery.

Of course, even the most ground-breaking invention requires investment to become a viable market proposition. Yet, the road to securing funding is not always straightforward or clear, with various hurdles to overcome before winning the trust and backing of investors. Securing funding is fiercely competitive territory, as investors apply a forensic approach to identifying the risks and opportunities with each investment target.

Intellectual property alone will not likely secure funding, but a weak IP position could significantly impact on valuation – by as much as 70% – or even see an investor walk away altogether. What’s more, for return-hungry investors, new research shows that SMEs with intellectual property rights generate 68% higher revenues per employee than those who don’t.

For ambitious, high growth SMEs to put themselves in the strongest position to attract and secure funding, there are five key ingredients that make up an investor-ready IP approach:

  1. Clear ownership

This is the number one deal breaker. Make sure there are no grey areas on ownership of IP. Any grey areas surrounding who ‘owns’ IP will signal alarm bells for a potential investor.

  1. Effective innovation capture

Understanding what IP your business may have and what you might be able to protect is not always obvious. It is always worth seeking professional advice early on to determine which IP rights you might be able to secure.

Robust processes and procedures are also important. Create an IP register and keep it up to date monthly so that opportunities are not overlooked. Do not underestimate the importance of robust processes and procedures.

SCIblog - 01 February 2022 - graphic of set person stealing an idea (metaphor)

Understanding what IP you need to protect isn’t always obvious.
  1. Sound strategy

Put yourself in an investor’s shoes – they are focused on whether you can provide a return on their investment. They are looking for clarity in your approach – a strategically sound business plan, where it is easy to see how the IP rights will help to achieve the commercial objectives.

>> Need more information on filing a chemistry patent. Read our blog on chemistry patent filing.

  1. Market awareness

A growing business can be all-consuming, but a sound IP approach takes into consideration the wider marketplace in which your business is operating and any potential third-party rights.

  1. Good timing

Knowing when to act is critical to a sound IP approach. Knowing which steps to take and when to take them can have a critical impact on the strength of your IP position.

The end goal

Ultimately, the end goal with IP due diligence is to instil confidence and build trust with a potential investor. While investors are prepared to take on varying degrees of risk, SMEs will always need to show an IP approach that doesn’t signal alarm bells.

Put simply, those SMEs who are clear on these five areas will reduce the chances of IP being the reason an investor walks away.

>> To read more on ensuring your IP is investor-ready, visit the Potter Clarkson website here.

Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can find more of his work here.

Agrifood

The plant-based meat alternative market is growing rapidly, and cell-cultured meats could be coming soon to your dinner plate once they receive regulatory approval. Gavin Dundas, Patent Attorney at Reddie & Grose, provides his expert perspective on the state of the meat alternative market.

Which is receiving more emphasis based on patent activity: lab-grown meat or plant-based meat alternatives?

Comparing cultivated meat to plant-based meat is a bit like comparing apples and oranges.
Plant-based meat is here - it’s in shops, and it’s in growing numbers of restaurants and fast-food outlets. Even McDonald’s – arguably the world’s most well-known hamburger outlet – released its first plant-based burger in the UK on 13 October 2021: the aptly-named McPlant. The McPlant has been accredited as vegan by the Vegetarian Society, and includes vegan sauce, vegan cheese and a plant-based burger co-developed with Beyond Meat.

Cell-cultured meat is a very different prospect, as cellular agriculture is more high-tech, so companies entering that sector require a higher degree of specialised technical expertise. Companies delving into cultivated meat also require a fair bit of funding, as cultivated meat has not been approved for sale in any country other than Singapore, so it is not yet possible to sell their products to consumers.

The reality at the moment is that plant-based meat alternatives have a huge head-start in the marketplace, while cultivated meat is not yet on sale in most countries. So, for most new companies looking to make money in the alternative protein market, plant-based products are likely to be the easier way to start.

On the other hand, this means that the plant-based meat market is more crowded already, while cultivated meat companies are investing in the hope of getting a bigger share of that market once it matures.

In which food types have you seen a particular surge in patent applications, for example plant-based meat alternatives or lab-grown meat?

Based on searches using patent classification codes commonly used for plant-based meats and lab-grown meat (known as ‘cell-cultured meat’ or ‘cultivated meat’), it appears that there are significantly more patent applications in the field of plant-based meats, but that patent filings relating to cultivated meat are growing more quickly.

Of all the patent publications relating to plant-based meats, 15.2% were published since the start of 2020. Of the patent publications relating to cultivated meats, 27.6% were published since the start of 2020.

This outcome is probably not surprising. Plant-based meats have been around much longer and are now widely established in the market, so many more companies have had time and opportunity to file patent applications for innovations in this area. Cultivated meats are at an earlier stage in their development, but with a large number of new companies having been formed in this area in the last few years, it is not surprising that this has resulted in a high growth rate of patent applications as cultivated meat gets closer to commercial reality.

SCIblog - 27 January 2022 - The Alternative Meat Market - image of Beyond Meat brand

Beyond Meat’s plant-based meat substitutes have reached the mainstream. | Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock

How much movement has there been on the equipment and other innovations that will facilitate large-scale meal alternative manufacturing?

There is a huge difference between small-scale production of cultivated meat in a laboratory, and the large-scale manufacturing that would be needed to supply supermarkets and restaurants throughout whole countries and - eventually - the whole world.

Growing meat using cellular agriculture involves the use of animal cell lines to grow animal products in bioreactors, where the cells are immersed in a growth medium that feeds nutrients to the cells as they develop. Over the last decade there have been huge advances in these processes, but as demand for cultivated meat grows there will definitely be continued innovation to improve efficiency and scale-up manufacturing capacity.

Commercial growth medium is currently costly, so the development of more cost-effective growth media is likely to be an area of much research. Another ongoing challenge is the development of high-quality cell lines and scaffold materials that are suitable for high-quality, large-scale production.

Bioreactor design is also expected to be a big area of innovation - up until now, bench-top bioreactors have in most cases been sufficient to meet the demands of cultivated meat R&D, but as demand increases bigger and better bioreactors will be needed. A particular challenge will be to design bioreactors capable of growing thick tissue layers on a commercially viable scale.

While there is scope for innovation in all of these areas, some companies are already ready to manufacture their cultivated meat products on a large scale. Future Meat Technologies, for example, opened its first industrial cultivated meat production facility in June 2021 in Rehovot, Israel - that facility is reportedly capable of producing 500kg of cultivated meat products every day. In November 2021, Upside Foods opened its first large-scale cultivated meat production plant in Emeryville, California, with the capacity to produce 22,680kg of cultured meat annually.

At the moment, however, a lack of regulatory approval is holding back cultivated meat production. While there are a number of companies that apparently have products ready for market, many will be unwilling to plough huge amounts of money into large-scale manufacturing facilities until they have regulatory approval that lets them actually sell their products.

Thinking of filing a chemistry patent in 2022? Here’s what you need to know.

SCIblog - 27 January 2022 - The Alternative Meat Market - image of cultivated meat

The UK has cutting-edge companies in the cultivated meat field.

Have any innovations or areas of innovation struck you as particularly exciting? If so, could you tell us more about them?

I am a meat-eater trying to cut down on my consumption of meat, due to a mixture of environmental and ethical motivations. So, as a consumer I’ve been very excited to see the arrival of plant-based meat into the mainstream.

I am particularly excited to try cultivated meat once it is approved for sale. Not long ago ‘lab-grown’ meat seemed like science-fiction, so to get to a point where you can go out and buy it will be incredible. So many people are unwilling to cut down on meat because they like the taste, and because their favourite meals are meat-based, so cultivated meat might hopefully give that same experience with fewer of the drawbacks of animal meat.

I am also excited to see the diversity of cultivated meat products. Cultivated meat chicken nuggets and beef burgers are the products that spring to mind when cell-cultured meat is mentioned, but there are companies out there developing cultivated bacon, pork belly, salmon and tuna, to name a few.

What are the chemistry challenges for those creating plant-based meat alternatives? Find out here.

Given what you know about the patent landscape, where do you think the meat alternative industry is heading, and at what sort of pace do you foresee significant change?

I think the meat alternative industry is only going to continue to grow, as concern over the environmental impact of our eating habits is growing, and the quality and availability of meat alternatives is getting better.

The plant-based meat industry is already doing well, and I expect it to continue on its upward trajectory. I expect companies in this field to continue to file patent applications for their innovations, and eventually we might see some of those patents being enforced to safeguard valuable market shares for the patent owners.

Cultivated meat is the sector that seems to be poised for the most significant change. At the moment, the lack of regulatory approval seems to be the thing holding it back, but if that hurdle is removed there are UK companies aiming to get cultivated meats into shops by 2023. The UK is lucky enough to be home to a number of cutting-edge companies in the field, and a recent report by Oxford Economics researchers forecast that cultivated meat could be worth £2.1 billion to the UK economy by 2030.

The idea of cultivated meat is unlikely to appeal to everyone, so I imagine that it will start out as something of a novelty, but I’d expect to see the availability and range of cultivated meat products grow significantly over the next decade.

Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can read more of his work here.

Agrifood

How much soil cultivation do you need for your vegetables? Professor Geoff Dixon explains all.

Cultivating soil is as old as horticulture itself. Basically, three processes have evolved over time. Primary cultivation involves inversion which buries weeds, adds organic matter and breaks up the soil profile, encouraging aeration and avoiding waterlogging.

Secondary cultivation prepares a fine tilth as a bed for sowing small seeded crops such as carrots or beetroot. In the growing season, tertiary cultivation maintains weed control, preventing competition for resources (illustration no. 1) such as light, nutrients and water while discouraging pest and disease damage.

SCIblog - Professor Geoff Dixon - Soil Cultivation - image of Lettuce and seed competition

Lettuce and seed competition

The onset of rapid climate change encouraged by industrialisation has focused attention on preventing the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Ploughing disturbs the soil profile and accelerates the loss of carbon dioxide from soil.

It is also an energy intensive process. Consequently, many broad acre agricultural crops such as cereals, oilseed rape and sugar beet are now drilled directly without previous primary cultivation. An added advantage is that stubble from previous crops remains in situ over winter, offering food sources for birds. The disadvantages of direct drilling are: increased likelihood of soil waterlogging and reduced opportunities for building organic fertility by adding farmyard manure or well-made composts.

Overall, primary and secondary cultivation benefit vegetable growing. The areas of land involved are far smaller and the crops are grown very intensively. Vegetables require high fertility, weed-free soil, good drainage and minimal accumulation of soil-borne pests and diseases.

SCIblog - Professor Geoff Dixon - Soil Cultivation - image of Frost action breaking down soil clods

Frost action breaking down soil clods

Digging increases each of these benefits and provides healthy physical exercise and mental stimulation. Frost action on well-dug soil breaks down the clods (illustration no. 2). Ultimately, fine seed beds are produced by secondary cultivation (illustration no. 3), which encourage rapid germination and even growth of root and salad crops.

Tertiary cultivation to prevent weed competition is also of paramount importance for vegetable crops. Competition in their early growth stages weakens the quality of root and leafy vegetables, destroying much of their dietary value. Regular hoeing and hand removal of weeds are necessities in the vegetable garden.

SCIblog - Professor Geoff Dixon - Soil Cultivation - image of Raking down soil producing a fine tilth

Raking down soil producing a fine tilth

Ornamental and fruit gardens similarly benefit from tertiary cultivation. Weeds not only provide competition but are also unsightly, destroying the visual image and psychological satisfaction of these areas.

Lightly forking over these areas in spring and autumn encourages water percolation and root aeration. Once established, ornamental herbaceous perennials and soft and top fruit areas benefit greatly from the addition of organic top dressings. Over several seasons these will augment fertility and nutrient availability.

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

Health & Wellbeing

A sprig of thyme to fight that cold… Turmeric tea after exercising… An infusion of chamomile to ease the mind… As we move with fresh resolution through January, Dr Vivien Rolfe, of Pukka Herbs, explains how a few readily available herbs could boost your health and wellbeing.

The New Year is a time when many of us become more health conscious. Our bodies have been through so much over the last few years with Covid, and some of us may need help to combat the January blues. So, can herbs and spices give us added support and help us get the new year off to a flying start?

SCIblog - 17 January 2022 - Herbs and Spices - image of Chamomile

The oils in chamomile have nerve calming effects.

Chamomile and lavender

We may wish to ease ourselves into the year and look for herbs to help us relax. The flowers from these herbs contain aromatic essential oils such as linalool from lavender (Lavandula) and chamazulene from German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) that soothe us when we inhale them (López et al 2017). Chamomile also contains flavonoids that are helpful when ingested (McKay & Blumberg 2006).

If you have a spot to grow chamomile in your garden, you can collect and dry the flowers for winter use. Lavender is also a staple in every garden and the flowers can be dried and stored. Fresh or dry, these herbs can be steeped in hot water to make an infusion or tea and enjoyed. As López suggests, the oils exert nerve calming effects. Maybe combine a tea with some breathing exercises to relax yourselves before bed or during stressful moments in the day.

SCIblog - 17 January 2022 - Herbs and Spices - image of Green Lemon Thyme

Thyme is a handy herbal remedy. Generally, the term herb refers to the stem, leaf and flower parts, and spice refers to roots and seeds.

>> The plant burgers are coming. Read here about the massive growth of meat alternatives.

Andrographis, green tea and thyme

Many people may experience seasonal colds throughout the winter months and there are different herbal approaches to fighting infection. Andrographis paniculata is used in Indian and traditional Chinese medicine and contains bitter-tasting andrographolides, and in a systematic review of products, the herb was shown to relieve cough and sore throats symptoms in upper respiratory tract infection (Hu et al 2017).

Gargling with herbal teas is another way to relieve a sore throat, and the benefits of green tea (Camellia sinensis) have been explored (Ide et al 2016). I’m an advocate of garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) which contains the essential oil thymol and is used traditionally to loosen mucus alongside its other cold-fighting properties.

You could experiment by combining thyme with honey to make a winter brew. I usually take a herbal preparation at the sign of the very first sneeze that hopefully then stops the infection progressing.

SCIblog - 17 January 2022 - Herbs and Spices - image of Shatavari

Shatavari (pictured) is said to improve strength, and ashwagandha can help recovery.

Shatavari and ashwagandha

We may start the new year with more of a spring in our step and wishing to get a little fitter. As we get older, we may lose muscle tissue which weakens our bones and reduces our exercise capability. Human studies have found that daily supplementation with shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) can improve strength in older women, and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) can enhance muscle strength and recovery in younger males (O’Leary et al 2021; Wankhede et al 2015).

These herbs are known as adaptogens and traditionally they are used in tonics or to support fertility. The research to fully understand their adaptogenic activity or effects on muscle function is at an early stage. Other herbs such as turmeric may help muscle recovery after exercise. I brew a turmeric tea and put it in my water bottle when I go to the gym.

>> How is climate change affecting your garden? Find out here.

SCIblog - 17 January 2022 - Herbs and Spices - image of Lemon Balm

Lemon balm is easy to grow but might want to take over your garden.

Easy on the body. Easing the mind

Depending on your resolutions, you could use herbs and spices to add lovely flavours to food to try and reduce your sugar and salt intake. Liquorice is a natural sweetener, and black pepper and other herbs and spices can replace salt.

You could also bring joy to January by growing herbs from seed on a windowsill or in a garden or community space. Mint, lemon balm, lavender, thyme, and sage are all easy to grow, although mint and balm may take over!

All make lovely teas or can be dried and stored for use, and research is also showing that connecting with nature – even plants in our homes – is good for us.

You can read more about medicinal and culinary properties of herbs at https://www.jekkas.com/.

If you wish to learn more about the practice of herbal medicine and the supporting science, go to https://www.herbalreality.com/.

>> Dr Viv Rolfe is head of herbal research at Pukka Herbs Ltd. You can find out more about Pukka’s research at https://www.pukkaherbs.com/us/en/wellbeing-articles/introducing-pukkas-herbal-research.html, and you can follow her and Pukka on Twitter @vivienrolfe, @PukkaHerbs.

Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can find more of his work here.

Sustainability & Environment

Johnson Matthey has launched a technology to help create a green hydrogen-based aviation fuel, while the European Commission has approved a €900 million scheme (£750 million approximately) to support renewable hydrogen investments.

SCI Corporate Partner Johnson Matthey has developed HyCOgen to convert CO2 and green hydrogen into a scalable and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The speciality chemicals company says it has combined this Reverse Water Gas Shift technology with FT CANS Fischer Tropsch technology through a catalysed process. With this approach, the green hydrogen and CO2 are converted into carbon monoxide, which is combined with additional hydrogen to form syngas.

Integration with the FT CANS technology is used to turn 95% of the CO2 into a high quality synthetic crude oil. This synthetic crude oil can then be upgraded into sustainable, drop-in fuel products for aviation transport – a sector responsible for 12% of transport-related CO2 emissions, according to the Air Transport Action Group.

SCIblog - 11 January 2022 - H2go – Johnson Matthey and EU lead hydrogen fuel initiatives - image of a wind turbine and a plane in the background

Green hydrogen fuel, produced using renewable energy, could help decarbonise the aviation industry.

Jane Toogood, Sector Chief Executive at Johnson Matthey, said: “Given the challenges associated with new propulsion technologies and airport infrastructure, plus the long asset life of aircraft, there are significant hurdles in moving from hydrocarbon-based aviation fuel to alternatives such as battery electric or hydrogen.

“By combining HyCOgen with FT CANS, we can now deliver customers a cost-efficient, reliable and scalable technology to help increase SAF production, backed by our track record of successful technology development and commercialisation.”

>> Concerned about climate change? Find out what you can do in this free webinar: https://www.soci.org/events/hq-events/2022/why-we-ignore-climate-change-and-what-we-can-do-about-it

€900 million fund for non-EU countries

In other hydrogen-related news, the global hydrogen industry has received a boost with the European Commission approving a €900 million German scheme to support investments in renewable hydrogen production in non-EU countries.

The aim of the H2Global project is to meet the growing EU demand for renewable hydrogen production, which is expected to increase significantly as EU countries reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Even though the initiative will benefit EU countries, UK-based organisations concerned with hydrogen power could benefit from this investment.

>> Young chemists are getting creative in the fight against climate change. Read more in our COP26 review blog.

Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition who is in charge of competition policy, said: “This €900 million German scheme will support projects leading to substantial reductions in greenhouse emissions, in line with the EU’s environmental and climate objectives set out in the Green Deal.

“It will contribute to addressing the increasing demand for renewable hydrogen in the Union, by supporting the development of this important energy source in areas of the world where it is currently not exploited with a view to importing it and selling it in the EU. The design of the scheme will enable only the most cost effective projects to be supported, reducing costs for taxpayers and minimising possible distortions of competition.”

Agrifood

Greenhouse gas emissions statistics can be misleading. At a recent SCI webinar on the Future of Agriculture, the Agrisciences Committee put its finger on some glaring gaps in the figures.

If all of the cows in the world came together to form a country, that nation state would be the second highest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

McKinsey Sustainability’s statistic was certainly startling. However, Agrisciences Group Chair Jeraime Griffith mentioned other equally striking figures in his wrapup of the social media discussion generated at COP26.
In his talk as part of the Agrisciences Committee’s COP26 – What does it mean for the future of agriculture? webinar on 7 December, Griffith also noted that:

  1. farming accounts for more than 70% of the freshwater used worldwide, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
  2. and 31% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from agrifood systems, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

On the face of it, these figures are sobering; yet, like many agriculture-related figures, they don’t tell the full story.

Insane in the methane

Kathryn Knight felt that agriculture received negative press at COP26 in relation to greenhouse gas emissions. ‘It doesn't seem to take into account carbon sequestration (capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide),’ said the Research & Technology Manager of Crop Care at Croda. ‘Why isn’t that being brought into the equation when we’re talking about carbon and agriculture?’
Martin Collison expanded on this point. He emphasised the need to separate carbon emissions by system – such as extensively grazed livestock animals and those fed on grain – and to account for systems that sequester carbon in the soil. The co-founder of agricultural consultancy Collison & Associates also pointed out the problem with bundling all our greenhouse gases as one.

Two cows in field, one laying down

Greenhouse gas emissions are sometimes unhelpfully bundled together, instead of being separated by gas and agricultural system.

‘We count methane in the same way we emit carbon,’ he said. ‘When we emit carbon, it’s in the atmosphere for 1,000 years, but with methane it’s 12 years. The methane cycle is a lot, lot shorter.’

And the difficulties with the statistics don’t end there. For example, countries often announce impressive emission reductions without taking trade into account. This, of course, gives the figures a greener gloss.

‘To me, there's a need to be more up front with a lot of the data because agriculture and food are traded around the world,’ he added. ‘A lot of the emissions data ignore what we trade.

‘In the UK, we make big claims about how fast we’ve progressed with carbon emissions, but if you look at what we consume, the progress is much much slower. The things we produce less of, we import.’

>> SCI was at COP26 too! Read about the role of chemistry in creating a greener future.

Full of hot air?

Emissions trading also serves to blur the picture. For Jeraime Griffith it is an unsatisfactory solution. ‘In terms of carbon trading, we have cases where the higher emitters continue producing in the way they’ve always been producing,’ he said.

‘It doesn't bring in any restrictions on the amount of carbon they emit; it just shifts the problem somewhere else. I don't know how carbon trading benefits us getting to Net Zero. It just seems to be kicking the ball farther down the road.’

Industrial chimneys with smoke sunset

Is emissions trading part of the solution or part of the problem?

So, when you take into account 1. emissions trading, 2. the absence of food imports in data sets, 3. the bundling together of different greenhouse gases in emissions figures, and 4. the failure to take carbon sequestration into account, it’s clear that many of the statistics we receive are incomplete.

‘There’s lots of complexity behind the numbers and we tend to lump all of it together,’ Collison said. ‘There’s a need to go much much further.’

>> SCI’s Agrisciences Group is a unique multidisciplinary network covering the production, protection and utilisation of crops for food and non-food products. It has 250 members including academic and industry leaders, researchers, consultants, students, and retired members. If you’re interested in joining the group, go to: www.soci.org/interest-groups/agrisciences

Science & Innovation

Are you thinking of filing a chemical industry patent in 2022? Anthony Ball, Senior Associate at patent attorney Abel + Imray, gave us the lowdown about what you need to know about the process, cost, and filing your patents in different countries.

SCIblog - 13 December 2021 - Chemistry patent filing in 2022 - Abel and Imray Brand image

I’ve developed a novel technology. How do I patent it, how long does it take, and how much could it cost?
The first step in patenting a novel technology is to file a patent application. The patent application must contain a description of the technology that you have developed in enough detail for others to work the invention. It also needs to contain some claims that define the protection you think you are entitled to. Before the application is filed, it is also important to sort out who the inventors are and who owns the invention.

The application is then examined, during which the Patent Office and you come to an agreement regarding the extent of protection that you are entitled to. Once the extent of protection is agreed, the patent will proceed to grant.

The application will be published around 18 months from filing. This allows competitors to see what you intend to protect. It usually takes longer for the patent to be granted (and so be enforceable) - usually from four to 10 years. For a UK patent which protects a chemical invention, the total cost might be around £10,000.

A separate patent is required for each country that you are likely to want to stop competitors using your technology. Obtaining patents in the most important markets might cost in excess of £50,000 for a chemical invention. Although this might sound like a lot of money, not all of this needs to be paid at the start of the process. Instead, it is spread out over a few years, with the biggest investment usually coming three years into the process.

You mentioned that you can obtain a patent for a compound, a formulation, or a process for synthesising compounds. Does the patent process and cost vary according to the type of product or the branch of chemistry?
The overall process – filing a patent application, the patent application being examined and then the patent being granted – is the same for all technologies. However, there are some issues faced in certain branches of chemistry (such as pharmaceuticals) which can be quite difficult to overcome, and are not faced as commonly in other branches of chemistry. Because of this, it can sometimes take longer for patents in these fields to be granted than in other fields of chemistry, and the costs can be higher.

In which scientific areas has there been a recent rise in patent applications and are any fields relatively under-represented by comparison?
Focusing on European Patent Applications, the chemical industry has been fairly strong recently. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology in particular saw relatively large increases in the number of European patent applications filed in 2020, although the number of patents in the organic fine chemical field slightly decreased.

I want to file my patent in several countries. What do I do, and how much do the costs vary, depending on the country? For example, how would the cost of a patent in the UK compare to one in the US?
If you wish to have a patent in several countries, the start of the process is the same as the one described earlier; a patent application is filed in one country. Then, the most cost effective way to extend the protection to other countries is usually to file a “PCT application” within a year of filing the original application. After a further 18 months, you can turn this PCT application into applications for most countries around the world, including Europe, the US, China and India.

Costs do vary between different countries. To use the example above, it might cost 50-100% more to obtain a patent in the US than in the UK alone. It is worth noting that a patent for the same technology from the European Patent Office might cost around the same as a patent in the US, but the patent from the European Patent Office can then be converted into a patent in each country in the EU, plus some others (including the UK, Norway and Switzerland). Unfortunately, it is difficult to be precise about costs, because they depend very much on the number and type of objections raised by the patent office examiners.

One other consideration is translations. For long applications (which can be quite common in some branches of chemistry), these can be expensive, adding thousands of pounds to the cost for obtaining a patent. One country in particular where a translation might be required, and is of growing importance in the chemical area, is China.

SCIblog - 13 December 2021 - Chemistry patent filing in 2022 - image of the European Patent Office in Munich, Germany

Patents from the European Patent Office are valid across the EU and in several other countries. | Editorial credit: nitpicker / Shutterstock.com

>> From patents to green chemistry and agrifood, we have some great events coming up. Find out more on our event page.

Is there anything chemists and chemistry industry professionals should be particularly mindful of when submitting patent applications in 2022?
Patent law is underpinned by a number of international agreements, which are hard to renegotiate. As a result, the law is actually very stable over time, and so the considerations in 2022 will broadly be the same as they have been in the past. Having said that, one important thing to bear in mind at the moment is the amount of data to include in the patent application.

There is a balance between filing as soon as possible (to prevent a competitor getting there first, and to minimise the chance of a disclosure of something that would make your technology unpatentable), and making sure that the application has enough data to show that the extent of protection that you are asking for is justified. In some cases, it is possible to present data to justify the scope of protection after the application has been filed, but recently many patent offices have made that more and more difficult.

As such, filing too early, and with only a small amount of data to support your claims, could result in a very narrow patent, which might potentially be easy to work around. It is very important to include enough evidence to show that at least the parts of your invention which have the most commercial interest (e.g. the most active compounds) show the technical effect which is mentioned in the patent application.

How much have the law and process around patents changed in recent years?
The law around patents and patent applications is always evolving, albeit slowly. The basics – that the technology must be new, not be obvious in view of publicly available knowledge, and have an industrial application – have remained the same for many years. Likewise, the basic process to obtain a patent, as described above, has not changed recently, but the minor details of that process are constantly being updated, for example to incorporate new technology (such as online filing of the application and supporting documents, and online publication of the application) and to improve cooperation between the patent systems of different countries.

An example of improved cooperation between countries is the Unified Patent Court (UPC), which is likely to begin hearing cases in 2022. Currently, patents have to be enforced in each EU country separately using the national court systems. The UPC will establish a common court system and allow a patent to be enforced in one court case, with the result being valid for the whole of the EU.

I have made a further development to my technology after filing my patent application. How can I protect my new development?
Once it has been filed, nothing can be added to a patent application. Because of this, if you want to protect a new development to the technology that is the subject of a patent application, then another patent application must be filed directed to the new development. The two applications will be treated separately, and so in order for a patent to be granted which protects the new development, the new development must satisfy all the criteria for patentability described above.

To read more from Abel + Imray on patents, visit: https://www.abelimray.com/

Agrifood

Gardens in December should, provided the weather allows, be hives of activity and interest. Many trees and shrubs, especially Roseaceous types, offer food supplies especially for migrating birds.

Cotoneaster (see image below) provides copious fruit for migrating redwings and waxwings as well as resident blackbirds. This is a widely spread genus, coming from Asia, Europe and northern Africa.

Cultivated as a hedge, it forms thick, dense, semi-evergreen growth that soaks up air pollution. In late spring, its white flowers are nectar plants for brimstone and red admiral butterflies and larval food for moths. Children and pets, however, should be guided away from the attractive red berries.

SCIblog - 7 December 2021 - The December Garden by Prof Geoff Dixon - Caption 1 image of Cotonester franchetti fruit

Cotonester franchetti | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Medlars (Mespilus germanica) offer the last fruit harvest of the season (see image below). These small trees produce hard, round, brownish fruit that require frosting to encourage softening (bletting).

Its soft fruit can be scooped out and eaten raw and the taste is not dissimilar to dates. Alternatively, medlar fruit can be baked or roasted and, when turned into jams and jellies, they are delicious, especially spread on warm scones.

Like most rosaceous fruit, medlars are nutritionally very rich in amino acids, tannins, carotene, vitamins C and B and several beneficial minerals. As rich sources of antioxidants medlars also help reduce the risks of atherosclerosis and diabetes.

SCIblog - 7 December 2021 - The December Garden by Prof Geoff Dixon - Caption 2 image of Medlar fruit (Mespilus germanica)

Medlar fruit (Mespilus germanica) can be turned into jams and jellies | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Garden work continues through December. It is a time for removing dead leaves and stems from herbaceous perennials, lightly forking through the top soil and adding granular fertilisers with high potassium and phosphate content.

Top fruit trees gain from winter pruning, which opens out their structure, allowing air circulation when fully laden with leaves, flowers and fruit. Fertiliser will feed and encourage fresh root formation as spring progresses.

The vegetable garden is best served by digging and incorporating farm yard manure or well-rotted compost, which adds fertility and encourages worm populations. The process of digging is also a highly beneficial exercise for the gardener (see illustration no 3).

SCIblog - 7 December 2021 - The December Garden by Prof Geoff Dixon - Caption 3 image of turning the soil

Turning the soil isn’t only good for your garden - it boosts your wellbeing | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Developing a rhythm with this task supports healthy blood circulation and, psychologically, provides huge mental satisfaction in seeing a weedy plot transformed into rows of well-turned bare earth.

When the weather turns wet, windy and wintery it provides opportunities for cleaning, oiling and sharpening tools, inspecting stored fruit and the roots of dahlias kept in frost-proof conditions.

Finally, there is always the very relaxing and pleasant task of reading through seed and plant catalogues and planning what may be grown in the coming seasons.

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

Sustainability & Environment

At COP26, Nikita Patel co-hosted the Next-Gen debate, where an inspiring group of young people discussed how chemistry is tackling climate change. The PhD student at Queen Mary University of London shares her experience.

While the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) may be over, there is still plenty to be done in the fight against climate change. We’ve seen what can be achieved when we work together and no doubt science will play a key role.

On Thursday 4 November, I had the privilege of co-hosting the Countdown to Planet Zero Next-Gen debate organised by SCI to showcase the work being carried out by our young and innovative scientists to tackle climate change. It was a real pleasure to share the stage and hear from some great scientists, exploring the themes Fuels of the Future, Turning Waste into Gold and Engineering Nature. The event gave the audience the opportunity to question and challenge the panel members on their climate change solutions.

SCIblog - 2 December 2021 - COP26: A host’s perspective - image of the SCI COP26 panel

Panel L-R: Dominic Smith, Natasha Boulding, Clare Rodseth, Jake Coole, Nikita Patel, Oliver Ring (Brett Parkinson joined virtually).

While I was feeling nervous about my hosting duties, I was very excited at the same time as I knew how important it was to educate the audience, whether they were members of the public or aspiring scientists, on how science is crucial in battling the climate emergency.

An important part of my role as a host was to ensure the incoming questions and comments were understood by all, given the mixed audience attending. This highlighted how essential good science communication is to prevent misunderstandings and the spread of misinformation.

It was brilliant to see how engaged the audience were from the flurry of questions that came in during the session, so much so that we didn’t manage to get through all of them! There were a wide variety of questions aimed at particular panellists but also towards the panel as a whole. It was thought-provoking to hear how scientists from different backgrounds offered their own perspectives on the same topic.

4 November was also Energy Day at COP26 and the atmosphere was buzzing! I learnt a lot from attending the Green Zone, not only from our panellists but from all the exhibitors present too. I appreciate the small, individual actions we can each take that will make a difference but also the need to work together to achieve the common goal of fighting climate change. It was clear to see how science and business go hand in hand to provide solutions to society and how interdisciplinary collaboration is key.

The result of our poll question: ‘Do you think that science is pivotal in providing climate change solutions?’ spoke for itself, with a resounding yes from 100% of the audience participants! This was a very positive outcome and showed that it is not all doom and gloom when it comes to discussing the climate crisis.

On a personal level, I'm going to continue implementing some simple changes like using public transport more, eating more vegan food and flying less and aim to keep the discussion going with my peers as the climate emergency is far from over.

SCIblog - 2 December 2021 - COP26: A host’s perspective - image of the SCI COP26 team, panellists and hosts

SCI team, panellists and hosts.

I hope the youth panel event has inspired the next generation of scientists and showcased some of the exciting work that is going on behind the scenes which people may not realise and ultimately, that there is hope in science.

>> To rewatch the event, the recording is available on the COP26 YouTube channel: Countdown to Planet Zero Combating climate change with chemistry | #COP26, and on our Climate Change Solutions hub.

>> Want to read more about the technologies discussed by our panel? Read our event review: https://www.soci.org/blog/2021/11/2021-11-05-cop26-review.

Sustainability & Environment

‘This is a fragile win. We have kept 1.5 alive. That was our overarching objective when we set off on this journey two years ago, taking the role of the COP presidency-designate. But I would say the pulse of 1.5 is weak’ – Alok Sharma, President for COP26.

If scientists, politicians and activists were hoping that COP26, delayed by one year because of the pandemic, would yield concrete plans for progress on climate change, perhaps the overall conclusion might be ‘at least we haven’t gone backwards’.

The Glasgow Climate Pact, signed by 197 countries, required an extra day of negotiations. In his summing up, the UN Secretary General António Guterres said: ‘The approved texts are a compromise. They reflect the interests, the contradictions, and the state of political will in the world today.’

In his video statement Guterres said that the agreement ‘takes important steps but unfortunately the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions. We must accelerate action to keep the 1.5 (degrees °C) goal alive…it’s time to go into emergency mode or our chance of reaching net-zero will indeed be zero.’

Guterres added that it was his conviction that it was time to phase out coal, end fossil fuel subsidies and build resilience in vulnerable communities. He also addressed the many young people and indigenous communities, saying: ‘I know you are disappointed. But the path to progress is not always a straight line…but I know we will get there. We are in the fight of our lives, and this fight must be won.’

SCIblog - 25 November 2021 - COP26 climate pact keeps hope alive - image of COP26 President Alok Sharma

COP26 President Alok Sharma believes that the measures agreed at COP26 are a ‘fragile win’ in the fight against catastrophic climate change. | Editorial credit: Paul Adepoju / Shutterstock.com

The Glasgow Climate Pact calls on signatories to report their progress towards more climate ambition in time for COP27, which will be hosted by Egypt. Welcoming the agreement, Alok Sharma, COP26 President, said: ‘This is a fragile win. We have kept 1.5 alive. That was our overarching objective when we set off on this journey two years ago, taking the role of the COP presidency-designate. But I would say the pulse of 1.5 is weak.’

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: ‘We have made progress on three of the objectives we set at the start of COP26. First, to get commitments to cut emissions to keep within reach the global warming limit of 1.5 degrees. Second, to reach the target of $100 billion per year of climate finance to developing and vulnerable countries. And third, to get agreement on the Paris rulebook. This gives us confidence that we can provide a safe and prosperous space for humanity on this planet.’

The NGO Greenpeace said in a statement: ‘While the COP26 deal doesn’t put the 1.5C goal completely out of reach, the governments and companies that obstructed bold action on climate change are knowingly endangering whole communities and cultures for their own short-term profits or political convenience. History won’t judge them kindly for this.’

While the final Pact has not reflected the hopes of many, it can be said that COP26 wasn’t short of a desire to see change. Perhaps the surprise package of the two-week event was the declaration between China and US which states that the countries ‘…recognise the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis. They are committed to tackling it through their respective accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s, as well as through cooperation in multilateral processes, including the UNFCCC process to avoid catastrophic impacts.’ The declaration from the two countries was widely welcomed.

Methane emissions and ocean protection

Other notable developments from COP26 included: The formal launch of the Global Methane Pledge led by the US and the European Union. The Pledge, which seeks to reduce overall methane emissions by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030, saw 100 countries, representing 70% of the global economy and nearly half the global methane emissions, sign up.

In agriculture, the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4Climate) was launched. Initiated by the US and United Arab Emirates, with endorsement from the COP26 Presidency, the goal of the initiative is to increase and accelerate global innovative research and development on agriculture and food systems in support of climate action.

SCIblog - 25 November 2021 - COP26 climate pact keeps hope alive - image of environmental activist Greta Thunberg

For some, including environmental activist Greta Thunberg, the resolutions agreed by governments at COP26 are insufficient. | Editorial credit: Mauro Ujetto / Shutterstock.com

The initiative has the backing of 32 countries. In addition, ocean protection received a boost with the UK Government using the COP26 Ocean Action Day to announce a wave of investment including at least £20 million in commitments made at the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Roundtable to drive the health and resilience of the oceans and climate vulnerable communities.

The Science and Innovation day at COP26 saw the launch of four initiatives, backed by global coalitions of nations, businesses and scientists. In what was said to be a global first, the Adaptation and Research Alliance was launched. The network of more than 90 organisations will collaborate to increase the resilience of vulnerable communities most impacted by climate change.

In further developments the UK, along with several countries including Canada and India, will collaborate to develop new markets for low carbon steel and concrete. The work is being carried out under the Industrial Deep Decarbonisation Initiative.

The need for innovation

Commenting on this, George Freeman, the UK Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, said: ‘Real change to combat climate change cannot happen without new scientific ideas, innovation and research, and it is clear no country or company acting in isolation can deliver the change that is needed at the pace that is needed.’

While the final COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact has disappointed many, there is no doubt that there is a will to make positive change, keep global temperatures in check and see humanity reap benefits.

Science & Innovation

How do you get large audiences to read about your work? Roger Highfield, Science Director of the Science Museum, and Steve Scott, Public Engagement Lead of UK Research and Innovation, shared their insights at a recent webinar organised by SCI.

‘When I talk to people about science writing – when I’m talking about the introduction – I ask them to practise on a long-suffering friend and read a couple of paragraphs of what they’ve written. If they reach for their phone, you’ve done something wrong.’

Some people’s observations should be taken with a liberal fistful of salt, but Roger Highfield is certainly worth listening to when it comes to connecting with the public. As Science Director of the Science Museum Group, he helped engage with more than five million visitors in 2019/20 alone and has written and edited thousands of articles as Science Editor of the Daily Telegraph and Editor of New Scientist.

SCIblog - 22 November 2021 - SCItalk: How to engage with millions of people - image of Roger Highfield

Roger Highfield, Science Director of the Science Museum

So, how can you reach large audiences with scientific content? First of all, salience is important. How does what you’re talking about have a material effect on people’s lives? As Roger Highfield noted dryly: ‘People will be very interested in asteroids when one’s bearing down on the Earth.’

Citizen science and the long form Q&A

Similarly, the public has been voracious in its consumption of Covid-19-related content despite the complicated nature of the virus and vaccine development. During lockdown, Roger Highfield’s long form Q&A blogs about Covid-19 were hugely popular because, as he said, ‘there was a public appetite for a deeper dive into the science’.

Aside from writing in a way that decongests heavy, complicated subjects, it also helps to get your research in front of the right people, namely communications specialists. ‘One lesson for mass engagement is to work with media organisations,’ he added. ‘It’s more than a platform – you’re dealing with experts in public engagement.’

For larger organisations, citizen science is an excellent way to engage people by making them part of a project. The Great Backyard Bird Count is a fine example of citizen science at its simple, effective best, with thousands of bird-watchers helping provide a real-time snapshot of bird populations around the world.

Highfield has engaged with the public in all manner of citizen science initiatives, from recent online cognition tests in which 110,000 people took part, all the way back to an experiment asking people about the catchiest song in the world. ‘At the time, it was The Spice Girls’ Wannabe,’ he said. ‘People recognised it in 2.5 seconds.’

At its best, citizen science doesn’t just help you to engage people in your work; it can be used as a valuable way to gather information and provide unique perspectives. ‘Citizen science is not just a flash in the pan. The role is changing,’ said Steve Scott, Public Engagement Lead at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). ‘It’s an effective way of gaining knowledge… bringing different forms of knowledge and expertise into research.’

SCIblog - 22 November 2021 - SCItalk: How to engage with millions of people - image of Steve Scott

Steve Scott, Public Engagement Lead of UK Research and Innovation

Scott used the University of West London-led Homes Under the Microscope project to illustrate his point. As part of this project, people in Bristol and Bradford will detect and monitor airborne microplastic sources in their homes and feed this information back to the project organisers to help assess the prevalence of these substances.

A cultural shift

If you’d like more people to read about your research or product, it’s also worth thinking about the way people consume media. According to Scott, the general public tends to consume science through televisions and museums (for example, a visit to the zoo), and people are most likely to follow up on scientific matters having seen them on the news.

Many people learn about science through social media and YouTube, but other vehicles are worth considering too if you want to raise awareness. The UKRI views gaming as a significantly untapped area of public engagement and is investing in this area. Another intriguing way to raise awareness of innovative research is through awards, with the recent, well publicised Earthshot Awards providing a case in point. ‘They’ve taken research grants,’ Scott said, ‘and made them into the Oscars.’

Encouragingly, as the means of communication are changing, so too is the readiness of researchers to share their work. Both Highfield and Scott have seen a large shift over the past 15 years or so, with more and more scientists communicating their research. ‘It’s recognised as being an important part of being a researcher now,’ Scott said. ‘You’re excited about [your research]… Why would you not talk to the public about it?

The big takeaway

So, what is the most important takeaway from the talks, apart from that all-important Spice Girls fact? Fundamentally, when you are communicating your research or peddling your company’s wares, it helps to narrow your focus.

Indeed, Scott reminded us that the public is not a homogeneous group. ‘If we want to engage with millions of people, we need to think of audiences as more than just the general public,’ he said.

He said that 75 per cent of the potential UK audience – roughly 49 million people – falls into one of two groups: they don’t think science is for them, or they’re inactive. So, it’s worth taking an in-depth look at your target demographic and the places it goes to for news before sharing your work.

Earlier, Roger Highfield emphasised the same thing. He said: ‘If there’s one thing I want you to take from this talk, it’s to think about the audience.’

>> Watch How to engage with millions of people in full on our YouTube channel at: https://youtu.be/HSOMQd958EQ

Science & Innovation

Continuing our profiles of Black scientists, Dr Jeraime Griffith, Chair of SCI’s Agrisciences Group, shares how a simple classroom experiment set him on the journey that has led to him analysing complex data to safeguard UK food security.

Jeraime GriffithWould you mind giving us a brief outline of your current role:
I am a Data Scientist building tools that maintain, forecast and predict threats to the UK’s food security.

Right: Dr Jeraime Griffith

What was it that led you to study chemistry/science and ultimately develop a career in this field? Was this your first choice?
At about age 10, in primary school, I had a teacher who explained to us how the human digestive system and saliva break down starch into sugars. To demonstrate this, he got some bread from the school kitchen and asked us to chew it until we started noticing a slight sweet taste. I decided then to be a scientist. This wasn’t my first choice however. Prior to that moment, I wanted to be a pilot.

Was there any one person or group of people who you felt had a specific impact on your decision to pursue the career you are in?
My parents were super supportive. After announcing that I wanted to be a scientist, I got a science dictionary for my birthday. I also had great teachers, both at primary and secondary school. At 13, we were doing hands-on chemistry experiments and helping to tidy the lab at the end of the school year.

Could you outline the route that you took to get to where you are now, and how you were supported?
Following a BSc and a PhD, both in chemistry, I worked for ChemOvation, Argenta Discovery (now part of Charles River Laboratories) and briefly at Novartis. I then went off to New Zealand for a two-year postdoc at Massey University in early 2009 to work with my former PhD supervisor who had relocated there.

On returning to the UK, I worked at Imperial College London, first at the Centre for Synthetic Biology, then over in Chemistry with Professor Tom Welton. It was towards the end of my time with Professor Welton that I began learning the programming language Python, which led me to data science. I’m now a Data Scientist at Cognizant, working with the Food Standards Agency.

I was fully supported, both in industry and academia, but it was in academia that I was afforded the freedom to explore my interests – particularly to use 20% of my time to do whatever I wanted.

Aerial tractor spraying oil seed rape crop

Jeraime helps safeguard UK food security and Chairs SCI’s Agrisciences group
Considering your own career route, what message do you have for Black people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Allow some flexibility in pursuing your career. When I was questioning myself and my goals, I came across ‘Obliquity’, a book by John Kay. Sometimes diversions are the best way to get to your goals.

Seek out mentors, and I would say 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. I’ve found people are genuinely interested in helping you. This is how I learned about the Agrisciences group at the Society for Chemical Industry, which I joined and now Chair.

As for getting into data science, I did a 13-week intensive bootcamp. These are not for everyone as they are expensive and have a high demand on your time. However, there are a lot of free courses available. With this availability, it can be hard to find the good ones. The knowledge of the crowd can help. I’ve found Twitter to be our modern day equivalent to Ask Jeeves.*

What do you think are the specific barriers that might be preventing young Black people from pursuing chemistry/science? 
Lack of representation I think is the number one barrier. Impostor syndrome is bad at the best of times, but worse still if there’s no representation in the ivory tower.

What steps do you think can be taken by academia and businesses to increase the number of Black people studying and pursuing chemistry/science as a career?
Recruit people of colour with less experience to positions of responsibility. Trust us to perform and have the support in place when we falter.

Business coach rearview man gesturing

The experience that most defined Jeraime’s career path… a great teacher

Science is at the centre of addressing many of the big global issues. Do you hope that this will lead to more young Black people wanting to get involved in science and develop solutions? 
Yes. A low entry point is data science. Most of the tools we use are open source. Data for your area of interest are, for the most part, freely available and the data science community is helpful and engaging.

Could you share one experience which has helped to define your career path? 
Where I am now began in that class in primary school when I first learned about the human digestive system. So, my defining experience would be having a great teacher.       

*Note from the editor: Some youngsters may need to look up what Ask Jeeves is!

Edited by Muriel Cozier. You can read more of her work here.

Agrifood

How has climate change changed the way our gardens grow and what can be done to alleviate its effects? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.

Climate has changed on Earth ever since it solidified and organic life first emerged. Indeed, the first photosynthesising microbes changed the atmosphere from carbon dioxide rich to oxygen rich over millions of years. What we now face is very rapid changes brought about by a single organism, mankind, through industrialisation.

The effects of change are very evident in gardens. Over a generation, leaf bud breaking and flowering by early spring bulbs, herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees has advanced by at least four weeks (see main image of Cyclamen hederifolium).

Latter spring displays have advanced by at least two weeks. This is caused by milder, wetter winter weather, encouraging growth. The danger lies in the increasing frequency of short sharp spells of severe frost and snow. These kill off precocious flowers and leaves which trees especially cannot replace.

desiccated cracked soil

Desiccated, cracked soil.

Increasingly, the summer climate is becoming hotter and drier. Since the Millennium there has been a succession of hot droughts. These seriously limit scope for growing vegetables, fruit and ornamentals unless irrigation is regularly available. Drought also damages soil structure especially where there is a high clay content by causing cracking and the loss of plant cover (see image of desiccated, cracked soil above).

Cracking disrupts and destroys the root systems of trees and shrubs in particular. The effects of root damage may not become evident until these plants die in the following years. 

Climate change is apparently advantageous for microbes. Detailed surveys show that fungal life cycles are speeding up, increasing the opportunities for diseases to cause damage. Even normally quite resilient crops such as quince are being invaded during milder, damper autumns (See image of brown rot on quince fruit below). Throughout gardens, the range and aggressiveness of pests and disease is increasing.

Brown rot on quince fruit

Brown rot (Monilia laxa) on quince fruit.

However, each individual garden or allotment, no matter its size, can contribute to reducing the rate of climate change. Simple actions include the removal of hard landscaping, and planting trees and shrubs reduces carbon emissions.

Using electric-powered tools and machinery in place of petrol or diesel has similar advantages. Tumbling down parts of a garden into native flora, and perhaps encouraging rarer plants such as wild orchids or fritillarias, mitigates climate change. Such areas may also form habitats for hedgehogs or slow worms, increase populations of bees, butterflies and moths and encourage bird life. 

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

All images from Professor Geoff Dixon.

Careers

As we build up to the 3rd SCI-RSC symposium on antimicrobial drug discovery, we spoke to Dr Anita Shukla, Associate Professor of Engineering at Brown University, about designing drug delivery systems to treat infection, creating a positive atmosphere in her lab, the challenges facing professionals in her industry, and much more.

SCIblog - 9 November 2021 - Women in Chem: Anita Shukla - Image of Anita Shukla, Associate Professor of Engineering at Brown University

Anita Shukla, Associate Professor of Engineering at Brown University

Tell us a bit more about the work being done in your lab.
All of what my lab works on is very biomedically orientated. The major thing we focus on is treating bacterial and fungal infections. We have a lot of interest in designing drug delivery systems to treat all sorts of bacterial and fungal infections, from localised infections to more systemic infections. We design nanoparticles, polymeric nanoparticles, self-assembled structures, surface coatings and larger-scale materials such as hydrogels that can be used as bandages.

We work on the material design for delivering antimicrobial therapeutics – antibiotics, antifungals and other antimicrobial components – and we study a lot about the properties of these materials. What sets us apart is that we’re trying to make materials that are smart, that are in some way targeted or responsive to the presence of bacteria or fungi.

So, to give you an example, we are working on making hydrogel wound dressings. These wound dressings are smart and can respond to the presence of bacteria and fungus. They know when bacteria and fungi are present, based on the enzymes that are there in the localised local environment of the hydrogel. They actually degrade only in the presence of those enzymes and release encapsulated nanotherapeutics.

And that’s really important because of antimicrobial resistance. So, we are trying very hard to provide effective therapies but limit exposure to antimicrobial therapeutics only to times that they’re needed. That’s the kind of work we’ve been doing over the past five or six years.

You’ve done some really interesting work on pregnancy care too. Tell us more about that.
So, that work was inspired by a graduate student who was very interested in women’s health and prenatal health. What we noted was that a lot of pharmaceutical agents that you must use when you’re pregnant don’t have enough information associated with their potential toxic side effects on a growing fetus. A lot of that testing is very difficult to do, so we thought: ‘Can we come up with model systems that could be used for the testing of pharmaceutical agents, toxins, and toxicants?’

The placenta really is the interface between the fetus and the mother and a lot of the nutrient and waste exchange happens through this organ. We wanted to come up with a model system that represents a placenta that was cell free and didn’t involve using an animal. So, what we did was we first studied cells taken from a placenta and the lipid composition of these cells, and then we made lipid bilayers out of synthetic lipids that mimicked the composition of placental cells at different trimesters during the pregnancy. And then we looked at how different small molecules (some of them were actually antimicrobial therapeutics) interact with these synthetic lipid bilayer models.

We noted the differences between the different trimesters and compositions of the placental cells in terms of the lipid content and how these toxicants, small molecules and pharmaceutical agents interacted. It’s early stage work but that same technology could be adapted for the purpose of high throughput testing in a cell-free environment for a range of applications.

What you do in your lab has a real-world effect. How important is that?
We’re very real-world application driven. I think the science is great, and we do a lot of fundamental science in the lab too, but the purpose is to solve real-world problems. Right now, with the pandemic, the work we’re doing on antimicrobial drug delivery is very relevant. The data show that bacteria and fungal co-infections for patients that have Covid-19 are increasing greatly and that’s heavily problematic. The antimicrobial resistance issue is just going to be exacerbated because these patients can also receive antibiotics and antifungals at the same time.

SCIblog - 9 November 2021 - Women in Chem: Anita Shukla - Image of Anita Shukla finding solutions to real-life problems at the Shukla Lab

Finding solutions to real-life problems at the Shukla Lab. Image courtesy of Brown University School of Engineering

How did you get to this point in your career?
The one big factor in where I ended up is my family. My family has always supported me tremendously and I’ve had a very positive role model of an academic and researcher in my father. That definitely got me early exposure, which exemplifies and solidifies the fact that early exposure is really important, which can come from your family, friends, teachers, and other role models.

When I started my undergraduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University, I thought I wanted to go into medicine at first, but then when I got there. I really enjoyed designing solutions that physicians would use. As an undergrad, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in terms of the exact field of research; so, every summer I did a different research experience. In the first summer, I worked at the University of Rhode Island in a Mechanical Engineering lab. For the second summer, I worked at MIT in a materials science lab. And for my third summer, I worked in Columbia University in applied physics and mathematics. I also did research at Carnegie Mellon University with a faculty member in chemical engineering and just tried to get mentors and different experiences under my belt so I could get better informed in what I wanted to do. I then went to MIT to study chemical engineering for my graduate degrees.

Did any specific people help you along the way?
I worked with a faculty member at MIT, Paula Hammond, who’s now the department Head in Chemical Engineering at MIT. She was really an amazing influence for me. I definitely had strong female role models as an undergrad, but my graduate supervisor at MIT happened to be a strong black female scientist and that was hugely influential to me – to see that you can be a minority in STEM, really successful, and do it all. At the same time, she was very open about challenges for women in chemical engineering and not afraid to talk about it at all. She did a great job in promoting us and making sure we had the right mentoring during the five years of my PhD. So, I’m very grateful to her.

I did my postdoc at Rice University in the bioengineering department, and I worked with another really strong female mentor there. My postdoctoral advisor, Jennifer West – who is now the Dean of Engineering at the University of Virginia – was really amazing. I learnt a whole new set of things from her. In all of this, I can pinpoint that I’ve had many mentors. I would highly advise that regardless of what you are interested in doing in life, find those people who are out there to support you.

How did you end up at Brown?
I ended up at Brown in the School of Engineering as a tenure track assistant professor in the summer of 2013. Since then, all the time has gone into setting up my lab and advancing our science. It’s pretty much flown by. I’ve been extremely lucky. I’ve had amazing students and postdocs in my lab. They really produce everything that comes out of it. I’m just the spokesperson.

I love working with them. We have a very inclusive environment. We talk about a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion-related concerns. I think that’s really important. We try to self-educate and educate each other on these topics. We have a welcoming environment and genuinely care that everyone in the lab feels respected. Because you can only do good science and good work if you work in a place where you are happy and respected and can be yourself.

What does a given working day look like?
It varies. A given day is chaotic due to work and having two small kids. My husband is also a professor at Brown so we both have similar demands on our time but a lot of my time goes into research and proposal writing. We need to raise funds to run a lab so we definitely spend a lot of time on that. Paper writing to get out work out is also super important.

My favourite things are meeting with my grad students and postdocs about research. I love meeting with them and talking with them about their data and generating new ideas together. This semester I am also teaching a class about advances in biomedical engineering over the past couple of years. Preparing those classes and making sure I am devoting time to them is important to me.

SCIblog - 9 November 2021 - Women in Chem: Anita Shukla - Image of Anita Shukla and a colleague at Brown University

‘One thing I always tell students is don’t doubt yourself. Go ahead and try.’ Image courtesy of Brown University School of Engineering

What challenges have you had to overcome in your career?
I've been extremely lucky, but there has been the two-body situation. It’s essentially having a working spouse and trying to figure out how to make it work so that you both have the careers you want in the same location. That took me and my husband five years to figure out.

My husband was in Texas and I was in Rhode Island and I had two babies with me while doing this academic career on my own. That’s incredibly challenging, but it’s extremely common. In general, I think industry and academia need to work harder to make it easier for individuals to figure out this situation and smoothen the transition.

There are other little things that come up that are challenging. I do often feel that I have to prove myself to my older male colleagues at times when I shouldn't have to. If I get into an elevator with a male colleague who’s exactly the same age as me, a senior male colleague might ask that colleague about his research, and I might be asked about my kids. I often think it’s not intentional – and I try to give people the benefit of the doubt – but I think there’s a lot of education that still needs to be done.

>> Interested in the latest on antimicrobial drug discovery? Register to attend the 3rd SCI-RSC symposium on antimicrobial drug discovery on 15 and 16 November.

What’s the current state of play in your sector with respect to diversity, equality, and inclusion?
There's a lot to do but there’s a lot more awareness now. We’re far from where we need to be in terms of representation of all sorts of individuals in academia. Really, it’s ridiculously appalling if we look at numbers of black individuals, women in STEM academics, or the grant funding that goes to these individuals. But I have seen over the past two years or so that there’s just been more people talking about it. In biomedical engineering, a group of around 100 faculty or so academics around the US gets together periodically over Zoom to talk about these topics, and there’s more awareness and content in our scientific forums.

What’s the greatest challenge for people developing antimicrobial materials or in biomedical areas?
With therapeutics, it’s the FDA approval timeline. It’s years later by the time they’re used. A lot of the time people shy away from working in therapeutics because they know how hard it is going to be to commercialise something in that area.

On an academic level for me as an engineer, it’s critical to figure out what the important challenges and problems are. We’re very lucky at Brown that we have a great medical school so we can talk to clinicians, but cross-talk between disciplines is super important right now.

What advice would you give to young professionals in your area?
One thing I always tell students is don’t doubt yourself. Go ahead and try. You can’t win a game if you don’t play it. I constantly run into individuals who say: ‘I didn’t apply for that because I didn’t think I was qualified’. Basically, I just tell them to apply – you have nothing to lose.

What are you and your students working on that you’re most excited about at the moment?
I really love everything we are doing! I love the fact that we are designing materials that are smart, so they respond to the presence of microbes. I think that could be groundbreaking in terms of prolonging the lifetime of our existing antimicrobial drugs. We also have some really great work going on in treating biofilms, which are incredibly problematic in terms of infections. It’s very hard to answer. I’m proud of everything we do.

>> In recent months, we’ve spoken to inspiring women who work in science. Read more about the stories of materials scientist Rhys Archer and Jessica Jones, Applications Team Leader at Croda.

Careers

Our careers often take us in unforeseen directions. Dr Jessica Jones, Applications Team Leader at Croda, chatted to us about moving from research into management, the benefit of developing softer skills, and her unexpected mentor.

Tell me about your career to date.
I came through university in what is probably seen as the ‘traditional’ way. I did a Master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Liverpool, with a year working in industry, which I really enjoyed. And then after I finished my Master’s, I did a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Nottingham. I always wanted to work in industry, but I really enjoyed research, so I decided to do the PhD as I thought the skills would be useful for either career path.

SCIblog - 8 November 2021 - Women in Chem – Jessica Jones - Image of Jessica Jones in the laboratory

Jessica Jones in the lab

Were you tempted by a career in academia?
No, I never felt like I was the kind of person who had what it takes to succeed in academia. I never felt like I could ever come up with the nucleus of a new idea. I always felt like someone could give me the slimmest thread of a thought and I could turn it into something, but I could never have that thread myself. From my perspective, academia can be a lonely career and I enjoy and benefit from working in a team with other people.

So, after I finished my PhD, I joined Croda in 2013 as a Research Scientist in our synthesis division, in a synthetic chemistry R&D role. Over seven years, I progressed from Research Scientist to Lead Research Scientist and then Team Leader. During that time, I moved around a bit. I worked at different manufacturing sites, in different research areas and did lots of different projects across multiple sectors.

In February 2020, I was asked if I wanted to go on secondment, as a Team Leader, to one of our applications teams in Energy Technologies. Energy Technologies focuses on lubricants, oil and gas, and batteries. I really enjoyed the secondment and after it came to an end, I chose to take it on as a permanent position rather than return to my old role.

What does this role entail?
My role entails managing a team of application and lead application scientists who work on a range of projects, from designing new products to supporting customers with specific problems and working with universities on more theoretical, developmental ideas.

At the moment, we’re working on a lot of what we call EV (electric vehicle)-friendly fluids. When you move from traditional combustion engines to electric vehicles, there’s quite a change in the properties needed for the fluids within the engine. We make the speciality additives that go into the base oils that support functions such as reduced engine wear and improved fuel efficiency.

The EV market is very different to the traditional car market, which is dominated by big lubricant manufacturers. EVs are so new that Croda has been at conception discussions with world leading EV companies. The whole sector is very data driven and, coming from a research scientist background, that appeals to me very much. It’s very exciting to be at the cutting-edge of innovation with what we’re doing within electrification and renewable energy.

Which projects are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got two long-term new development projects that are both progressing to the final stages of manufacturing. These are products that I designed the chemistry for when working in the synthesis team. It can take four or five years to get a new project through the development process, and I’ve continued to manage them throughout their timeline, even though I have moved into different roles. They are both speciality additives for crude oil to reduce the temperature at which impurities develop, to allow the more difficult oil fractions to be brought out of the ground without it solidifying in pipes when they transport it.

SCIblog - 8 November 2021 - Women in Chem – Jessica Jones - Quote of Jessica Jones 

What does a general working day involve?
There are eight people in our team, and I am responsible for managing six of them. There are two other senior technical specialists I work alongside. They have lots of experience in the industry and working with academia, and the three of us coordinate the projects across the team.

My role is to translate the pipeline and the strategy from our senior leaders into what we do in the lab every day. I have three projects that I'm running, which are new product launches. Alongside that, I coordinate the project pipeline and make sure everyone is able to manage their projects and progress them. I do a small amount of lab work, but I would say it makes up 5% of my time.

I always thought I would be a specialist when I joined Croda because of my PhD and lab experience. However, over the time I’ve worked here, I started to really enjoy working with other people; and I think I probably realised I had better skills at motivating other people, building up teams, and networking. So that became a lot more important, and I chose to move into the management side of things but still within a technical function.

Interpersonal skills are sometimes underrated in management. How do you approach this side of the job?
I think I am quite at ease around other people as I am very extroverted. I think that makes me different from a lot of people in my team. For example, my boss and I are the total opposite of each other, but it works really well because it means that we complement each other perfectly. He’s very strategic and he likes to take his time to make decisions. He likes to review all the data very methodically and is good at using detail to evaluate a project’s true value, whereas I’m much more about talking to people, bringing everyone together and acting quickly to get things done. But I think the balance of both works incredibly well for us as a team.

During lockdown we received a webinar on personal resilience, and the session was about your outward projection to other people. About 70% of how you are perceived by others is made up of how people see you and your ‘brand’. Your technical expertise and actual ability to do your job only makes up about 20% of how people view you and how successful you are. And I think as a scientist, you get a bit focused on delivering the project successfully, thinking that you need to be really amazing at delivering data, but people forget about the need to work on themselves to develop as well.

What part of your job motivates you most?
It’s a combination. The science we’re working on is very exciting, and I really enjoy getting all the projects together, making sure everything fits together and that everyone’s doing the right thing. But emotionally, it’s the team that gets me up in the morning – coming in, seeing what they do, how they have been. I’ve been really lucky over the past 12 months, being able to see some of my colleagues really develop. I’ve taken a lot of pride in realising the impact you can have on other people and allowing yourself to take credit for that.

>> What is life like as a materials scientist? Take a look at our thought-provoking conversation with Rhys Archer, founder of Women of Science.

Which mentors have helped you along the way?
There’s one person who stands out. I was asked to take on this extra role to become a European technical rep in one of our business areas. I’d never done anything like that before so the idea that I was going to be put out there, in front of customers, as the technical expert for the business was quite terrifying.

I was to work with the European Sales Manager of the business, and we ended up traveling a lot together. He was the opposite to me. He’s very experienced but had a reputation as a bit of a loud, burly Yorkshireman and I wasn’t sure how we would fit together, but we got on like an absolute house on fire. He was so helpful to me, not just in giving feedback on what I was doing in the role, but general conversations about career and life outside of work and personal support. Having that kind of professional relationship develop has made a massive difference. Just meeting someone like that and having a person to go to when I needed help, someone who I really trust to have my best interests at heart. It was very beneficial for the number of years that we worked together. Since then, we have moved on to different roles, but we still stay in touch, and it has taught me the value in reaching out to different people to help me to develop.

SCIblog - 8 November 2021 - Women in Chem – Jessica Jones - Image of Jessica with the first product she developed at Croda

Jessica with the first product she developed at Croda.

In terms of equality and diversity, do you think enough is being done in your sector?
I think there is always more that can be done but I’ve never felt my gender has hindered me in my career and I’ve always felt very supported at Croda. Sometimes people are in a rush to see change immediately, especially when the senior management at Croda and many other STEM organisations is still made up of a majority of white males.

I like to think that the support myself and others have been given will mean that, as we progress, there will be more representation in senior positions. I would always want to achieve something on merit rather than to tick a box for equality. If that means it will take time for the generation I am in now to get to those positions, then I can wait. Importantly, I genuinely think everything that’s being put in place at Croda, and more broadly across the STEM sector, will pave the way for more diverse representation in senior roles in the future.

Do you have any advice you’d give to someone starting out?
Having a mentor is very important. I never thought I needed one until accidently developing that relationship. Since moving into different roles, I’ve set out to deliberately engage with people for that purpose. I would encourage people to seek out those who are different from themselves and engage with them.

I also think it’s important not to be afraid to ask for things you want. If you want to get a promotion or seek out further development, it’s often tempting to ask permission. If you can demonstrate to people that you are ready, it is more effective.

Generally, I think people, especially women, really underestimate the value of self-promotion as they worry it can be perceived as arrogance. A lot of people think that if you simply do a good job, then you’ll be recognised for that. That would be amazing if it were true, but people will judge you on how you’re perceived and how you present yourself, as well as what you do.

I think you need to put yourself out there. Whether it’s getting involved in something outside of your day job or taking the lead in a particular task, it’s a great way to get recognised. Sometimes it won’t work out and it can be hard to take the criticism when that happens, but you always learn from the outcome. I always prefer to have given something a go, even if I fail, than never to try.

Finally, I think people should always be themselves because everyone has unique skills to offer. I don’t think people would look at me and think that I look like the manager of a technical team, but I’m comfortable with my own style and that makes other people comfortable with it too.

>> We’re always interested in hearing about different people’s diverse career paths into chemistry. If you’d like to share yours, get in touch with us at: eoin.redahan@soci.org

Sustainability & Environment

A group of inspiring young scientists took centre stage at COP26 on 4 November to show how the next generation of chemists is finding tangible climate change solutions.

In a day dominated by what countries pledged to stop doing at COP26, such as pursuing coal power and financing fossil fuel projects overseas, it was refreshing to learn about low-carbon technologies and the young people driving their development. At the Next Gen forum, we heard from an array of young chemists, all associated with SCI, who are at the sharp edge of this change.

We heard from Brett Parkinson, Senior Engineer of Low Carbon Fuels and Energy Technologist at C-Zero, who is working on commercialising a way to decarbonise natural gas. The California-based company’s technology converts the natural gas into hydrogen and solid carbon to provide a clean energy source while sequestering the carbon; and the aim is to have this process up and running next year.

Natasha Boulding is building towards Net Zero a different way – with a greener concrete. The CEO and Co-founder of Sphera has developed a lightweight carbon negative additive using waste plastics that aren’t currently being recycled. She says the company’s blocks are the same strength and price as existing concrete blocks, but with 30% more thermal insulation. There is also the added benefit of reusing waste materials that would otherwise have gone to landfill or been incinerated.

Another solution discussed by Dominic Smith, Process Development Engineer at GSK, reduces energy consumption through green chemistry. He is trying to find greener ways to make medicines using enzymes. These enzymes, which can be found in plants and soil, replace chemical synthesis steps to cut energy consumption during processing and reduce hazardous waste.

SCIblog - 5 November 2021 - COP 26: Young scientists combat climate change with chemistry - Caption 1 image of the panel

Panel (left to right): Dominic Smith, Natasha Boulding, Clare Rodseth, Jake Coole, Nikita Patel, and Oliver Ring (Brett Parkinson spoke via video link).

It was apparent from the discussion that many solutions will be needed for us to reach our climate change targets. On the one hand, Jake Coole, Senior Chemist in Johnson Matthey’s Fuel Cells team, is working on membrane electrode assembly for hydrogen fuel cells to help us transition to hydrogen-powered buses and trucks.

At the same time, Clare Rodseth, an Environmental Sustainability Scientist at Unilever, has been using lifecycle assessments to reduce the environmental impact of some of the 400 Unilever brands people use all over the world every day. For example, this work has helped the company move away from petrochemical ingredients in its home care products. ‘Even small changes,’ she said, ‘have the potential to bring about large-scale change.’

Incremental change

However, for each of the technologies discussed, barriers remain. For Coole and co., having a readily available supply of hydrogen and charging infrastructure will be key. And for Dominic Smith and his colleagues, the use of enzymes in green chemistry is still in its infancy; and getting enzymes that are fast enough, stable enough, and produce the right yield is difficult. Nevertheless, he noted that manufacturers are now using enzymes to produce the drug amoxicillin, reducing the carbon footprint by about 25%

And some things will take time to change. Natasha Boulding noted that concrete is the second most used material in the world after drinking water, and we simply can’t create many green technologies, such as wind turbines, without concrete foundations.

She said the construction industry is quite traditional but also pointed to perceptible change, with the green concrete market growing and companies becoming increasingly aware of their carbon footprints.

SCIblog - 5 November 2021 - COP 26: Young scientists combat climate change with chemistry - Caption 2 image of the panel

Collaboration was seen as crucial in producing climate change solutions.

The reality is that global action on climate change is recent. As Brett Parkinson said: ‘the main reason we’re talking about it now is that there’s a driver to do it. Until the last decade, the world hadn’t cared about CO2 emissions. They just talked about caring about it.’

How pivotal is science in all of this?

So, what could be done to make climate action more effective? For Parkinson, effective policy is key. He argued that if the market isn’t led by policies that encourage low-carbon innovations, then it won’t work as needed. ‘It all starts with effective decarbonisation policy,’ he said. ‘Legacy industries are very resistant to change. If you don’t have strong and consistent policies… then they’re not going to adapt.’

Another key to our low-carbon evolution is collaboration, and the SCI provides a confluence point for those in industry and academia to work together to produce innovative, low-carbon products. As Clare Rodseth said: ‘Collaboration is really important – linking up people who can actually come together and address these problems.’

As the discussion came to a close, you had the impression that the debate could have gone on for much longer. ‘Hopefully, we’ve demonstrated that there is action, and it’s being driven by young people like our panellists today,’ summarised Oliver Ring, the event’s co-Chair, before asking for the result of the audience poll.

The question: How many of those watching believed that science is pivotal in providing climate change solutions? 

The answer: Just the 100%.

>> Thank you to Johnson Matthey for sponsoring the event, to the speakers for sharing their time and expertise, and to co-chairs Nikita Patel and Oliver Ring for doing such an excellent job.

Sustainability & Environment

This Thursday at COP26, an inspiring panel of young scientists will discuss innovations that will help us mitigate climate change. So, what can we expect?

Millions of young people are frustrated by climate change inaction. Indeed, according to a University of Bath study, 60% of the next generation feel overwhelmed by climate anxiety. Often, the proposed solutions seem vague and intangible – well-intentioned ideas that drift away when the political winds shift.

And yet, when you see the ingenuity of young scientists, business people, and activists, it’s hard not to be excited. Undoubtedly, politics and our legal system will play a huge role in the drive to reach Net Zero, but arguably science will play the biggest role in transforming the way we live. Just think of the falling cost of generating solar power, improvements in battery chemistry for electric vehicles, the development of sustainable construction materials, and the rapid rollout of Covid-19 vaccines.

Tangible solutions

This Thursday at COP26, SCI will host the Next Gen youth forum event where the panellists discuss the climate change solutions they are working on right now and how they are being applied by industry. In the Countdown to Planet Zero roundtable, these scientists – drawn from within SCI’s innovation community – will explain their work to a global audience and the impact it will have on climate change.

They will discuss innovation in three key areas: topics of fuels of the future, turning waste into gold, and engineering nature.

SCIblog - 2 November 2021 - COP26: Young scientists will save us - Caption image of a protesters climate change protesting sign

The next generation has mobilised and is creating solutions to help avoid climate change disaster.

The panel will be chaired by two very capable young scientists. Oliver Ring is Senior Scientist at AstraZeneca’s large-scale synthesis team and Chair of SCI’s Young Chemists’ Panel, and passionate climate advocate Nikita Patel is a PhD student at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre of Translational Medicine and Therapeutics and STEM Ambassador for schools.

The other panel members include Clare Rodseth, of Unilever’s Environmental Sustainability Science team, who brings lifecycle analysis to product innovation to make products more sustainable.

Jake Coole, Senior Chemist in Johnson Matthey’s Fuel Cells team, is involved in the scale-up of new processes and next generation manufacturing, and Dominic Smith, Process Development Engineer at GSK, who is interested in engineering biology to create sustainable manufacturing processes.

Also present will be Dr Brett Parkinson, Senior Engineer of Low Carbon Fuels and Energy Technologist at C-Zero – a California-based startup that works on the decarbonisation of natural gas. In 2019, Brett was awarded an SCI scholarship for his research.

The lineup also includes Dr Natasha Boulding, CEO and Co-founder of Sphera Limited, a speciality materials company that has created carbon negative concrete blocks made from aggregate including waste plastic. According to Natasha, whose company also won SCI’s Bright SCIdea challenge in 2019: “In terms of combating climate change, interdisciplinary collaboration is the key. No one discipline has the answer to solve our biggest challenges – but together diverse minds can.’

>> Would you like to take part in BrightSCIdea and be in with the chance of winning £5,000? Be part of it.

Watch the event online

SCI is proud to be associated with these enterprising young scientists and the imaginative solutions they are developing to mitigate the effects of climate change.

‘As a global innovation hub, SCI wants to show how the next generation of scientists is actively developing solutions,’ said Sharon Todd, SCI CEO.

Sharon Todd

Sharon Todd, SCI CEO

‘Our COP26 youth forum debate will profile the work of young scientists and entrepreneurs addressing climate change in their work. This next generation of innovators has the power to change our world’s tomorrow.’

If you’d like to see the climate change solutions of tomorrow, register to watch the virtual event here.

Science & Innovation

Continuing our series on Black pioneering scientists and inventors, we profile Garrett Augustus Morgan. His observations led him to upgrade the sewing machine, invent and upgrade life saving devices and develop personal care products for Black people, while championing civil rights and fighting for his own recognition.

SCIblog - 29 October 2021 - Black History Month: Garrett Augustus Morgan - image of Garrett A Morgan

Garrett Augustus Morgan | Image credit: Public domain image courtesy of: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1165661

Garrett Augustus Morgan was born in 1877, in Kentucky, US. Like many Black students he left school at a young age to find work. However, while working as a handyman in Cincinnati, he was able to hire a tutor and continue his studies.

During 1895, Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and it is said that Morgan’s interest in how things worked was sparked while repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. It was during this time that Morgan’s first inventions were developed: a belt fastener for sewing machines and the attachment used for creating zigzag stitching. By 1905, Morgan had opened a sewing machine shop and then a shop making clothes, ultimately providing employment for more than 30 people.

It was also during this time that Morgan became involved in the establishment of the Cleveland Association of Coloured Men. In addition to his interest in ‘gadgets’, Morgan also patented hair care products for Black people.

The life-saving Safety Hood

Morgan is credited with several inventions that have been responsible for saving many lives. In 1912 he filed a patent for the Safety Hood, which was developed after he had seen fire fighters struggling from the smoke encountered while tackling blazes. On the back of his invention, Morgan was able to establish the National Safety Device Company, in 1914, to market the product. While Morgan was able to sell his safety device across the US, it is said that on some occasions he hired a White actor to take credit for the device, rather than revealing himself as the inventor.

Morgan’s Safety Hood was soon in use in various settings including hospitals and ammonia factories. Indeed, the Safety Hood was used to save many lives and by the start of World War I, the breathing device had been refined to carry its own air supply. The Safety Hood was awarded a gold medal by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 4 Garrett Morgan fact

>> Read more about trailblazing Black scientists here.

Morgan’s device reached national prominence when it was used in the rescue of survivors and victims of a tunnel explosion under Lake Erie in 1916. The accounts tell of Morgan being woken early in the morning of 24 July 1916, after two rescuers lost their lives following the explosion.

Morgan is said to have arrived on the scene in his pyjamas, with his brother and a number of Safety Hoods. To allay the fears of the sceptics about his Safety Hood, Morgan went into the tunnel and retrieved two victims. Others joined and several people were rescued. Morgan is reported to have made four trips, but this heroism affected his health for years after as a result of the fumes he encountered.

Sadly, Morgan’s bravery and the impact of his Safety Hood were not initially recognised by the local press or city officials. It was some time later that Morgan’s role was acknowledged; and in 1917 a group of citizens presented him with the gold medal.

SCIblog - 29 October 2021 - Black History Month: Garrett Augustus Morgan - image of Garrett A Morgan during the Lake Erie rescue 1916

Garrett A. Morgan rescues a man at the 1917 Lake Erie Crib Disaster | Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 Image in the Public Domain

While orders for Morgan’s device increased following the incident, it is said that when his picture appeared in the national press, crediting him as the Safety Hood inventor, officials in a number of southern cities cancelled their orders. Morgan is quoted as saying; ‘I had but a little schooling, but I am a graduate from the school of hard knocks and cruel treatment. I have personally saved nine lives.’

Safety seemed to be an important area for Morgan, as he became alarmed about the number of accidents that were occurring as cars became more prevalent in America. Along with the cars, bicycles, animal-drawn carts and people were sharing ever more crowded roads.

After witnessing an accident at a junction, Morgan filed a patent for a traffic light device which incorporated a third warning position. The idea for the ‘all hold’ position or what is now known as the amber light was patented in 1923. Morgan sold the idea to General Electric for $40,000 the same year. It should be noted, however, that a three signal system had been invented in 1920.

Morgan is credited with establishing a newspaper, building a country club open to Black people, and running for a seat on the Cleveland City Council, among many notable achievements. Morgan died in July 1963. He has been recognised in Cleveland Ohio, with the Garrett A. Morgan Cleveland School of Science, and the Garrett A. Morgan Water Treatment Plant being named in his honour. In addition, a number of elementary schools and streets carry his name.

Science & Innovation

Sharon ToddInnovation and close collaboration provided the platform for discussions at CIEX 2021. SCI CEO Sharon Todd gives her perspective on the two-day event.

Sharon Todd, SCI CEO

It’s always great to meet new – and old – contacts at events. For so many months, crossing borders wasn’t possible, physically at least, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Thankfully, the Chemical Innovation Conference (CIEX) provided a welcome change.

On 6 and 7 October, we came together in Frankfurt to discuss the challenges and opportunities in our sector. It was an honour for me to give the opening address – in the same year as SCI’s 140th anniversary.

Indeed, this year’s event included a well-paced mixture of talks and panel events that addressed post-pandemic difficulties, the challenges of climate change, the need to innovate and much more.

The chemical using industries face an array of challenges besides the practical fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. Brexit, new regulations, supply chain issues, climate change, sustainability, and geo-political unrest pose significant problems

As an innovation hub, SCI connects industry, academia, patent lawyers, consultants, entrepreneurs and government, and other organisations. And I like to think of CIEX as an innovation hub too.

We have no choice but to innovate, but we must do so in a collaborative, sustainable way. The climate change emergency, for example, means society is looking to chemistry to help find long-term innovative solutions. That’s what made CIEX such an apt time for those in the industry to come together and navigate these challenges.

Innovating beyond barriers

The theme of this year’s event was ‘Game-Changing through Collaboration’. But I also thought of it as Crossing Borders – not just physical borders, but getting through the barriers that block innovation. These barriers hold back the translation of scientific solutions from the laboratory into business and, ultimately, into society.

Our sector is in the spotlight as never before and we can shape a better future. The debates at this year’s CIEX, and the exchange of ideas that took place, will help move us all forward. And what an exchange of ideas it proved to be.

We heard from an amazing line-up of speakers, addressing some of the industry’s most salient issues. BASF’s Christian Beil spoke about how best to leverage lean experimentation and rapid prototyping to improve customer centricity in product design, while Iris AI’s Anita Schjoll Brede described how we can reimagine the R&D work environment.

SCIblog - 26 October 2021 - Game-changing collaboration at CIEX 2021 - image of styrofoam

Ineos Styrolution plans to recycle polystyrene using thermal decomposition or by washing and remelting waste.

Furthermore, Johnson & Johnson’s Luis Allo spoke about the rise of consumer awareness as a driver for innovation. He provided interesting insights on accessing information on real customer trends and needs. Dupont’s Fred Godbille also described several tried and tested methods to assess the voice of the customer.

Elsewhere, Croda’s Nick Challoner assessed how we can unlock innovation through collaboration and partnerships. He also provided an overview of how Croda interacts with universities. On a more technical note, Roman Honeker of Ineos Styrolution outlined the company’s plans to recycle polystyrene using thermal decomposition or by washing and remelting waste.

The discussion on ‘how SMEs interact with corporates’ provided another of the event highlights, with contributions from Clariant, BASF, Chemstars, and SCI’s David Bott. Delegates discussed how SMEs sometimes oversell the potential of their products (without necessarily having much real-world experience) and the allegedly slow-moving, risk-averse nature of some corporates.

Cross-border innovation

Throughout the event, attendees examined what we can do better, how this can be achieved, and the resources needed to make this happen. After all, we must be nimble and flexible in these times of political and social uncertainty.

We can cross borders together – physically and virtually – via close collaboration. And we can cross the borders of what’s possible innovation-wise, removing barriers and journeying into new territory for us all.

Science & Innovation

To celebrate Black History Month, we take a look back at some of the great Black scientists and innovators. From laser eye surgery to the gas mask, here are some of the seminal contributions made by these ingenious inventors.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - timeline infographic

[1] Lewis Howard Latimer – Image credit: Unknown author Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
[2] Leonidas Berry - Image credit: Adundi, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
[3] Betty Harris – Image credit: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/harris-betty-wright-1940/ - Fair use image
[4] Patricia Bath - Image credit: National Library of Medicine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
[5] Philip Emeagwali - Image credit: SakaMese, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 1 Johnson Powell fact

1880 – Johnson Powell
Have you ever used eye protectors to protect yourself against the glare of intense light? For those working in extreme environments such as fires and furnaces, Johnson Powell’s eye protectors will have been a sight for sore eyes.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 2 James Wormley fact

1881 – James Wormley
James Wormley invented a life-saving apparatus for boats. His contraption included a string of floats that extended from a ship’s side via a sliding rod with projecting arms. The famous hotelier was also said to be at President Abraham Lincoln’s bedside when he died.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 3 Lewis Howard Latimer fact
Image Credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1882 – Lewis Howard Latimer
Lewis Howard Latimer is probably best known for inventing a durable carbon filament that was key to the success of the electric light bulb. Latimer also invented an evaporative air conditioner and even drafted the drawings to secure the patent for Alexander Graham Bell’s little known invention… the telephone.

>> Click here for more on Lewis Howard Latimer’s extraordinary contribution to science.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 4 Garrett Morgan fact

1912 – Garrett Morgan
Imagine using your own invention to save people’s lives? That’s exactly what Garrett Morgan did when he donned his patented smoke hood to rescue trapped men from a smoke-filled tunnel beneath Lake Erie. Morgan’s device later evolved into a gas mask, and he also invented a three-position traffic signal, hair straightening cream, and a self-extinguishing cigarette for good measure.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 5 Madeline M Turner fact

1916 – Madeline M. Turner
Madeline M. Turner’s ingenious invention was the fruit of her own frustration. Turner grew tired of squeezing oranges for her glass of juice, so she created the fruit press machine to solve the problem.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 6 Richard Spikes fact

1932 – Richard Spikes
It’s safe to say Richard Spikes was a polymath. The American inventor created an automatic gear shift device for cars, a pressurised beer tap, and a horizontally swinging barber’s chair – all while working as a teacher and barber and being a capable pianist and violinist.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 7 Leonidas Berry fact
Image Credit: Adundi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1966 – Leonidas Berry
This doctor and civil rights advocate invented the Eder-Berry gastroscopy endoscope in 1955, which helped doctors to biopsy the inside of the stomach without surgery. According to the US National Library of Medicine, ‘the Eder-Berry biopsy attachment made the gastroscope the first direct-vision suction instrument used for taking tissue samples during gastroscopic examination’.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 8 Betty Harris fact
Image Credit: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/harris-betty-wright-1940/ - fair use image

1984 – Betty Harris
Perhaps the most explosive discovery of all belongs to Betty Harris. Harris’ spot test for detecting 1,3,5-triamino-2,4,6-trinitrobenzene in the field is used by US Homeland Security today to check for nitroaromatic explosives. In her spare time, Harris has even found the time to work with the Girl Scouts to develop a badge based on Chemistry.


>> SCI is proud to support #BlackinChem. Take a look at some of our recent work.


SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 9 Patricia Bath fact
Image Credit: National Library of Medicine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1988 – Patricia Bath
Patricia Bath has helped return the gift of sight to thousands of people. The US ophthalmologist invented a quick and painless device that dissolves cataracts with a laser and cleans the eye, enabling the simple insertion of a new lens. Her laserphaco probe is still in use today.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 10 Philip Emeagwali fact
Image Credit: Philip Emeagwali - SakaMese, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1989 – Philip Emeagwali
Nigerian computer scientist Philip Emeagwali won the prestigious1989 Gordon Bell Prize in Price Performance for a high-performance computer application that used computational fluid dynamics in oil-reservoir modelling. In the same year, Emeagwali also claimed to perform the world’s fastest computation – 3.1 billion calculations per second – using just the power of the internet.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 11 Donald K Jones fact

2002 – Donald K. Jones
Donald K Jones made a notable contribution to medicine with his invention of a detachable balloon embolisation device that reduces the size of aneurysms (bulges in blood vessels). The endovascular occlusion device is implanted into the body, whereupon its clever balloon system and adhesive materials reduce the size of aneurysms.

>> Which barriers still block the way for Black chemists? Read Claudio Lourenco’s story.

Science & Innovation

We need to create more diverse paths into research and scientific innovation. Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, explains how industry clusters and a change of mindset could help.

What do you picture when someone mentions a chemist? Maybe you see someone like you working in a lab or office with your colleagues.

But what do people at the bus stop think? What would a secondary school student say? Do they see someone like them – or do they imagine an Einstein-like figure hidden away in a dark room with crazed hair and test tubes?

One of the most interesting messages from Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser’s Fuelling the Future: science, society and the research and innovation system talk on 29 September was the need to make sure science and technology are seen as viable careers for people throughout society.

SCIblog - 12 October 2021 - Making science and technology more accessible - image of Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser

Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser

You don’t need to be a genius to work in research and innovation. You don’t necessarily need to be a specialist, and you certainly don’t need to be hunched over a microscope with a jumble of figures and formulae on a board behind you. An array of different people, technical and non-technical, are needed to make the sector thrive.

 

The narrow pathway of talent

Part of Dame Ottoline’s job as Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is to improve access to these sectors and to make sure that great ideas aren’t lost due to daunting entry barriers.

‘It’s a huge challenge,’ she said. ‘A large part of the challenge is the narrow concept that we all have of what a researcher and innovator look like.’

Leyser spoke about the need to create diverse routes through the system rather than squeezing everyone through the same narrow path. ‘The assessment criteria we use for individuals have become narrower and narrower,’ she added. ‘Some of it, ironically, is to make the system fairer, but objectivity in creativity is a total pipe dream. You end up crushing creativity by narrowing the criteria.’

She noted that those with mixed careers – interwoven with varied experiences – are to be welcomed. ‘That’s nothing to do with compromising excellence,’ she said. ‘Real excellence comes in multiple forms.’

>> Would you like to attend more talks like this one? Check out our Events page.

 

Challenging times

However, Leyser also spoke of the need to level up the UK from a productivity perspective. One way to do this is through smart specialisation and industry clusters. She mentioned Lincoln as an area where this approach worked well. Lincoln is home to extensive agriculture and the multinational technology corporation Siemens. As such, it made sense to help make it a centre for agricultural robotics.

SCIblog - 12 October 2021 - Making science and technology more accessible - image of a wind turbine

UKRI is investing heavily in research and innovation into Net Zero energy solutions.

As the largest public funder of research and innovation in the UK, UKRI has a major role to play in funding such industry clusters and intelligent innovation. It has funded more than 54,000 researchers and innovators, and UKRI grants have generated almost 900 spinouts since 2004.

These include Oxford Nanopore, a biotech company whose DNA sequencing technology is now valued at £2.5bn. It has also cast an eye on the future, including delivering more than £1bn in R&D relevant to Artificial Intelligence and in excess of £1bn towards Net Zero energy solutions.

Leyser noted that the UKRI’s goal is to embed research and innovation more broadly across society – for it to be ‘by the people and for the people, rather than the exclusive domain of the privileged few’.

It is a grand challenge, but such sentiments are certainly encouraging.

Careers

Continuing our series on Black scientists, Dr George Okafo tells us about his journey from curious child, encouraged by family and mentors, to Global Director of Healthcare Data and Analytics with a leading pharmaceutical company.

SCIblog - 11 October 2021 - Celebrating Black scientists – Dr George Okafo

What is your current position?
I am Global Director, Healthcare Data and Analytics Unit at Boehringer Ingelheim, and have been in this role for the past 10 months.

Right: Dr George Okafo

Please give us a brief outline of your role.
To build an expert team of data stewards, data scientists and statistical geneticists tasked with accessing and ingesting population-scale healthcare biobanks and then deriving target, biomarker and disease insights from this data to transform clinical development and personalise the development of new medicines.

What was it that led you to study chemistry/science and ultimately develop a career in this field? Was this your first choice?
My interest in science stems from my parents. My father was a medical doctor, and my mother was a senior midwife. As a child, I was always very curious and wanted to know why and how things worked. This curiosity has stayed with me all my life and throughout my career at GlaxoSmithKline and now at Boehringer Ingelheim. In my current role, I am still asking the same types of questions from Big Data and these answers could have a profound impact in the development of new medicines.

Was there any one person or group of people who you felt had a specific impact on your decision to pursue the career you are in?
Yes, my father and mother, who supported, encouraged and gave me the confidence to be curious, to keep trying and to never give up.

SCIblog - 11 October 2021 - Celebrating Black scientists – Dr George Okafo - image of pipette and vials

Dr Okafo held senior director-level roles in drug discovery and development while at at GSK.

Could you outline the route that you took to get to where you are now, and how you were supported?
My career journey started at Dulwich College (London) where I studied Chemistry, Biology, Maths and Physics at A Level. This took me to Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (London), where I completed my Joint BSc in Chemistry and Biochemistry and my PhD in Cancer Chemistry.

I then spent a year at the University of Toronto in Canada as a Postdoctoral Fellow, before embarking on my career in the Pharmaceutical Industry, starting at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). I spent 30 years at GSK, where I held many senior director-level roles in drug discovery and development. During my time, I made it my mission to learn as much about the R&D process and used this knowledge to understand how innovation can impact and transform drug research.

I have been very fortunate in my career to be surrounded by many brilliant and inspirational people who had the patience to share their knowledge with me and answer my many questions.

>> Curious to read more about some of the great Black scientists from the past? Here’s our blog on Lewis Howard Latimer.

Considering your own career route, what message do you have for Black people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Surround yourself with brilliant people who can inspire you. Look for people who you respect and can coach and mentor you. Don’t be afraid to fail. Work hard and keep trying.

What do you think are the specific barriers that might be preventing young Black people from pursuing chemistry/science?
No, I do not see colour as a barrier nor a hindrance to pursuing a career in science. I think it is important to look for role models from the same background to help inspire you, to answer your questions and to encourage you.

What steps do you think can be taken by academia and businesses to increase the number of Black people studying and pursuing chemistry/science as a career?
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!

Could you share one experience which has helped to define your career path?
Not so much an experience, but a mindset – staying curious, inquisitive, always willing to learn something new, having courage that failure is not the end, but an opportunity to learn.

Careers

Marking Black History Month and following on from the #BlackInChem initiative, SCI is continuing its look back at some of the unsung Black scientists who pioneered, and made important contributions, to the advancement of science.

Today we profile Lewis Howard Latimer, much admired by his contemporaries; Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, but sadly a name, and story, that is not as well known.

SCIblog - 4 October 2021 - Black History Month: Lewis Howard Latimer - image of Lewis Howard Latimer

Lewis Howard Latimer | Image Credit: By Unknown author - http://www.lrc.rpi.edu/resources/news/pressReleases/img/Lewis.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2032528

Lewis Howard Latimer, the youngest of four children, was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on 4 September 1848. His father, George Latimer, a slave who had escaped, became something of a cause celebre when his owner recaptured him. However, abolitionists took his case to the Supreme Court and his freedom was secured.

Lewis proved to be an excellent student, with a particular flair for drawing, as well as writing poetry and stories, but lack of finance and restricted access to education meant that by 15 years of age, Lewis had joined the US Navy. The history books indicate that he was honourably discharged in 1865; when the Civil War ended.

Soon after, Latimer found work as an office boy with the patent firm Crosby, Halstead and Gould. It is here that combining his talent for drawing, and developing the skills of a draughtsman he was eventually promoted to the position of head draftsman. The history books record that Latimer’s first patent, in 1874 with colleague Charles Brown, was an improved toilet system for railroad cars.

SCIblog - 4 October 2021 - Black History Month: Lewis Howard Latimer - image of Alexander Graham Bell

Lewis Latimer was instrumental in helping Alexander Graham Bell file his patent for the telephone ahead of his competitors.

Latimer had many inventions, but it could be argued that his drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, helped seal his place in science history. The story goes that Bell was in a race against time, as rivals were also looking to gain patent rights for a similar device. Bell hired Latimer who used his expertise in drawing and submitting patent applications to help Bell file his patent just hours, it said, before his rival in 1876.

By 1880 Latimer had taken up the post of mechanical draughtsman for the inventor Hiram Maxim, who was also the founder of the US Electric Lighting Company. Now focused on incandescent lighting, Latimer along with Joseph Nichols, invented a light bulb which used a carbon filament, an improvement on Thomas Edison’s paper filament. The invention, patented in 1881, was sold to the US Electric Lighting Company in the same year.

SCIblog - 4 October 2021 - Black History Month: Lewis Howard Latimer - image of light bulbs with carbon filaments

Latimer invented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs | Editorial credit: Claudio Zaccherini / Shutterstock.com

1A booklet by the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation noted; ‘Latimer invented and patented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs. He taught the process to company workers, and soon it was being used in factory production. Latimer also assisted in installing Maxim lighting systems in New York City, Philadelphia, Montreal and London. During the installation of lighting in Montreal, where a lot of people spoke only French, Latimer learned the language in order to competently instruct the workers. In London he set up the first factory for the Maxim-Weston Electric Light Company. That required him to teach the workmen all the processes for making Maxim lamps, including glass blowing. In just nine months Latimer had the factory in full production.’

In 1882 Latimer left Hiram Maxim and in 1884 joined the Edison Electric Light Company, where he was given the title draughtsman-engineer. In 1890 he joined the Edison Legal Department, and in 1893 testified in a case where the company said that its incandescent lamp patents had been infringed. In 1896 the Board of Patent Control of GE and Westinghouse was formed and Latimer became its Chief Draughtsman. He continued in that role until 1911 when he joined the consulting firm Edwin W Hammer.

On 24 January 1918, Latimer was named one of the 28 charter members – and the only African-American member – of the Edison Pioneers, ‘a distinguished group of people who worked to keep the ideals of Thomas Edison alive.’ The Edison Pioneers helped create the US’ electric power industry.

Latimer received patents for several inventions, including the safety elevator. He also had a passion for social justice. In a letter written in 1895 in support of the National Conference of Coloured Men, Latimer wrote: ‘I have faith to believe that the nation will respond to our plea for equality before the law, security under the law, and an opportunity, by and through maintenance of the law, to enjoy with our fellow citizens of all races and complexions the blessings guaranteed us under the constitution.’

Latimer died on 11 December 1928. Edison Pioneers historian and long time private secretary of Thomas Edison, William H. Meadowcroft wrote1 ‘Lewis Howard Latimer was of the coloured race, the only one in our organisation, and was one of those to respond to the initial call that led to the formation of the Edison Pioneers, January 24 1918. Broadmindedness, versatility in the accomplishment of things intellectual and cultural, a linguist, a devoted husband and father, all were characteristics of him, and his genial presence will be missed from our gatherings…We hardly mourn his inevitable going so much as we rejoice in pleasant memory at having being associated with him in a great work for all peoples under a great man.’

1For more information on Latimer’s life, work and legacy, see the Edison Electric Institute resource: Thomas Alva Edison Associate: Lewis Howard Latimer: A Black Inventor.

Careers

SCI’s America International group has awarded the 2021 Perkin Medal to Dr Jane Frommer. The 114th Perkin Medal was presented to Jane at the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to chemistry.

SCIblog - 30 September 2021 - Jane Frommer awarded Perkin Medal - image of Jane Frommer

Dr Jane Frommer

Dr Frommer is renowned for her key contributions in electronically conducting polymers and scanning probe instrumentation. Her pioneering work with scanning probes paved the way for their use in chemistry, materials science and, eventually, in nanotechnology. According to SCI America, her nanoscopic analytic methods are vital to nanostructural research and are used across many industries.

Dr Frommer began her career in 1980 at Allied Corporate Laboratories (now Honeywell), where she created the solution state of electronically conducting organic polymers. In 1986, she joined IBM where, along with other instrumentalists, she demonstrated the ability to image and manipulate single molecules using scanning tunnelling microscopy. During her multi-year assignment at the University of Basel Physics Institute in the early 1990s, Dr Frommer’s team expanded the capability of scanning probes in measuring the functional properties of organic thin films with atomic force microscopy.

Since 2018, she has worked as a science advisor for Google. In this capacity, she has sought to increase the amount of open source data available in the physical and life sciences. She also helps Silicon Valley start-ups navigate the chemical and material challenges of nanotechnology and has mentored countless students and young scientists in high school, college, and in her laboratory in recent decades.

SCI Awards - Medals - Image for the Perkin Medal - social graphic

Previous recipients of the Perkin medal include Barbara Haviland Minor, of the Chemours Company, and Ann E Weber, of Kallyope Inc.

Dr Frommer has written more than 100 referred publications and is the co-inventor of more than 50 issued patents. With her extraordinary body of work spanning more than 40 years, she is a worthy recipient of the prestigious Perkin Medal.

The Perkin Medal is widely acknowledged as the highest honour in American industrial chemistry. It was established to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Henry Perkin’s discovery of mauveine at the age of just 18. Perkin’s creation of mauveine, the world’s first synthetic aniline dye, revolutionised chemistry and opened up new frontiers in textiles, clothing, and other industries. Perkin was a founding member of SCI and this Medal was first presented to him in New York in 1906.

For more information on the Perkin Medal and the nomination process, visit: soci.org/awards/medals/perkin-medal

Agrifood

Lilies provide gloriously beautiful and well scented flowering border plants. Choose flowering size bulbs in the garden centre or from a catalogue. Grow these through the winter potted in a general garden compost placed in an unheated greenhouse or cold frame. By March or early-April, substantial green shoots will have formed from the bulbs and they can be transplanted into the garden.

Lilies need a sunny border and very fertile soil to encourage vigorous root growth capable of supporting the flowering spike and ancillary bulbs as they are initiated. This produces magnificent flowers and an increasing colony of bulbs that will spread and become established over future seasons.

SCIblog - 21 September 2021 - Looking after your lilies - image of Lilium longiflorum / Easter Lily

Lilium longiflorum, often called the Easter lily | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Regular watering and feeding with nutrients are needed, especially potassium, which encourages root and shoot growth. Stake the flower spike as it grows, giving support for the flowers because they are heavy when fully open and easily damaged by winds.

Rewards come in mid-summer with magnificent colourful flowers and wonderful perfumes on warm evenings. Apart from severe winters, lilies are hardy garden plants unless they are from groups specified as tender and requiring protection. In the autumn, simply cut down the flowering spike and remove any fallen foliage.

SCIblog - 21 September 2021 - Looking after your lilies - image of lily buds

Buds developed on lily scales after culturing | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

The Lilium genus has about 100 species originating worldwide mainly from north temperate areas of Europe, Asia and America. The colour range includes white, yellow, orange, pink, red and purple. Plant breeders in The Netherlands, Japan and North America have produced a huge range of multi-coloured hybrids.

Taxonomically, Lilium is divided into divisions, of which the Turk’s Caps, Martagons and American hybrids are popular. The most destructive pest is the scarlet lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii) which devours foliage, flowers and bulbs. The first signs of trouble are shot holes in the foliage. Picking off beetles and larvae is an effective means of dealing with low-level infestations.

SCIblog - 21 September 2021 - Looking after your lilies - image of lily bulbil comparison

Comparison of lily bulbils growing from scale leaves, immature bulb and flowering size bulb | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Asexual propagation is a simple and enjoyable occupation. Divide a good-sized bulb into its scales. Choose healthy scales from the outer rings and place these in a plastic box containing damp kitchen paper and place in an airing cupboard. After about 10-12 weeks, small bulbils will have formed on each scale.

Select the boldest mother scales and bulbils and plant in a tray of seedling compost and grow in the greenhouse. After two or three months the most vigorous young plants can be potted individually. Eventually these are planted in the garden and will develop into flowering size bulbs after two or three years.

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

Sustainability & Environment

The War on Plastic is a grand title. To most of us, it doesn’t seem like much of a war at all – more like a series of skirmishes. Nevertheless, if you look closely, you’ll see that a lot of companies are tackling the issue.

GSK Consumer Healthcare (GSKCH) is one such organisation. The healthcare brand that gave us Sensodyne and Advil has launched a carbon neutral toothbrush to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels (which create virgin plastic).

The composition of its Dr. Best tooth scrubber is interesting. The handle comprises a mixture of a cellulose derived from pine, spruce, and birch trees and tall oil, which comes from the wood pulping industry. The bristles are made from castor oil and the plastic-free packaging includes a cellulose window.

According to GSKCH, Dr. Best is Germany’s favourite toothbrush brand and there are plans to apply the technology to toothbrushes across its portfolio, including its Sensodyne brand. At the moment, GSK needs to apply carbon offsetting initiatives to make the toothbrush carbon neutral, but it says it is working on future solutions that do not require this approach.

Net zero shopping

GSK isn’t the only company that is actively reducing the use of plastics and minimising waste. Supermarket chain Morrisons has made aggressive moves in recent years to cut waste, and has just launched six ‘net zero waste’ stores in Edinburgh that will operate with zero waste by 2025.

Customers at these stores will be able to bring back hard-to-recycle plastics such as food wrappers, foils, yoghurt tubs, mixed material crisp tubes, coffee tubs, batteries, and plant pots. At the same time, all store waste will be collected by a range of specialist waste partners for recycling within the UK, and unsold food will be offered to customers at a cheaper price on the Too Good to Go app.

SCIblog - 16 September 2021 - Don’t forget your (carbon neutral) toothbrush - Caption 1 image of Morrisons' recycling scheme

Morrisons’ proactive approach will help find a new life for hard-to-recycle packaging.

‘We’re not going to reach our ambitious targets through incremental improvements alone,’ said Jamie Winter, Sustainability Procurement Director at Morrisons. ‘Sometimes you need to take giant steps and we believe that waste is one of those areas. We believe that we can, at a stroke, enable these trial stores to move from recycling around 27% of their general waste to over 84% and with a clear line of sight to 100%.

‘We all need to see waste as a resource to be repurposed and reused. The technology, creativity and will exists – it’s a question of harnessing the right process for the right type of waste and executing it well.’

If this approach is successful, Morrisons plans to roll out the zero waste store format in all of its 498 stores across the UK next year.

>> Interested in reading more about sustainability and the environment? Check out our blog archive.

Stamping out single-use plastics

The government has also issued its latest battle cry in the war on plastics. Having defeated plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, it has turned its attention to other single-use plastics.

Single-use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups are among the items that could be banned in England following public consultation.

SCIblog - 16 September 2021 - Don’t forget your (carbon neutral) toothbrush - Caption 2 image of cotton buds

The humble cotton bud has now been retired from active service.

Somewhat surprisingly, it estimates that each person in England uses 18 single-use plastic plates and 37 single-use plastic items of cutlery each year; so, it has begun moves to cut out this waste stream.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “We have made progress to turn the tide on plastic, banning the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, while our carrier bag charge has cut sales by 95% in the main supermarkets. Now we are looking to go a step further as we build back greener.”

All in all, it’s encouraging to see that companies and the government are brushing up on their sustainable practices.

>> Curious to find out what the future looks like for lab-processed food and meat alternatives? Read what the experts say here.

Materials

A little talked about element, with the atomic mass 140, plays a surprisingly important role in everyday life. It has not only lit many a path, but can be credited with improving and saving the lives of billions of people by enabling cleaner air.

In his talk '140Ce: White light & Clean Air' Andy Walker, Johnson Matthey’s Technical Marketing Director explained why the soft, ductile silvery-white metal Cerium, deserves more recognition.

Walker began by outlining the history of SCI, celebrating its 140th anniversary this year. As an employee of Johnson Matthey, Walker highlighted that George Matthey was among the pioneers of SCI. In addition Walker explained that his PhD research had involved looking at catalysts that included Cerium.

Cerium is a lanthanide and the 26th most abundant element on earth. Indeed it was the first lanthanide to be discovered, found as its ore cerium silicate, in 1803. Cerium makes up 66ppm of the earth’s crust, which is about 5 times as much as lead. It is the only one of the lanthanides able to take on the +4 oxidation state, making it very useful in some of its applications. It is mined in the US, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, Australian and China, with annual global production of 24 000 tonnes.

However, this straightforward look at the history of Cerium conceals a much more interesting narrative about how this element shaped the life of a number of prominent chemists of the day. Indeed Cerium was found as early as 1751 at a mine in Vestmanland, Sweden by Axel Cronstedt, who also discovered Nickel. Believing it to be an ore of Tungsten, he sent it to Carl Wilhelm Scheele for analysis. However, Scheele was not able to identify it as a new element.

This turn of events for Scheele, perhaps unfairly, helped to seal his moniker as the ‘unlucky chemist’. Scheele, a prominent chemist and pharmacist, had a number of discoveries to his name. He isolated lactic acid, and discovered hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen sulphide.

But as Walker explained, his most notable discovery was oxygen, some three years before Joseph Priestley. Sadly for Scheele; it took him six years to publish his findings, by which time Priestley had already presented his data. Putting a contemporary slant on Scheele’s misfortune, Walker added that the cautionary tale here was that getting things out into the public domain as soon as possible can be important to ensure credit goes to the right people.

Further work by Scheele led to the discovery of a number of elements including barium and chlorine, but sadly he did not receive any recognition because he didn’t manage to isolate them and identify them correctly. The chemist Sir Humphrey Davy did so, some years later, getting the credit for their discovery and isolation.

So it was in 1803 that chemists Wilhelm Hisinger and Jons Jacob Bezelius proved that Cerium was indeed a new element, naming it Cerium after an asteroid/dwarf planet which had been called Ceres. The successful isolation of Cerium took place in 1875, carried out by American chemists William Hillebrand and Thomas Norton, by passing an electric current through molten cerium chloride.

SCIblog - 9 September 2021 - 140 Ce: White light & Clean Air - image of Cerium

99.95% fine cerium isolated on white background

Once isolated, the earliest application of Cerium was in incandescent gas mantles. Developed by Carl Auer von Welsbach, in 1891, he perfected a mixture of 99% thorium oxide and 1% ceria, which gave a soft white light. Introducing his new mantle commercially in 1892, von Welsbach was able to monetise his development selling his product throughout Europe.

Gas mantles have been replaced, but Cerium’s importance in producing white light remains. As Walker explained, most white LEDs use a blue gallium nitride LED covered by a yellowish phosphor coating made of cerium-doped Yttrium Aluminium Garnet crystals.

In the medical arena, Cerium was used by Sir James Young Simpson, Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at Edinburgh who did a lot of work in the area of anaesthetics. Simpson found that cerium nitrate suppressed vomiting, particularly that associated with morning sickness, and well into the last century, medication containing Cerium could be bought over the counter. In addition Cerium has been the basis of treatments for burns.

Other applications for this versatile element are self cleaning ovens and mischmetal alloy, used in flints for cigarette lighters. Walker shared that the chemist and author Primo Levi, while imprisoned in Auschwitz, was able to steal cerium-iron rods from the laboratory he was forced to work in. Making them into cigarette lighter flints, he was able to barter for bread. Cerium is used to harden surfaces; it is a good polishing agent. Cerium sulphide has been used to replace the pigment cadmium red as a non-toxic alternative and Cerium is widely used across the chemical industry as a catalyst to produce a host of chemicals.

Catalysis is probably where Cerium has impacted most people as the element is the basis for the catalytic converters that have provided cleaner air for billions of people. Walker explained that the driver for the development came during the 1950s when photochemical smog was a problem in the Los Angeles Basin. Measurements at the time indicated that vehicles were responsible for the majority of the hydrocarbon and NOx emissions that led to the polluted air.

This turn of events led researchers to develop systems that could mitigate the emissions. Johnson Matthey was among those doing the early work on catalytic converters. Meanwhile, the automotive industry was pushing back on their introduction, concerned about the costs, durability and effectiveness. Working with Ricardo Engineering, Johnson Matthey carried out durability tests over 25 000 miles which also showed that the catalysts could pass US emissions tests.

The catalysts had to operate in three ways, at the same time, oxidising carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC) while reducing NOx. Early catalysts, circa 1975, were based on Palladium and Platinum and focused on oxidising the CO and HC. Around 1978 a second catalyst was introduced to reduce NOx.

However, the introduction of Cerium then made it possible to develop a single catalyst that was able to carry out the functions that the researchers had wanted to achieve. Hence, 1981 saw the introduction of the three way catalytic converter with all three reactions enabled over a single catalyst. More recently ceria-zirconia oxide based catalysts have been developed with much higher oxygen storage capacity than ceria.

The impact of these developments has allowed the implementation of much more stringent air quality and emissions standards. Indeed Johnson Matthey estimates that its Cerium-based catalysts are responsible for removing around 40 tonnes of pollutants every minute of every day.

A single element has indeed impacted many lives.

Careers

Life is busy for Rhys Archer. Outside of her work as EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellow in Biomedical Materials at the University of Manchester, she founded Women of Science to share stories about real women working in science. She has championed STEM in schools in her spare time and received the Robert Perrin Medal from the Institute of Materials, Minerals, and Mining – all before her 30th birthday.

Rhys is also refreshingly forthright in her views. She took the time to speak to us about everything from attitudes towards disability in academia, the problem with STEM statistics, and finding that sense of belonging in science.

SCIblog - 9 September 2021 - Women of science: Rhys Archer - Profile photo of Rhys Archer

Would you mind telling me about your work at the University of Manchester and the research areas that interest you most?
My research interests have always been interdisciplinary – I am a bit of a magpie when it comes to research and I get excited by projects in different areas. Luckily, being a researcher in materials science means that I can apply my knowledge and skills in a wide array of areas and industries. I have recently finished my doctoral studies looking at how carbon fibre composites are damaged during impacts, and how to toughen them while keeping composites light weight, which is particularly useful in the aerospace industry. However, I have since moved over to research in biomedical materials, specifically within tissue engineering, where I am researching biocompatible composite scaffolds for tissue regeneration.

You set up Women of Science in 2016 to share stories about real people in science. How has this been?
When I set up Women of Science, I first looked at it as a personal project that could be of use in schools to young people. However, it became apparent fairly quickly that access to relatable role-models in STEM was needed, not just in schools but also for women across the STEM industry.

Since then, we have been fortunate to be awarded funding to grow the work we do and expand our audiences. One of the most important actions I have taken with Women of Science is to set up an advisory board (which includes a diverse range of women) to share ideas and to influence the direction and activities of Women of Science.

As well as the impact on others, Women of Science has had a huge impact on me personally. When I set up Women of Science I was going through a difficult period of feeling isolated, and found it difficult to feel a sense of belonging in science and in research. By reaching out and hearing other women’s stories – not just their achievements, but also their doubts, worries, and difficulties – I found that I did belong in STEM. I just had to search for it.

SCIblog - 9 September 2021 - Women of science: Rhys Archer - Group photo of Rhys Archer

Would you mind sharing some of the successes and challenges you’ve experienced in your own career?
At 29, towards the end of my PhD, I was diagnosed as autistic. Looking back, I can see that the challenges I faced, particularly because of depression, anxiety, and isolation, were due to my needs not being considered or met. Being disabled in academia is an ongoing challenge. It is still a fight to gain equitable working arrangements, opportunities, and acceptance.

However, I can also see how the successes I have had, such as setting up Women of Science, and being a part of other projects are a result of ‘being different’. My strongest quality is a diversity of perspective and experience and an eagerness to be a part of a range of different projects.

>> We’re keen to hear diverse perspectives from people working in the chemical industry. Get in touch with us at: eoin.redahan@soci.org

You have championed inclusivity in STEM. Do you think academic institutions and other workplaces could be more inclusive?
Yes. I think there is a huge amount of awareness and conversation about inclusivity in academia and industry, but not nearly as much action and intervention. Often I see workplaces with inclusive policies, but with little consideration of monitoring, evaluating, or reconsidering those policies. We must move past equity, diversity, and inclusivity being a checkbox exercise. The issues faced by women in the workplace are intersectional and complex, and so require well considered, complex solutions.

According to WISE, women now make up 24% of the STEM workforce in the UK. It estimates that this number could rise to 29% by 2030. What do you think about these figures?
While the number of women in STEM is a common metric when considering equality, this does not accurately portray issues surrounding inclusion and belonging. How are women treated? Do they have the opportunity to advance? Are there equitable policies and measures in place? This is particularly true of women in STEM who identify with other protected characteristics around race, disability, sexual orientation, and class. Once you dig into the statistics (where available) further, it is clear that the numbers given are not sufficient to describe the current situation for all women in STEM.

Also, the ‘leaky pipeline’ model is often considered, that is, that the number of women in STEM fall as we follow the statistics from school, to university, and onto the workplace. However, what is not always considered is that, as with a leaky pipeline, when more women are added, rather than ‘fixing’ the pipeline, the cracks become more obvious. Eventually, we reach a point when the pipeline is fractured. We must focus on repairing these cracks, not just increasing a numerical metric.

Additionally, in this current climate, it is incredibly difficult to make predictions as to what the future holds for the number of women in the STEM workforce. A couple of years ago, we could not foresee the impact that a global pandemic would have on women. When we consider the possible effects of climate change over the next decade, can we predict the burden that will be placed on women, or how this will affect women’s choices?

What’s next for you? Are you involved in any exciting projects?
With Women of Science, we have three projects that will be launched towards the end of the year, including a new website, flashcard activities for young people, and a report on the impact of the pandemic on women in STEM. Further ahead, I would love to expand the reach of Women of Science further, working with podcasting and film, as well as reaching out to policy makers. Personally, I am excited to get my teeth stuck into a new research project and see where that leads, as well as doing more teaching, consulting, and any other opportunities that come my way!

>> Are you interested in getting involved in Women of Science? Visit: www.womenofsci.com

Health & Wellbeing

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR), now referred to as the silent pandemic, is causing governments, regulatory and health bodies to make a lot of noise.

Issuing a statement in late August 2021, the Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance called on countries to ‘significantly reduce the levels of antimicrobial drugs used in global food systems’. The Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance includes heads of state, government ministers and leaders from the private sector and civil society. It was established during 2020 to accelerate global political momentum, leadership and action AMR.

Co-chaired by Mia Amor Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados and Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, the Group is calling for all countries to take action to tackle the issue. Steps include: Ending the use of antimicrobial drugs that are of critical importance to human medicine to promote growth in animals, eliminating or significantly reducing over-the-counter-sales of antimicrobial drugs that are important for medical of veterinary purposes, and reducing the overall need for antimicrobial drugs by improving infection prevention and control, hygiene, bio security and vaccination programmes in agriculture and aquaculture.

SCIblog - 2 September 2021 - Taking action on AMR - image of pharmacist holding pills and pill packs

Leaders are calling for the reduction in the use of antimicrobial drugs.

Speaking at the second meeting of the Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance, Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director the United Nations Environment Programme said: ‘Already 700 000 people die each year of resistant infections. There are also serious financial consequences: in the EU alone, AMR costs an estimated €1.5 billion per year in health care and productivity costs…’ But Andersen added that now was an opportune moment to make change. ‘With concern over zoonotic diseases at an all-time high, governments can take advantage of the synergies available from tackling emerging disease threats concurrently. The Global Leaders Group has strategic access to forums to promote AMR integration in post-covid-19 plans and financing…It’s time to for us to act on the science and respond rapidly to AMR,’ Andersen said.

The Communiqué from the G7 Health Ministers’ Meeting held in Oxford, UK during June also gave significant space the AMR issue and the link with the pandemic. ‘We reiterate the need for ongoing education and reinforced stewardship of the use of antimicrobials, including avoiding their use where there is no science-based evidence of effectiveness. The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of infection prevention and control measures to tackle AMR, targeting both health-care associated and community-associated infections.’ Adding a sense of urgency the Communiqué continued: ‘We must act strongly and across disciplines if we are to curb the silent pandemic of antimicrobial resistance.’

A letter from the BactiVac Bacterial Vaccinology Network reminded the G7 Health Ministers that the 2016 O’Neill Report estimated that by 2050, 10 million lives each year and a cumulative US$100 trillion of economic output will be at risk due to increasing AMR unless proactive solution are developed now. In its letter to the G7, the Network issued this warning. ‘The headlines on AMR may have less immediate impact, but the news is no less stark. Over the long-term, AMR bacteria will cause more prolonged suffering than covid-19, with a more insidious impact on all our lives.’ Signatories to the letter included Professor Calman MacLennan, Senior Clinical Fellow and Group Leader, Jenner Institute, University of Oxford, Professor of Vaccine Immunology, University of Birmingham.

SCIblog - 2 September 2021 - Taking action on AMR - image of e.coli colonies on closed media plate

Researchers are collaborating to understand how AMR is impacted by a range of factors

The G7 also stressed the need for collaborative efforts for a better understanding of how AMR is impacted by a range of factors. Taking up this challenge; several initiatives has been put in place to study this. Most recently the United Nations Environment Programme and the Indian Council of Medical Research have launched a project looking at ‘Priorities for the Environmental Dimension of Antimicrobial Resistance in India.’ The project aims to strengthen the environmental aspects of national and state-level AMR strategies and action plans. In a similar development the European Food Safety Agency published an assessment of the role played by food production and its environment in the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance. Publishing the findings in the EFSA journal, the report indicated that fertilisers of faecal origin, irrigation and water are the most significant sources of AMR in plant-based food production and aquaculture.

Meanwhile, the first quarter of 2021 saw Ineos donate £100 million to the University of Oxford to establish a new antimicrobials research facility. The Ineos Oxford Institute for Antimicrobial Resistance aims to create collaborative and cross disciplinary links involving the university’s department of chemistry and department of zoology. The Institute also intends to partner with other global leaders in the field of AMR.

Partnering with India, the UK has committed £4 million to the AMR fight. With a total investment of £8 million, the partners have established five joint research projects which aim to develop a better understanding of how waste from antimicrobial manufacturing could be inadvertently fuelling AMR.

Careers

Sarah Davidson has made impressive strides in a short space of time. She has risen to Group Sustainability Coordinator for global Research and Technology at speciality chemicals firm Croda and won the Young Ambassador Award at this year’s Chemical Industry Awards.

In the first blog in our Women in Chemistry series, we caught up with Sarah for a chat on embedding sustainability in the workplace, the need for more diversity in senior roles, and the best bit of advice she received.

SCIblog - Women in Chem - 27 August 2021 - Sarah Davidson Profile

Tell us about your career to date.
I loved chemistry at school, so I started off by doing a Master’s in Chemistry at the University of Sheffield. During the course I did a placement year, which was my first taste of working in industry. Once I finished my degree, I was torn between staying in academia and doing a PhD or going into industry. I chose to go into industry because I had enjoyed my placement year so much and saw where I could make an impact.

I was accepted onto Croda’s Graduate Development programme, where I had three placements around the business. Croda is a speciality chemicals company, so my placements included working as an applications scientist and synthetic chemist. However, it was my placement working with the Sustainability team that I loved the most.

After the Grad Scheme I became Group Sustainability Coordinator for Global R&D. This combined my experience in R&D and sustainability in a brand role that didn’t exist in Croda before. This role allows me to use my technical knowledge and understanding of the way the global team works to enable those responsible for Croda’s new product innovations to include sustainability as an integral pillar in new product development.

What does your day-to-day role involve?
In my role, my main focus is on getting our scientists to think about sustainability during product and process development. At a fundamental level this requires me to change their mindsets around sustainability, getting them to see it is important to what we do and understand what it means.

To do this, I have developed a number of tools including checklists, clearly defined procedures and training documents. I have been working to get these new procedures adopted over the global R&D team by fitting them into existing protocols. Another part of my role is to support our corporate targets and I am part of a number of working groups to do this.

One working group looks at how we define a consistent methodology for Life Cycle Assessments or LCA. In this group I have been doing research to understand the current methods around LCA, and what our customers want in terms of sustainability data. I also help gather data to show where we are up to with these goals, so we understand what actions we need to take to move forward. On a day-to-day basis I will have meetings to discuss the projects I am involved in, conduct research and reach out to other teams and functions to see what they are working on too.

Which aspects of your job motivate you most?
For me sustainability is the future, not only for the chemical industry but for the world. Knowing that I am having a positive impact on sustainability in my role is what motivates me the most. I try to live a sustainable life, and what I do at work is just an extension of that.

What personal challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
To embed sustainability into our ways of working, I need to change people’s mindsets, and subsequently their behaviour. Seeing this change in people is incredibly rewarding. However, it is also one of the biggest challenges. Some of our teams have been working in the same roles for decades without any change. So, it is my job to make these changes easier for them to adopt and persuade them of the benefits in doing so. To overcome this challenge, I have had to work on my influencing skills and know what will work with the audience I am speaking to.

What is the greatest future challenge for people in your industry and how could this be addressed.
Sustainability, and addressing the issues we face as a result of climate change, are some of the biggest challenges we will face as an industry. We are in a lucky position that we can achieve a competitive advantage with sustainability, but our main goal is to protect our planet. This gives us a big opportunity for collaboration where we may not have had one before. I think we can only solve this challenge by collaborating across the supply chain, across country borders, and between industry and academia.

SCIblog - Women in Chem - 27 August 2021 - Sarah Davidson at Croda

>> Not everyone takes the standard career path into chemistry. Take a read of Claudio Laurenco’s unusual, inspiring story.

Which mentors have helped you along the way and how did they make a difference?
I feel like I have a long list of mentors and am very lucky to be able to call on so many people for advice. The best thing I have learnt from them is to pursue what I enjoy most, as people will be able to see my passion. This will help me move forward in my career. Having mentors who have confidence in me and my ability has helped me build my own confidence, something which I can lack from time to time. My mentors are great sounding boards for ideas, whether that is to do with things I want to try in my job or on the direction of my career.

SCIblog - Women in Chem - 27 August 2021 - Sarah Davidson at work

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 don’t think so. We need to do more to attract and retain diverse talent. We seem to be relatively diverse and inclusive at an academic level, which disappears in industry. There must be a reason for this. There may be bias within recruitment processes, or within job descriptions for senior roles, which means there is less diversity as you move up in organisations. We need to make sure that there are equal opportunities within industry for everyone and make sure everyone has a path to progression that works for them.

Is there any advice you would give to young professionals starting out in your area, especially young women?
Understand where you are different and use that as your advantage. Everyone has a unique lived experience that they bring with them into all situations. As women we have a different perspective to men. This doesn’t mean it is less valuable, it is just different. When you feel like you are in a minority as a woman, or are not being listened to, it is important to remember that our opinions are equal regardless of our background, gender or ethnicity. You have the same right to share your views, as the majority do theirs.

>> We’re always keen to hear from women who are making a real difference in chemistry. If you know someone who you think we should cover, please get in touch with us at: eoin.redahan@soci.org.

Careers

SCI was pleased to support #BlackInChem, working alongside our Corporate Partners and members to amplify the voices of our Black chemists.

We have heard stories from several Black chemists who highlighted the steps being taken by many companies to increase diversity. But we can also see that there are many more steps that can be taken to encourage the next generation of budding Black chemists and scientists.

#BlackInChem has had support from Scott Bader, an SCI Corporate Partner, with both Damilola Adebayo and Luyanda Mbongwa sharing their perspectives as employees of Scott Bader. Elsewhere, Cláudio Laurenço gave a compelling account of his journey to become a post-doctoral research associate at a leading consumer goods company.

SCI Member - Claudio Lourenco

Cláudio Laurenço worked for free and was overlooked before eventually securing his PhD and starting his career in chemistry.

These chemists are following in the footsteps of some pioneering Black scientists such as Percy Lavone Julian, who has been profiled on the SCI Blog.

Many organisations have expressed their support and shared thoughts on what steps they are taking to encourage and ensure diversity. Indeed, #BlackInChem is a global effort and companies such as GSK have shown their support as well as numerous Black chemists talking about their experiences and achievements over the last week.

SCIblog - 9 August 2021 - #BlackinChem - celebrating Percy Lavon Julian - image of Percy Lavon Julian on a stamp

Percy Lavon Julian’s pioneering work enabled a step-change in the treatment of glaucoma | Editorial credit: spatuletail / Shutterstock.com

Over the coming months, we will be profiling other Black chemists, past and present, and continuing the dialogue around diversity.

>> We’re always keen to hear about diverse perspectives within chemistry. If you’d like to share your story, please contact: muriel.cozier@soci.org or eoin.redahan@soci.org.

Careers

For Cláudio Lourenço, the path from student to multidisciplinary scientist has been far from smooth. The Postdoctoral Research Associate reflects on the institutional challenges that almost made him give up, the mentor whose support was so important, and the barriers that block the way for young Black chemists.

Please give a brief outline of your role.
I work for a leading consumer goods company. I am a multi-disciplinary scientist contributing to the development of novel formulations for household products.

Why are you supporting #BlackInChem?
I’m supporting #BlackInChem because I am a champion for diversity. I believe that what we see from our windows in the street is what we must have inside our workplaces. In an ideal world we should all have the same opportunities, but unfortunately this is somehow far from the truth. We need to motivate our young Black chemists to aim for a career in science by providing welcoming environments and real opportunities instead of just ticking boxes. We need to showcase our Black chemists to show to the younger generation that they can also be one of us.

What was it that led you to study chemistry and ultimately develop a career in this field? Was this your first choice?
I have always been passionate about research and science. My father had a pharmacy, so I was always close to chemistry and was a very curious child. Yes, it was my first choice but the lack of opportunities and trust from universities and scholarship providers made it a long run. My motivation faded and I nearly gave up.

Was there any one person or group of people who had a specific impact on your decision to pursue your career path?
Yes, but after my degree I nearly gave up. It took me nearly two years and changing cities to find something (a voluntary position). I was always keen on taking up mentors to show me how to progress in my career. There were a few people who helped me by training me and teaching me how to navigate the scientific world and pursue a career in science.

I only got my first job (which I worked for free) because of Peter Stambrook, an American scholar from the University of Cincinnati, who I met through a friend while polishing glasses in a restaurant. This man was open and keen to put a word in for me at a leading university in the UK. He taught me so much on how to be a scientist and humbly grow up and make a career in science. Eventually, all his advice kept me on the right path.

What impact would you like to see #BlackInChem have over the coming year?
More Black students in postgraduate courses and an increase in role models to motivate the younger generations to pursue careers in chemistry.

Could you outline the route that you took to get to where you are now, and how you were supported?
Personally, my career path was far from easy. I only managed to get my PhD at 38 years of age. I needed to first prove myself. Despite all my efforts and dozens of applications, I was never considered a good candidate. I needed to work for free for two years to land a proper job in my field of choice. During that time I took on many odd jobs to support myself. I worked for a top 10 university for free and they never saw my worth or gave me an opportunity. With that experience I landed a proper job at a leading pharmaceutical company. After one year with them, they funded my PhD studies and now here I am with a career in science.

Considering your own career route, what message do you have for people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Never ever give up - it is possible. Look for the right mentors and be humble. You do not need to reinvent the wheel, but only to find someone who can lend you theirs. Learn to grow from the experiences of others and be ready to fail a couple of times - we all do. Be open to learn and never be afraid of following your dreams.

SCI Member - Claudio Lourenco

>> At SCI, we’re proud to support #BlackinChem. Reach out to us with your stories.

What do you think are the specific barriers that might be preventing young black people from pursuing chemistry/science?
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. I understand that tradition sometimes prevents this, but we need to change and ignore tradition for a bit.

What steps do you think can be taken by academia and businesses to increase the number of Black people studying and pursuing chemistry/science as a career?

Showcase Black chemists and inventors to motivate the younger generations and show society that Black people are not only artists and musicians. Target extracurricular activities in schools where children are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Train your staff to be open. Create cultural events that not only target Black people but also for other people to learn and see that in the end we are all equal. We all need to learn to embrace our differences and grow together.

>> As we celebrate #BlackinChem, we mark the achievements of some inspirational chemists. Read more about the amazing career of Percy Lavon Julian.

Sustainability & Environment

If you’re a vegan, do you really want to eat a ruby-red slab of plant protein that looks like lamb? If you are a health obsessive, would you opt for an ultra-processed, plant-based product if you knew it didn’t contain many vitamins and micro-nutrients? And why, oh why, are we so obsessed with recreating the taste and appearance of the humble hamburger?

These questions and more were posed by Dr David Baines in the recent ‘No meat and two veg – the chemistry challenges facing the flavouring of vegan foods’ webinar organised by SCI’s Food Group. The flavourist, who owns his own food consultancy and is visiting Professor at the University of Reading, painted a vivid picture of our changing culinary landscape – one in which 79% of Millennials regularly eat meat alternatives.

And this shift in diet isn’t just the preserve of the young. According to Dr Baines, 54% of Americans and 39% of Chinese people have included more plant-based foods and less meat in their diets. Furthermore, 75% of Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – are open to trying cultivated meat.

There are many reasons for this gradual shift. The woman biting into Greggs’ famous vegan sausage roll and the woman who carefully crafts her bean burger may have different reasons for choosing meat alternatives. For some, it’s an ethical choice. For others, it’s environmental or health-related. And then there are those of us who are simply curious.

SCIblog - 10 August 2021 - No meat two veg - image of pea protein powder

Pea protein powder is used in plant-based meat alternatives.

Either way it’s an industry that, if you’ll excuse the pun, is set to mushroom. According to Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon research, the global meat-free sector will be worth US$290 billion by 2035. They also claim Europe will reach peak meat consumption by 2025, and Unilever is aiming to sell US$1 billion-worth of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025-27.

In his entertaining talk, Dr Baines outlined the extrusion processes that turn wheat and pea proteins into large ropes of fibrous material and how soy isolates are spun into textured proteins using looms like those used in the cotton industry. He explained how calcium is used to imitate the chewable texture of chicken and how Impossible Foods is using the root nodules of bean plants to produce the red colour we recognise so readily in meat.

>> For more interesting SCI webinars on battery developments, medicinal chemistry and more, check out our events page.

So, how close are we to products with the appearance, taste and texture of, let’s say, beef? ‘I think that will come from cultured meat to start with,’ he said. ‘Where the protein is produced, it will still need to be flavoured, but the fibres will have formed and the texture is already present in some of those products.

‘It’s a big ask and it’s been asked for a long time. It’s going to be a long time before you put a piece of steak on one plate and a plant-based [product] on another and they will be visually, texturally and taste(-wise] identical.’

And what appetite do people even have for these plant-based facsimiles? ‘There are people who want plant proteins not to look like meat, and there are people who want them to look like meat,’ he added. ‘The driver at the moment is to make them look like meat, and the driver is to make it taste like meat too.’

Baines wondered aloud about the bizarre fixation some have with recreating and eating foods that look and taste like beef burgers. In contrast, he pointed to the examples of tofu and soy-based products that have been developed in South East Asia – distinct foods that do not serve as meat substitutes.

Plant-based proteins are undoubtedly part of our culinary future, but these products have other barriers to surmount beyond taste and texture. There is no getting around the fact that plant-based proteins are ultra-processed in a time when many are side-stepping processed foods. Baines also explained that these protein- and fibre-rich foods tend to have lower calorific content, but lack vitamins and micronutrients. ‘Will they be supplemented?’ Baines asked. ‘How much will the manufacturers of these new products start to improve the nutritional delivery of these products?’

SCIblog - 10 August 2021 - No meat two veg - image of vegan sausage rolls

We have now entered the age of the gluten-free, vegan sausage roll.

But it’s easy to forget that the leaps made in recent years have been extraordinary. Who would have predicted back in 1997 – when Linda McCartney was at the vanguard of the niche, plant-based meat alternative – that a vegan sausage roll would capture the imaginations of a meat-hungry nation? Who would have foreseen fast-food manufacturers falling over each other to launch plant-based burgers and invest in lab-grown meat?

As Dr Baines said: “This is a movement that is not going away.”

>> Our soils provide 97% of our food. Read more about how they are undervalued and overused here.

Science & Innovation

This week SCI is joining with business and academia to mark #BlackInChem, an initiative to advance and promote a new generation of Black chemists.

Over the coming weeks, we shall be profiling past and present Black chemists, many of whom are unsung heroes, and whose work established the foundations on which some of our modern science is built. We start with the outstanding contribution made by Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975).

Born on 11 April 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, US, Percy L Julian was the son of a clerk at the United State Post Office and a teacher. He did well at school, and even though there were no public high schools for African Americans in Montgomery, he was accepted at DePauw University, Indiana, in 1916.

Due to segregation Julian had to live off campus, even struggling initially to find somewhere that would serve him food. As well as completing his studies, he worked to pay his college expenses. Excelling in his studies, he graduated with a BA in 1920.

Julian wanted to study chemistry, but with little encouragement to continue his education, based on the fact there were few job opportunities, he found a position as a chemistry instructor at Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1922 Julian won an Austin Fellowship to Harvard University and received his MA in 1923. With no job offers forthcoming, he served on the staff of predominantly Black colleges, first at West Virginia State College and in 1928 as head of the department of chemistry at Howard University.

In 1929 Julian received a Rockefeller Foundation grant and the chance to earn his doctorate in chemistry. He studied natural products chemistry with Ernst Späth, an Austrian chemist, at the University of Vienna and received his PhD in 1931. He returned to Howard University, but it is said that internal politics forced him to leave.

SCIblog - 9 August 2021 - #BlackinChem - celebrating Percy Lavon Julian - image of Physostigmine

Physostigmine was synthesised by Julian

Julian returned to DePauw University as a research fellow during 1933. Collaborating with fellow chemist and friend Josef Pikl, he completed research, in 1935, that resulted in the synthesis of physostigmine. His work was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Physostigmine, an alkaloid, was only available from its natural source, the Calabar bean, the seed of a leguminous plant native to tropical Africa. Julian’s research and synthesis process made the chemical readily available for the treatment of glaucoma. It is said that this development was the most significant chemical research publication to come from DePauw.

SCIblog - 9 August 2021 - #BlackinChem - celebrating Percy Lavon Julian - image of Calabar bean

Calabar bean

Once the grant funding had expired, and despite efforts of those who championed his work, the Board of Trustees at DePauw would not allow Julian to be promoted to teaching staff. He left to pursue a distinguished career in industry. It is said that he was denied one particular position as a town law forbid ‘housing of a Negro overnight.’ Other companies are also said to have rejected him because of his race.

However, in 1936 he was offered a position as director of research for soya products at Glidden in Chicago. Over the next 18 years, the results of his soybean protein research produced numerous patents and successful products for Glidden. These included a paper coating and a fire-retardant foam used widely in World War II to extinguish gasoline fires. Julian’s biomedical research made it possible to produce large quantities of synthetic progesterone and hydrocortisone at low cost.

SCIblog - 9 August 2021 - #BlackinChem - celebrating Percy Lavon Julian - image of Percy Lavon Julian on a stamp

Percy Lavon Julian | Editorial credit: spatuletail / Shutterstock.com

By 1953 Julian Laboratories had been established, an enterprise that he went on to sell for more than $2 million in 1961. He then established the Julian Research Institute, a non-profit research organisation. In 1967 he was appointed to the DePauw University Board of Trustees, and in 1973 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the second African American to receive the honour.

He was also widely recognised as a steadfast advocate of human rights. Julian continued his private research studies and served as a consultant to major pharmaceutical companies until his death on 19 April 1975. Percy Lavon Julian is commemorated at DePauw University with the Percy L Julian Science and Mathematics Center named in his honour. During 1993 the United States Postal Service commemorated Julian on a stamp in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to science and society.

Agrifood

Main image: Pea crop | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

Peas are a very rewarding garden crop. Husbandry is very straightforward, producing nutritious yields and encouraging soil health by building nitrogen reserves for future crops.

Rotations usually sequence cabbages and other nitrogen-demanding crops after peas. This is a sustainable way to use the organic nitrogen reserves left by pea roots resulting from their mutually beneficial association with benign bacteria. These microbes capture atmospheric nitrogen, producing ammonia, nitrites and nitrates in a sequence of natural steps.

Peas originated in the Mediterranean. They were cultivated continuously by ancient civilisations and through medieval times, and are now the seventh most popular vegetable.

SCIblog - 26 July 2021 - Peas please - image of pea seeds - photo by Geoff Dixon

Illustration 1: Pea seeds | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

In bygone centuries, peas provided a protein source for the general population as cooked meals of pea soup and pease pudding helped keep famine at bay before the introduction of potatoes. In the 18th century, French gardeners working for the aristocracy produced fresh peas using raised and protected beds of fermenting animal manure. The composting processes produced heat and released carbon dioxide, stimulating rapid growth.

Generally, however, eating fresh peas only gained popularity in the 20th century as canned and then quick-frozen foods were invented, and large-scale technological development enabled mechanised and automated commercial precision cropping. In recent times, retail market demand has returned for unshelled podded peas – a manually picked crop known colloquially as ‘pulling peas’.


How to grow peas

Seeds can be sown directly (illustration 1) or transplants (illustration 2) can be raised under protection, giving an early boost for growth and maturity. Peas are cool season crops. They grow best at 13-18°C and mature about 60 days after sowing.

SCIblog - 26 July 2021 - Peas please - image of pea seedlings - photo by Geoff Dixon

Illustration 2: Pea seedlings | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

Some cultivars such as Meteor can be grown over winter, preferably protected with cloches for very early cropping. The spring sown The Sutton cultivar group (CV) gives rapid but modest returns, and main crop CVs, such as Hurst Green Shaft, deliver the heaviest returns (illustration 2). This cultivar forms several long, well-filled pods at the fruiting nodes.

Sugar peas or mange tout – where the entire immature pod is eaten – is a popular fresh crop, while quick-growing pea shoots that mature in 20 days from sowing are excellent additions for salads or as garnishes for warm cuisine.

Human health benefits significantly by including peas in the diet. As well as being an excellent protein source, they produce a range of vitamins and nutrient elements. Their coumestrol content aids the control of blood sugar levels, helping combat diabetes, heart diseases and arthritis.

So, it’s certainly worth finding a spot for this versatile vegetable in your garden.

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

Careers

SCI has selected Harriet McNicholl from AstraZeneca as the 2021 National Undergraduate Placement Student of the Year.

The national undergraduate placement symposium brings together chemistry students undertaking industrial research placements each year. Students working in organic, biological, supramolecular, physical organic, medicinal chemistry and related fields are invited to submit posters. The finalists are then selected to present orally at the virtual symposium. This year’s applicants included students from organisations such as AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, UCB, Syngenta, Charles River and more.

SCIblog - 22 July 2021 - Undergraduate Placement Student of the Year - image of Harriet McNicholl in the lab

Harriet McNicholl’s chemistry will be used to manufacture drug products to support patients in phase-II clinical trials.

As part of this symposium, Harriet McNicholl from AstraZeneca was invited to present her research to develop a safe, inexpensive and commercially viable process towards AZD5991, a candidate therapeutic for the treatment of acute myeloid leukaemia.

Encapsulating AstraZeneca’s dynamic and data driven approach to turning molecules into medicines, Harriet highlighted how the SELECT criteria, automation and High Throughput Experimentation were used to design and optimise a process. Harriet’s work aimed to maximise efficiency and sustainability, and her chemistry will be used to manufacture drug products to support patients in phase-II clinical trials.

Harriet is in the third year of her chemistry integrated Master’s degree (MChem) at the University of Liverpool and is currently undertaking a synthetic chemistry industrial placement within Chemical Development (CD) at Macclesfield.

‘I have thoroughly enjoyed my placement year within Chemical Development at AstraZeneca,’ she said. ‘It has been incredibly rewarding knowing the science I’ve worked on has the potential to fundamentally transform oncology patients’ lives. This opportunity has enabled me to develop many of my technical and soft skills and motivated me to pursue a career within the pharmaceutical industry.’

Dave Ennis, Vice President of Chemical Development for AstraZeneca in Macclesfield, said: ‘Congratulations to Harriet who has made significant contributions to our development activities in Chemical Development. It is a reflection of the quality of students we attract to our sandwich student programme; I’m proud that we give our students a great insight to drug development by being active participants in our projects, and it is highly motivating for our scientists in helping to coach and develop others - a win-win for all involved.

‘Over the past 25 years, we have had a successful rolling programme of sandwich students from a variety of universities that has helped to attract the next generation of scientific talent to AstraZeneca and the wider industry. Looking forward to our next cohort in 2021, and I’m sure they will compete for the prize next year’.

SCIblog - 22 July 2021 - Undergraduate Placement Student of the Year - image of Harriet McNicholl's poster submission

Harriet’s poster submission

Dr Andrew Carnell, Director of Year in Industry Courses at the Department of Chemistry in the University of Liverpool, added: ‘I am delighted that Harriet has been awarded this prestigious prize for her work during her placement at AstraZeneca. She is a credit to the department and to the university. Our Year in Industry students gain a huge amount from their placements, not only in terms of practical experience and technical knowledge but increased confidence and employability. Students return to us highly motivated for their final year and often go on to secure excellent and rewarding positions in today’s competitive job market.’

As part of this event, keynote speaker James Douglas (Manager of AstraZeneca’s Catalysis, High Throughput and Synthesis Technologies team) noted that his career journey started with a placement year at GlaxoSmithKline in Stevenage. James went on to describe the benefits of doing a placement year and how the skills he gained from his year in industry helped him to secure a Ph.D. at the University of St Andrews and a postdoctoral position with Eli Lilly in the United States.

This year’s competition featured many strong entries. Congratulations to runners up Daniella Hares (AstraZeneca, University of Southampton) for her presentation outlining computational techniques for drug discovery and poster prize winner Jake Odger (Sosei Heptares, University of York). The competition was hosted and organised by the Society of Chemical Industry Young Chemists’ Panel

For more on this year’s National Undergraduate Placement Student of the Year competition, visit: https://istry.co.uk/postercompetition/4/

Materials

We always hear about athletes eking out that competitive edge through subtle changes in diet or equipment. Well, when it comes to making our buildings more energy-efficient, dozens of different technologies could make a difference. Every one may not be earth juddering on its own, but each could help decarbonise our homes by degrees.

Phase-changing materials (PCMs) may have a role to play in reducing our reliance on power-hungry cooling and heating systems in the home. At Texas A&M University, researchers have developed PCMs to passively regulate temperatures inside buildings.

They believe their 3D-printed phase-change materials - compounds that can change from a solid to liquid when absorbing heat, or from liquid to solid when releasing heat - could be incorporated into our homes in paint or other interior effects to regulate interior temperatures.

New phase-change material composites

New phase-change material composites can regulate ambient temperatures inside buildings | Image credit: Texas A&M University College of Engineering

Their partial substitute to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that predominate in many of our buildings is a light-sensitive liquid resin with a phase-changing paraffin wax powder.

According to the researchers, their 3D printable ink composite improves upon existing PCMs in that it doesn’t require a separate shell around each PCM particle. When the PCM is mixed with liquid resin, the resin acts as both the shell and building material, enabling thermal energy management without any leakage. They use an ultraviolet light to solidify their 3D printable paste and make it suitable for use in our buildings.

“The ability to integrate phase-change materials into building materials using a scalable method opens opportunities to produce more passive temperature regulation in both new builds and already existing structures,” said Dr. Emily Pentzer, associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Chemistry.

To date, the researchers have only tested their materials on a small scale in a house-shaped model. Nevertheless, after placing their 3D printed model inside an oven, the results were encouraging. The model’s temperature was 40% different to outside temperatures compared to models made using traditional materials.

Illustration of an energy efficient house

From solar panels and insulation to heat pumps and phase change materials, much has been done to make our homes more energy-efficient

“We’re excited about the potential of our material to keep buildings comfortable while reducing energy consumption,” said Dr. Peiran Wei, research scientist in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Soft Matter Facility. “We can combine multiple PCMs with different melting temperatures and precisely distribute them into various areas of a single printed object to function throughout all four seasons and across the globe.”

Perhaps we won’t see PCMs in widespread use in our buildings any time soon, but it’s always heartening to see the use of passive heating and cooling systems in our buildings. Anything that contributes to the decarbonisation mix is certainly worth investigating further.

Agrifood

Think of Earth as an apple and the soil as the peel. Now, imagine that more than 70% of this apple’s surface is covered in water. That veneer of peel suddenly seems very small indeed.

Dig beneath the surface and you realise that the world’s soil resources aren’t as plentiful as you first thought. When you take into account all of the uninhabitable, non-arable land on our planet, including the snow-bound poles and deserts, you’re left with just 3% of total landmass to grow all the fruit and vegetables we eat.

After reminding her listeners of some stark facts at the Soil resources in the UK: overlooked and undervalued? webinar, Jane Rickson, Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation at Cranfield University, reminded us that soil is a precious, finite resource. “We’re dealing with a very thin resource that has to deliver all of these goods and services.”

You just need to think of your breakfast, lunch, and dinner to realise just how important soil is. Of all the food we eat, 97% comes from terrestrial sources. However, in recent decades, the many benefits brought by soil have been taken lightly. Apart from providing food, animal fodder, and a surface for football, it plays a vital role in climate change mitigation.

‘Soil is excellent for climate change mitigation,’ said Professor Rickson, recipient of the prestigious Dr Sydney Andrew Medal for 2021. ‘We know that healthy soils can support vegetation and crops and plants in taking out atmospheric CO2.’

SCIblog - 6 July 2021 - Solving soil degradation - image / graphic of soil layers

A cross section of soil layers. Unless you live on fish and seaweed, it’s likely that almost all of your food sources will come from terrestrial sources.

However, she and her colleagues at Cranfield University have unearthed some unsettling facts about the state of our soils. She mentioned that 12 million hectares of agricultural land worldwide is lost each year due to soil degradation. In the UK, soil erosion rates can be as high as 15 tonnes per hectare per year, with soil formation rates only compiling at a rate of 1 tonne per hectare per year; and, based on current rates of erosion, some soils could disappear completely by 2050.

So, what is being done to arrest this problem? The obvious mammoth in the room is climate change, with extreme weather events such as flash floods precipitating a huge amount of soil erosion. Obviously, climate change mitigation measures on a national scale would help, but adjustments to farming practices could also improve soil resilience on a more local level.

A lot of work is also being done to reduce the intensity of farming to improve soil health. The aim, according to Rickson, is to maintain a fertile seedbed while retaining maximum resistance to soil degradation. There are lots of different ways to do this.

One approach being taken is cover cropping, whereby a crop is grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil rather than for immediate sale. This enriches the soil and helps prevent soil erosion. Another approach is strip-tillage – a minimum tillage system that disturbs only the portion of the soil that contains the seed row, with the soil between rows left untilled. She also mentioned the benefits of soil improvement, with poultry manure and mushroom compost used to improve soil health by Benedict Unagwu among others.

SCIblog - 6 July 2021 - Solving soil degradation - image of covering crops

Cover crops such as vetch and oats improve the structure and fertility of the soil.

It is difficult not to have sympathy for farmers at the moment. Climate change falls heavily upon their lands, and they must battle flooding and drought to keep their farms financially viable. Professor Rickson often speaks to the farming community about soil health, with the focus placed on realistic solutions. As one farmer told her: ‘It's hard to be green when you’re in the red.’

Perhaps soil doesn’t capture the imagination the same way as an oak forest or a field ablaze with wildflowers, but its mismanagement is costing us a fortune. She estimated that the combined annual economic cost of soil degradation in England, Scotland, and Wales is £1.5 billion.

According to Professor Rickson, the US is probably the home of soil conservation following the harsh ecological lessons learnt from the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s. However, she believes the UK has plenty of knowhow in the area.

‘The UK has an opportunity to be world-leading in this,’ she said. ‘I think we are as good as anyone. Our scientific community understands soil and is really pushing the boundaries in terms of soil science.’

Careers

From genome mining and green synthesis, to tackling tuberculosis and computational methods to help cure malaria, the chemists of tomorrow have been busy showcasing their talents as part of the Society of Chemical Industry Young Chemists Panel’s National Undergraduate Online Poster Competition 2021.

A snapshot of these students’ talents is bottled below in their own words. So, which one of these 15 entries do you think contains the most potential?

1: Genome mining for myxobacterial natural products discovery

Emmanuelle Acs et al., University of Glasgow

Natural products have always had a privileged place in drug development programmes, but their discovery is long and tedious. Genome mining arises as a solution allowing the finding of compounds never seen before. Using an array of bioinformatic softwares, the myxobacterial genome was explored for new Ribosomally and Post-Translationally modified Peptides (RIPPs). Myxobacteria are soil-dwelling bacteria known for the number of secondary metabolites they produce, and they have proven to hide many more within their genome. Indeed, our analyses have led to the potential discovery of nine new myxobacterial natural products. The nature and class of these products is to be confirmed by biosynthesis in the laboratory.

2: De novo design of a lanthanide-binding peptide inspired by the methanol dehydrogenase enzyme active site

Olivia Baldwin et al., University of Birmingham

Lanthanides were thought to be biologically irrelevant until the discovery of bacteria containing the lanthanide-dependent methanol dehydrogenase (Ln-MDH) enzyme. There has been interest in exploiting the attractive properties of the lanthanides by the de novo design of artificial proteins, aiming to explore protein structures and functions not observed in biology. Here, a lanthanide-binding peptide, CS1-0, has been designed de novo and shown to bind to europium and pyrroloquinoline-quinone (PQQ), a key component of the Ln-MDH active site. This partial recreation of a biologically relevant lanthanide binding site is a step towards the ultimate goal of de novo design, to create functional artificial metalloproteins with simplified structures.

3: Template-directed synthesis of porphyrin nanorings: a computational and experimental study

Janko Hergenhahn et al., University of Oxford

Template-directed synthesis provides a route to achieve porphyrin nanorings by favouring ring-closure reaction over oligomerisation. A structurally new template with 12 binding sites has been proposed for the synthesis of novel porphyrin rings; however, initial unsuccessful reactions have raised questions about the binding efficiency of this template to the linear substrate. We have employed classical and quantum modelling together with experimental techniques to explore template-substrate binding in solution and shed light on this process. Titration experiments and modelling have enabled us to study the occupancy of different binding sites and quantify the influence of strain on binding, further guiding novel designs.

4: Transborylation enabled boron-catalysed hydrocyanation of enones

Kieran Benn et al., University of Edinburgh

Hydrocyanation offers an orthogonal route to synthetically ubiquitous amines. Current hydrocyanation methodologies are dominated by the use of acutely toxic hydrogen cyanide gas and transition metal catalysts. Here the application of main-group catalysis and transborylation is reported for the formal hydrocyanation of functionalised alkenes. The catalytic protocol was optimised and applied to a broad range of substrates (20 examples), including examples where chemoselectivity was demonstrated in the presence of reducible functionalities and Lewis basic groups. Mechanistic studies support a proposed catalytic cycle in which B–N/B–H transborylation was a key to catalyst turnover.

SCIblog - 1 July 2021 - image of a mosquito

Students at the University of Glasgow have used computational analysis to help tackle malaria.

5: Investigation of the structure-property relationship between hydrophobicity and the antimicrobial activity of AMP-mimic copolymers

Xiyue Leng et al., University of Birmingham

Antimicrobial peptides are increasingly employed as new-generation antibiotics, with their amphiphilic nature (contain both hydrophobic and cationic components) mimicked by polymers to enable a more cost-effective approach. However, there is a lack of a quantitative pre-experiment indicator to provide a prospect on their potency. The overall hydrophobicity represented by LogP/SA was proposed to rapidly identify candidates in future designing to reduce synthetic efforts. We show a comparison study between two computational tools used to calculate LogP/SA: ChemBio3D and Materials Studio, in terms of the predictive power and sensitivity, followed by the synthesis of copolymers with a different cationic side chain based on the calculation results.

6: Modelling potential SARS-CoV-2 VIRTAC warheads

Mirjam-Kim Rääbis et al., University of Glasgow

Traditional small molecule therapeutics in medicinal chemistry often require high doses to inhibit the target protein, leading to issues with safety and drug resistance. Proteolysis targeting chimeras (PROTACs) are a new class of molecule that combat these issues, as they can use the body’s own protein degradation systems to degrade targets even at low drug doses. Virus-targeting chimeras (VIRTACs) can use a similar mechanism to target viral proteins. This project uses molecular docking studies to explore potential VIRTAC warheads that target the papain-like protease of SARS-CoV-2, in an attempt to find a potential treatment to COVID-19 that would, among other benefits, offer a lower risk of antiviral resistance.

7: Design, synthesis and biological evaluation of anti-tubercular small molecules

Miriam Turner et al., Newcastle University

Tuberculosis remains one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, therefore there exists an unmet clinical need for new and improved therapeutics that tackle increasing bacterial resistance and affordability issues. Previous studies indicate N-substituted amino acid hydrazides exhibit good activity against several strains of Mtb. Ongoing structure-activity relationship studies utilising isoniazid, a variety of amino acids, and the active imidazo[1,2-a]pyridine-3-carboxy moiety of clinical candidate Q203 have also demonstrated excellent activities. Herein we report the results of our continued evaluation of this architecture, using a scaffold hopping approach to explore the potential of this pharmacophore as a new anti-tubercular drug.

8: Towards a cure for malaria: computational analysis and design of PfCLK3 inhibitors

Skye Brettell et al., University of Glasgow

Malaria continues to pose a significant challenge to humanity. Resistance to several frontline antimalarials represents a considerable threat, marking the need for new drugs with novel mechanisms of action. Kinase inhibitors represent a potential new class of antimalarials. TCMDC-135051 is a hit compound with activity against malarial kinase PfCLK3 as well as potency in liver, blood and sexual stage parasites. During this project, sequential analysis of the PfCLK3 catalytic domain identified key structural differences between the target and its human orthologs. Molecular docking studies of TCMDC-135051 analogues using GOLD then yielded potential lead compounds with predicted high affinity for the target kinase.

9: Mind the gap! Through-space electronic stabilisation of dynamic azaacene-extended helicene diimides

Matteo Albino et al., University of York

The strain-induced contortion of non-planar, chiroptically-active helicenes caused by fjord steric repulsive interactions is well known. Fjord-mediated planarisation, on the other hand, is far less common and has typically only been achieved via inherently strong covalent bond formation. Herein, I present the properties and density functional theory (DFT) analysis of electroactive aza[5]helicenes exhibiting unexpected through-space π-electronic stabilisation in the reduced states as a result of non-covalent fjord bonding effects. Computational modelling of optical spectra and aromatic-induced current densities reveal that lone pair-repulsive nitrogens in the fjord promote favourable ring currents and reversible helicene planarisation.

10: Mitochondria targeted metal-chelators as potential therapeutic agents against Parkinson’s Disease

Sam Andrew Young et al., Northumbria University

The synthesis of metal chelating molecules, specifically hydroxypyridones (HOPOs), have been identified as potential therapeutic agents for treating Parkinson’s Disease (PD) as bidentate ligands at the two oxygen donor atoms. These ligands are selective for ferric iron in the body, which is expected to stop the reduction of this iron accumulated in the brains of PD sufferers, hindering the Haber-Weiss mechanism from taking place in the mitochondria of the cell and preventing the associated degeneration of the cells. The lipophilicity of these HOPOs is vital to the process, allowing the molecule to transverse the blood-brain barrier, the addition of a triphenylphosphonium group on the HOPO is thought to increase therapeutic effect.

SCIblog - 1 July 2021 - image of a close-up of a woman's skin

At Heriot Watt University, students have investigated the skin irritation potential of nanoclays using an IATA

11: Green synthesis of n-acetylcolchinol

Adelaide Lunga et al., Loughborough University

The aim of this project is to develop a short synthesis of N-acetylcolchinol using a greener and step-economical pathway. First, aldol condensation of 3-hydroxyacetophenone and 3,4,5-trimethoxybenzaldehye using ethanolic NaOH produced the respective chalcone. The product was reduced electrochemically in DMSO:MeOH (4:1) employing carbon electrodes and NEt4Cl to the saturated benzylic alcohol, which was converted to an acetamide via Ritter reaction using H2SO4 in MeCN. In the final step, the conditions were optimised to enable electrochemical oxidative coupling of the aromatic groups to give the desired N-acetylcolchinol. This novel four-steps reaction sequence avoids use of transition metal catalysts or toxic reagents.

12: Towards the synthesis of small-molecule probes to measure endosulfatase activity

Yi Xiao et al., University of Oxford

Human endosulfatases (SULFs) are enzymes on the cell surface and in the extracellular matrix that hydrolyse 6-O-sulfate on glucosamine units within heparan sulfate proteoglycans. SULFs are involved in growth and development, muscle regeneration and tumour growth via various signaling pathways, with untapped therapeutic and diagnostic potentials. However, profiling SULFs remains a challenge. Antibodies detect their presence, but do not indicate their activity state. The current activity assay is a global sulfatase assay and is not selective in a biological sample. We propose a novel small-molecule probe to profile SULF activity by exploiting the formation of 1,6-anhydrosugar, which can be potentially used in isolated proteins and in vitro.

13: Developing machine learning models to predict the Hansen solubility parameters

Alexander Pine et al., University of Greenwich

Solubility parameters are important for pharmaceutical formulations, paint formulations and new material development. There is a need to improve the accuracy of solubility calculations, and to be able to make rapid predictions of the solubility of new molecular structures. In this project, a range of Python plugins, and open-source codes have been used to develop a Lasso linear regression machine learning model to predict the Hansen solubility parameters (HSP) - δd, δp and δh, which represents dispersion forces, dipole-permanent dipole forces and hydrogen bonding respectively with the intention of making faster and more accurate prediction in solubility.

14: The cycloaddition between cyclononyne and mesyl azide

Alexander David Robertson et al., The University of Glasgow

This research considers computational modelling of a SPAAC reaction involving cyclononyne. DFT calculations were performed on the strain promoted reaction between cyclononyne and mesyl azide. Three low energy conformers of cyclononyne with Cs, C2 and C1 symmetry were found with similar energy. The transition structures for the corresponding cycloaddition with mesyl azide were found and the C2 conformer was the lowest in energy. Product structures were found leading to the identification of the thermodynamic product of the reaction. Distortion/interaction analysis showed that the cycloalkyne was already significantly pre-constrained to its reacting geometry.

15: The assessment of skin irritation potential of nanoclays using an IATA

Holly King et al., Heriot Watt university

Clays are natural nanomaterials consisting of mineral silicate layers. They have several functional uses in everyday life. An example of nanoclays that carry out a wide range of roles is smectites which include montmorillonite (MMT), bentonite and hectorite. These nanoclays can be used in cosmetics, altering their appearance and in pharmaceuticals as drug carriers and wound dressings. Integrated approach to testing and assessment (IATA) aim to collect all relevant data into one easy to understand format that can be used to group materials. Using an IATA dedicated to skin irritation/corrosion it was found that MMT was safe for use. However, hectorite was found to be toxic at high doses indicating that it is a possible irritant to the skin.

Many thanks to the sponsors of this year’s competition: GSK, AstraZeneca, TeledyneIsco. The event runs until 9 July, so let us know what you think of the entries on Twitter at #SCIPosterComp.

If you’d like to see these students’ full posters, go to: https://istry.co.uk/postercompetition/5/?date_example=2021-06-28

Science & Innovation

Which technologies will propel industry forward and give companies that competitive advantage? According to digital consultancy McKinsey Digital’s Tech Trends Index, several technologies will have a profound and disruptive impact on industries including the chemical sector. So, which ones will have the biggest effect on the way you work in the coming decade?

1: Automation

By 2025, more than 50 billion devices around the world will be connected to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) and about 600,000 industrial robots a year will be in place from 2022. The combination of these, along with industrial processes such as 3D and 4D printing, will speed up processing and improve operational efficiency.

According to McKinsey, 50% of today’s work practices could be automated by 2022 as ever more intelligent robots (in physical and software form) increase production and reduce lead times. So, how does this change look in the real world?

SCIblog - 22 June 2021 - Top 4 technology trends - image of a 3D printer

According to the McKinsey Tech Trends Index, 10% of today’s manufacturing processes will be replaced by additive manufacturing by 2030.

According to the Tech Trends Index, one large manufacturer has used collaborative robots mounted on automatic guided vehicles to load pallets without human involvement, while an automotive manufacturer has used IIOT to connect 122 factories and 500 warehouses around the world to optimise manufacturing and logistics, consolidate real-time data, and boost machine learning throughput.

2: Next generation computing

An almost incredible 368,000 patents were granted in next generation computing in 2020. Advanced computing will speed up the processing of reams of data to optimise research and cut development times for those in the chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries, accelerate the use of autonomous vehicles, and reduce the barriers to industry for many eager entrants.

‘Next-generation computing enables further democratisation of AI-driven services, radically fast development cycles, and lower barriers of entry across industries,’ the index notes. ‘It promises to disrupt parts of the value chain and reshape the skills needed (such as automated trading replacing traders and chemical simulations, reducing the need for experiments).’

According to McKinsey, AI will also be applied to molecule-level simulation to reduce the empirical expertise and testing needed. This could disrupt the materials, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals industries and lead to highly personalised products, especially in medicine.

3: The Bio-revolution

It doesn’t take much investigation before you realise that the bio-revolution has already begun. Targeted drug delivery and smart watches that analyse your sweat are just two ways we’re seeing significant change.

The Tech Trends Index claims the confluence of biological science and the rapid development of AI and automation are giving rise to a revolution that will lead to significant change in agriculture, health, energy and other industries.

In the health industry, it seems we are entering the age of hyper-personalisation. The Index notes that: ‘New markets may emerge, such as genetics-based recommendations for nutrition, even as rapid innovation in DNA sequencing leads ever further into hyper personalised medicine.’ One example of this at work in the agri-food industry is Trace Genomics’ profiling of soil microbiomes to interpret health and disease-risk indicators in farming.

4: Advanced materials

It’s no secret that we will need to develop lighter materials for transport, and others that have a lighter footprint on our planet. According to McKinsey, next generation materials will enhance the performance of products in pharma, energy, transportation, health, and manufacturing.

For example, molybdenum disulfide nanoparticles are being used in flexible electronics, and graphene is driving the development of 2D semiconductors. Computational materials science is another area of extraordinary potential. McKinsey explains: ‘More new materials are on the way as computational-materials science combines computing power and associated machine-learning methods and applies them to materials-related problems and opportunities.’

SCIblog - 22 June 2021 - Top 4 technology trends - image of virtual intelligent traffic

5G networks will help take autonomous vehicles from tentative - to widespread use.

So, which sorts of advanced materials are we talking about? These include nanomaterials that enable more efficient energy storage, lighter materials for the aerospace industry, and biodegradable nanoparticles as drug carriers within the human body.

These are just four of the 10 areas explored in the fascinating McKinsey Digital’s Tech Trends report. To read more about the rest, visit: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/the-top-trends-in-tech

Agrifood

The iris family (Iridaceae) provides gardeners with a glorious array of colourful and frequently well scented flowers. Originating from both tropical and temperate regions, some such as freesias are best cultivated under protection. Others such as gladioli and crocus are reliable garden plants.

Iris, or fleur-de-lis, is one of the larger genera, offering colour and interest from the very earliest springtime through to May and June. The earliest and always most welcome is Iris unguicularis (previously Iris stylosa). Flowers (see illustration 1) emerge in the darkest days of December, encouraged by the warming effects of climate change.

SCIblog - 14 June 2021 - Irises by Geoff Dixon - image of Iris unguicularis (syn Iris stylosa)

Illustration 1: Iris unguicularis (syn Iris stylosa) / Image credit: Geoff Dixon

Originating from North Africa, it thrives in south facing dry borders, preferably under a wall where winter sunshine encourages proliferous flowering. Every few years, lift and divide the clump of small rhizomes after flowering has finished. Remove older growth and replant younger roots with a modest handful of compost and water well. Established clumps can be cut back, removing dead leaves during late spring.

By contrast Iris pseudacorus, the water flag, thrives in wet, boggy places or even when immersed in water. Found across Europe, it is a British native plant producing vivid yellow flowers that are rich sources of nectar. In parts of Scotland it forms large expanses of natural growth that are favoured by nesting corncrakes. It can be cultivated as part of water purification programmes since nitrogen and phosphorus are extracted by the vigorous root systems.

SCIblog - 14 June 2021 - Irises by Geoff Dixon - image of Iris germanica

Illustration 2: Iris germanica / Image credit: Geoff Dixon

The prima donna is Iris germanica, the flag or bearded iris. These are stately plants, producing flower spikes up to one metre high and furnished with multicoloured flowers (illustration 2). Upright standard petals can contrast completely with the falls which bear a beard of yellow pollen bearing stamens. Fertiliser should be applied as the flower spikes appear. It should be applied again after flowering, stimulating root growth in anticipation of a colourful display in the next season.

SCIblog - 14 June 2021 - Irises by Geoff Dixon - image of Iris Rhizome ready for division

Illustration 3: Rhizome ready for division / Image credit: Geoff Dixon

The rhizome is a large swollen ground-creeping stem from which side shoots develop with a terminal area of older tissue (illustration 3). Every four or five years, the rhizomes should be lifted and divided by removing the terminal tissue and splitting off side shoots with a sharp knife. These and the main rhizome should be replanted carefully, ensuring that they rest on the soil surface with their fibrous roots buried beneath them. Multiplication eventually provides a border filled with very colourful displays that can persist for a month since flowers frequently emerge along most of the spike.

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

Health & Wellbeing

Watching plants grow in a hydroponic contraption is an education. The plants sit in foam under UV light while their roots feed on water fortified by plant feed. There is no soil. No thirst. No room for death by lazy gardener. The results, as any hydroponic enthusiast will tell you, are startling.

So, what if we were to adopt this targeted, optimised approach to our own nutrition? What would happen if he were to ditch that delicious Sunday roast in favour of a shake that contains all the vitamins and minerals your body needs? Admittedly, it sounds terrible, but people do something similar already. Many gym obsessives take protein shakes religiously to feed their bodies’ impressive musculature, while others skip meals entirely in favour of such drinks and supplements.

SCIblog - 8 June 2021 - image of an organic hydroponic vegetable cultivation farm

An organic hydroponic vegetable cultivation farm

A recent study conducted by the Cherab Foundation, which featured in the Alternative Therapies journal, concludes that nutritional supplements may also help boost our brain function. After giving 77 people a vitamin and meal replacement product called IQed Smart Nutrition, the researchers from the non-profit organisation found that the supplement boosted brain function in a range of areas and could help people with autism, apraxia, and ADHD.

Almost 84% of participants reported deficits in speech and communication prior to taking the nutritional supplements. After taking the product, more than 85% said their expressive speech had improved while 67% of respondents reported improvements in other areas including focus, language understanding, oral motor skills, and physical and behavioural health.

Overall, 64% of participants reported positive changes within two weeks. According to the Cherab Foundation, the research aims “to guide future research into the dietary interventions and potential management of neurological conditions using natural food products, vitamin and mineral supplements”.

So, what ingredients are in the supplement-infused chocolate shake that will replace the wood-fired pizza you’re due to have next Friday evening? According to IQed, its powdered chocolate offering contains everything from brown rice, apple fibres, turmeric, and green tea, to copper gluconate, amalaki, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds.

SCIblog - 8 June 2021 - image of superfoods

Turmeric, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds have hopped onto the superfood bandwagon in recent years.

Some will dismiss these supplements as hocus-pocus, but the potential benefits of optimised nutrition are exciting nonetheless. If some wince-inducing elixir makes us healthier, stronger and live longer, perhaps it’s worth investigating further?

The Cherub Foundation works to improve the communication skills, education, and advocacy of children on the neurological spectrum. To read more about its study, visit: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32088673/

Agrifood

Farmers today are under pressure to produce more food with fewer resources and without damaging the environment around them. Faced with factors such as land pressures, soil fertility, pest management and agricultural policy, farming today is all about efficiency, time and energy saving technology, and the drive to make solutions as sustainable as possible.

This obviously poses the question: what can the agrochemical industry do to increase output on one hand and protect the environment and improve applicator safety on the other?

Formulation technology is becoming increasingly important in answering this question. By designing innovative formulations, agrochemical products can become more effective as well as safer. Without the right formulation, even the best active substance is worth nothing.

Most pesticidal active ingredients are not water soluble or water dispersible, yet the most common mode of delivery is via spray applications of aqueous dilutions. It is necessary to create a formulation of the active ingredient in a way that makes it easily dispersible in water and able to maintain stability over the application time period. Changing what goes into this formulation alongside the active ingredient is crucial in how effectively that material is delivered to where it needs to be.

SCIblog - 1 June 2021 - The role of formulations in agriculture - illustration of EC Formulation

Demonstration of an EC formulation.

Two of the most common types of agricultural formulations that tackle this issue are emulsifiable concentrates (ECs) and suspension concentrates (SCs). EC formulations are suited to active ingredients that are oil soluble and have low melting points. As they are purely a solubilised active ingredient in an oil or solvent with the presence of emulsifiers, they are simple to manufacture and relatively easy to stabilise. The presence of an oil also enhances the biological activity of the application, making them more efficacious in the field.

SCIblog - 1 June 2021 - The role of formulations in agriculture - illustration of SC Formulation

SC formulation, with an indication of what occurs upon dilution into the spray tank prior to application.

SC formulations, on the other hand, are suitable for insoluble active ingredients and those with higher melting points. Crucially, as water is the continuous phase, they are also typically safer and more convenient in use for the operator; there is an absence of dust, flammable liquids, and volatile organic compounds.

Built into each of these formulations alongside the active ingredient are formulation additives. Formulation additives, referred to as inert ingredients, are critical to provide the long-term stability to agrochemical products and their ability to mix effectively in the spray tank, making them suitable for [field spray] applications.

While the formulation type targeted is often dictated by the chemical characteristics of the active ingredient, the formulator has the ability to change every element of the spray quality characteristics and agrochemical delivery through selection of formulation additives. Changing both the formulation type and the additives within will habitually have a dramatic effect on the field efficacy of that application and subsequent yield and quality of the crop. Selecting the correct formulation additives is essential in creating a successful formulation, arguably making them as significant as the active ingredient itself.

How formulators learn to map the complex effects within formulations for improved crop protection is just one facet of today’s agriculture challenge.

Interested in learning more about how the formulation of agrochemicals plays its part in feeding the world? Visit: www.crodacropcare.com

Sustainability & Environment

As silicon reaches its solar ceiling, perovskite has emerged as one of the main materials of choice in the next generation of solar panels. Indeed, Oxford PV’s much anticipated perovskite-silicon solar cell could take conversion efficiency well beyond what is currently achieved on the roofs of our homes.

The benefits of perovskite are well known at this stage. It could increase the energy we harvest from the sun and improve solar cell efficiency, and its printability could make fabrication cheaper. However, as with almost everything, there are drawbacks.

According to researchers at the SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre at Swansea University, the solvents used to control the crystallisation of the perovskite during fabrication hinder the large-scale manufacture of printed carbon perovskite cells. This is due to the toxicity and potentially psychoactive effects of these materials.

The SPECIFIC team claims to have found a way around this after discovering a non-toxic biodegradable solvent called γ-Valerolactone. They say this replacement solvent could be used without affecting solar cell performance. Furthermore, they say it is non-toxic, sustainable, and suitable for large-scale manufacturing.

SCIblog - 25 May 2021 - Sharpening Solar - image of solvents used to make solar cells, one toxic, one green

Left - solvent normally used to make solar cells, which is toxic.
Right - new green solvent developed by Swansea University researchers from the SPECIFIC project
| Image Credit: Swansea University

‘This solvent problem was a major barrier, not only restricting large-scale manufacture but holding back research in countries where the solvents are banned,’ said research group leader Professor Trystan Watson. ‘We hope our discovery will enable countries that have previously been unable to participate in this research to become part of the community and accelerate the development of cleaner, greener energy.’

As the conversion efficiency of solar panels improves, cost is also key. What if you could create the same solar panels in a more cost-efficient way? That was part of the thinking behind another recent innovation in Singapore, where Maxeon Solar Technologies has created frameless, lightweight rooftop solar panels. These solar panels can be adhered directly to a roof without racking or mounting systems and allegedly perform just as well as standard solar panels.

SCIblog - 25 May 2021 - Sharpening Solar - image of the new Maxeon Air technology platform

The new Maxeon Air technology platform from Maxeon Solar Technologies

‘For close to 50 years, the solar power industry has almost exclusively used glass superstrate panel construction,’ said Jeff Waters, CEO of Maxeon Solar Technologies. ‘As solar panels have increased in size, and the cost of solar cells has been dramatically reduced, the cost of transporting, installing and mounting large glass panels has become a relatively larger portion of total system cost. With Maxeon Air technology, we can now develop products that reduce these costs while opening up completely new market opportunities such as low-load commercial rooftops.’

The idea is to use these peel-and-stick designs on low-load roofs that cannot support the weight of conventional solar systems; and they will be rolled out in 2022. Time will tell whether the innovations in Swansea and Singapore have a bearing on companies’ solar systems, but they provide more evidence of the ingenuity that is making solar power cheaper and more efficient.

Sustainability & Environment

We’re starting to see those silent cars everywhere. The electric vehicle evolution is gradually seeping onto our roads. Every month or two, we also seem to read about another wind power generation record in the UK, or some super solar cell. Pension funds and big corporations are coming under great pressure to divest from fossil fuels. The clean power revolution is well underway.

And yet the third biggest polluter of the planet - after power and transport - awaits the seismic shift that will shake it to its foundations. Indeed, cement production still accounts for roughly 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem is that creating cement is an energy-intense, polluting process with firing temperatures of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit needed to create it, and plenty of CO2 released during processing.

SCIblog - 18 May 2021 - Cementing a Greener Legacy - Image of a crane and construction site

Green cement and concrete are needed to reduce emissions in construction and other industries.

But there are signs that the processing could become cleaner. A recent report released by Market Research Future (MRFR) predicts that concrete (of which cement is a key ingredient) use could get appreciably greener over the next six years. It estimates that the global green concrete market size will grow at a 9.45% compound annual growth rate from 2020-27.

MRFR attributes this rise to several factors. First, there is a growing demand for green or recycled concrete (that incorporates waste components) within the construction industry. For builders, it enhances their environmental credentials and will increasingly become a business-savvy investment as governments seek to reduce carbon emissions.

Green building codes and the creation of energy-efficient infrastructure will also help propel this growth, and changing building regulations in massive markets including China, India, and the Middle East will result in many manufacturers looking to develop different material combinations. Increasingly, we’re seeing manufacturers turning to less energy-intensive manufacturing methods and investigating which waste materials could be used to create a greener cement or concrete that doesn’t compromise on performance.

Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology, in Sweden, have even been developing a rechargeable cement-based battery. If it ever comes to pass, this could be used to create buildings that store energy like giant batteries. Some manufacturers are also looking into the electrification of kilns, which isn’t feasible yet, and carbon capture and storage has long been mooted as a means to reduce industrial emissions.

SCIblog - 18 May 2021 - Cementing a Greener Legacy - Chalmers University graphic

Imagine an entire twenty storey concrete building that can store energy like a giant battery. This could be possible if Chalmers University’s cement-based rechargeable batteries come to fruition. | Image Credit: Yen Strandqvist/Chalmers University of Technology

The good news is that we don’t just have people all over the world working on low-carbon materials and manufacturing methods; experts in the UK are tackling the issue right now. On 2 June, speakers at the SCI’s free webinar, Ultra-low carbon concrete, a sustainable future, will examine some of the exciting initiatives underway.

These include an award winning, industry accepted ultra-low carbon alternative to traditional cement, which could result in CO2 savings of up to 78%, and the potential of using offsite manufacturing to provide commercial projects with a sustainable structural frame solution.

As with transport and power, cement is getting greener increment by increment. But with drastic climate change consequences dangling above us like the Sword of Damocles, now is the time for concrete action.

Register for Ultra-low carbon concrete, a sustainable future today at: https://bit.ly/33WfjkN.

Agrifood

Perennial bush soft fruits are among the crown jewels of gardening. Gooseberries, red currants and blackcurrants when well established will annually reward with crops of very tasty ripe fruit which provide exceptional health benefits. These bushes will mature into quite sizeable plants so only relatively few, maybe one to five of each will be sufficient for most home gardeners or allotment owners.

Header image: Gooseberries | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

The art of successful establishment lies in initial care and planting. Buy good quality dormant plants from reputable nurseries or garden centres. Plunge the roots deeply in a bucket of water and plant as quickly as possible. These crops need rich fertile soil which is weed free and has recently been dug over with the incorporation of farmyard manure or well-rotted compost. Each bush requires ample growing space with at least a one metre distance within and between rows.

Take out a deep planting hole and soak with water. Place the new bush into the hole, spreading out the root system in all directions. Add mycorrhizal powder around and over the roots, which encourages growth promoting fungi. These colonise the roots, aiding nutrient uptake and protecting from soil borne pathogens. Carefully fold the soil back around the roots, shaking the plant. That settles soil in and around the roots and up to the collar which shows where the plant had grown in the nursery. Tread around the collar to firm the plant and add more water. Normally, planting is completed in late winter to early spring before growth commences.

SCIblog - 10 May 2021 - Geoff Dixon - image of redcurrants

Redcurrants | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

As buds open in spring, keep the plants well-watered. It is crucially important that the young bushes do not suffer drought stress, especially during the first summer. Supplement watering with occasional applications of liquid feed which contains large concentrations of potassium and phosphate plus micro nutrients. Remove all weeds and flowers in this first year. That concentrates all the products of photosynthesis into root, shoot and leaf formation for future seasons. Clean up around the plants in autumn, removing dead leaves that might harbour disease-causing pathogens.

These plants will flower and fruit from the first establishment year. Each bush will produce fruit which is a succulent and rewarding source of health-promoting vitamins and nutrients.

SCIblog - 10 May 2021 - Geoff Dixon - image of blackcurrants

Blackcurrants | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

Blackcurrants are a fine source of vitamin C and have twice the antioxidant content of blueberries. Redcurrants are sources of flavonoids and vitamin B, while gooseberries are rich in dietary fibre, copper, manganese potassium and vitamins C, B5 and B6.

Blackbirds also like these fruits so netting or cages are needed! Continuing careful husbandry will yield a succession of expanding and rewarding crops.

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

Sustainability & Environment

Sometimes, when you try to solve one problem, you create another. A famous example is the introduction of the cane toad into Australia from Hawaii in 1935. The toads were introduced as a means of eliminating a beetle species that ravaged sugar cane crops; but now, almost a century later, Western Australia is inundated with these venomous, eco-system-meddling creatures.

In a similar spirit, disposable face masks could help tackle one urgent problem while creating another. According to researchers at Swansea University, nanoplastics and other potentially harmful pollutants have been found in many disposable face masks, including the ones some use to ward off Covid-19.

After submerging various types of common disposable face masks in water, the scientists observed the release of high levels of pollutants including lead, antimony, copper, and plastic fibres. Worryingly, they found significant levels of pollutants from all the masks tested.

SCIblog - 7th May 2021 - No masking the pollution problem - image of mask fibres

Microscope image of microfibres released from children's mask: the colourful fibres are from the cartoon patterns | Credit: Swansea University

Obviously, millions have been wearing single-use masks around the world to protect against the Covid-19 pandemic, but the release of potentially harmful substances into the natural environment and water supply could have far-reaching consequences for all of us.

‘The production of disposable plastic face masks (DPFs) in China alone has reached approximately 200 million a day in a global effort to tackle the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 virus,’ says project lead Dr Sarper Sarp, whose team’s work has been published on Science Direct. ‘However, improper and unregulated disposal of these DPFs is a plastic pollution problem we are already facing and will only continue to intensify.

SCIblog - 7th May 2021 - No masking the pollution problem - image of woman disposing of mask in bin

The presence of potentially toxic pollutants in some face masks could pose health and environmental risks.

‘There is a concerning amount of evidence that suggests that DPFs waste can potentially have a substantial environmental impact by releasing pollutants simply by exposing them to water. Many of the toxic pollutants found in our research have bio-accumulative properties when released into the environment and our findings show that DPFs could be one of the main sources of these environmental contaminants during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.’

The Swansea scientists say stricter regulations must be enforced during manufacturing and disposal of single-use masks, and more work must be done to understand the effect of particle leaching on public health and on the environment. Another area they believe warrants investigation is the amount of particles inhaled by those wearing these masks.

‘This is a significant concern,’ adds Sarp, ‘especially for health care professionals, key workers, and children who are required to wear masks for large proportions of the working or school day.’

Careers

In the latest blog in our SCI Mid-Career group series, Dr Jessica Gould, Applications Team Leader of Energy Technologies at Croda International, speaks about finding time for career development and the importance of taking on responsibilities outside her normal job role.SCI Members - Mid-Career Perspective - Jessica Gould

Please tell us about yourself and your career journey.
I started off my chemistry career with a Master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Liverpool, during which I spent a year working in the chemical industry at Cognis Ltd. Following my undergraduate degree, I began a PhD at the University of Nottingham that looked at developing novel coordination polymers for hydrogen storage as part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Centre for Doctoral Training in Hydrogen, Fuels Cells and their Applications.

After completing my PhD, I started work at Croda in 2013. I have predominantly worked as a research scientist in the UK Synthesis team, specialising in acrylic polymerisation. However, in early 2020 I changed roles to work as the Team Leader of our Energy Technologies Applications team. This area focuses on developing additives for the renewable energy sector, looking at electric vehicles, EV fluids, wind turbines and battery additives.

What are your keys to managing your career at this stage?
Compared to early career development, where the focus is on learning the key skills required for your job, at a mid-career stage other skills such as networking become more important. I do this by attending events both inside and outside my workplace. I also use various online platforms such as Microsoft Teams and LinkedIn to maintain and foster relationships within my network.

I also think that taking on responsibilities from outside your normal job role is important in managing your career at the mid-stage level. This allows you to continue to learn new skills even if you feel you are well settled in your main role. My manager helps me identify these opportunities and manage them within my current job role. My organisation also provides training courses that allow me to further develop these skills.

What challenges are there around mid-career support?
From my perspective, the challenge around mid-career support is finding time within your existing schedule for career development. People can often feel like they’ve stagnated if it takes a long time to progress or if they see limited job opportunities above them. Training, courses, networks and other experiences can help them learn and feel challenged. These provide an excellent way to maintain development at a mid-career level.

What additional support could SCI give to mid-career professionals?
Mentoring is an excellent way for people to feel supported in their career development. Expanding and continuing our mentoring scheme would be a great way for SCI to support its members.

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Sustainability & Environment

Every tin can dropped into our recycling bins is a small act of faith. We hope each one is recycled, yet the figures take some of that fervour from our faith. According to UK government statistics from 2015-2018, only about 45% of our household waste is recycled. Similarly, the UN has noted that only 20% of the 50 million tonnes of electronics waste produced globally each year is formally recycled. So, it’s fair to say we could do better.

Thankfully, thousands of people around the globe are working on these problems and two recent developments give us grounds for optimism. The first involves upcycling metal waste into multi-purpose aerogels, and the second involves fully recyclable printed electronics that include a wood-derived ink. 

Upcycling metal waste

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) claim to have turned one person’s trash into treasure with a low-energy way to convert aluminium and magnesium waste into high value aerogels for the construction industry.

To do this, they ground the metal waste into a powder and mixed it with chemical cross-linkers. They heated this mixture in an oven before freeze-drying it and turning it into an aerogel. The team says this simple process makes their aerogels 50% cheaper than commercially available silica aerogels.

Aerogels have many useful properties. They are absorbent, extremely light (hence the frozen smoke nickname), and have impressive thermal and sound insulation capabilities. This makes them useful as thermal insulation materials in buildings, in piping systems, or for cleaning up oil spills. However, the NUS team has loftier goals than that.

Mount of metal recycling at centre

There is a great need for less energy intensive ways to recycle metals

“Our aluminium aerogel is 30 times lighter and insulates heat 21 times better than conventional concrete,” research team leader Associate Professor Duong Hai-Minh whose research has been published in the Journal of Material Cycles and Waste Management. “When optical fibres are added during the mixing stage, we can create translucent aluminium aerogels which, as building materials, can improve natural lighting, reduce energy consumption for lighting and illuminate dark or windowless areas. Translucent concrete can also be used to construct sidewalks and speed bumps that light up at night to improve safety for pedestrians and road traffic.”

The aerogels could even be used for cell cultivation. Professor Duong explains: “Microcarriers are micro-size beads for cells to anchor and grow. Our first trials were performed on stem cells, using a cell line commonly used for testing of drugs as well as cosmetics, and the results are very encouraging.”

Whatever about these speculative applications, this upcycling method will hopefully help us find new homes for all types of metal waste including metal chips and discarded electronics.

Recyclable printed electronics

A team at Duke University has also made interesting progress in reducing electronic waste. The researchers claim to have developed fully recyclable printed electronics that could be used and reused in a wide range of sensors.

The researchers’ transistor is made from three carbon-based inks that can be printed onto paper, and their use of a wood-derived insulating dielectric ink called nanocellulose helps make them recyclable. Carbon nanotubes and graphene inks are also used for the semiconductors and conductors, respectively.

3D printing device

A 3D rendering of the first fully recyclable, printed transistor.
CREDIT: Duke University

“Nanocellulose is biodegradable and has been used in applications like packaging for years,” said Aaron Franklin, the Addy Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke, whose research has been published in Nature Electronics. “And while people have long known about its potential applications as an insulator in electronics, nobody has figured out how to use it in a printable ink before. That’s one of the keys to making these fully recyclable devices functional.”

The team has developed a way to suspend these nanocellulose crystals (extracted from wood fibres) with a sprinkling of table salt to create an ink that performs well in its printed transistors. At the end of their working life, these devices can be submerged in baths with gently vibrating sound waves to recover the carbon nanotubes and graphene components. These materials can be reused and the nanocellulose can be recycled just like ordinary paper.

The team conceded that these devices won’t ruffle the trillion dollar silicon-based computer component market, but they do think these devices could be useful in simple environmental sensors to monitor building energy use or in biosensing patches to track medical conditions.

Read about the Duke University research here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41928-021-00574-0
Take a look at the NUS study here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10163-020-01169-1

Careers

In this blog series, members of the SCI Mid-Career group offer advice on career management and how to overcome career challenges.

SCI Committee - Mid-Careers - Dan Smith

In our latest interview, we hear from Dan Smith, Head of Portfolio at CatSci Ltd.

Please tell us about yourself and your career journey.
I have more than six years’ experience at CatSci, an SME that specialises in process development for the drug development programmes of our partners. In my current role as Head of Portfolio, I oversee the delivery of our customer projects and support the technical qualification of new business and resourcing across our technical team. Previously, as Principal Scientist I led projects focused on route optimisation for Phase I-II and greatly enjoyed contributing to CatSci’s growth from four practical lab scientists to a current team of 24.

Prior to CatSci, I focused on both applied catalysis and fundamental research in both the UK and US as a postdoc for five years, including at the University of York and Texas A&M University. This provided an opportunity to explore and develop a range of skills such as computational modelling and basic programming that I have found useful since. In terms of earlier education, I have both PhD and Master’s degrees in Chemistry from Durham University.

What are your keys to managing your career at this stage?
As one begins to specialise or diversify at the mid-career stage, often there is a less well defined path. However, that comes with a multitude of possibilities. A lot of my current learning is focused on broadening my skillset across disciplines, such as finance, that help contextualise a wide range of business activities. Relative to early career development, there can be fewer individuals to draw on for their greater experience, especially in smaller departments or organisations. Instead, actively engaging those outside of one’s day-to-day environment for their views can be very helpful.

What challenges are there around mid-career support?
One of the biggest challenges is around time, and setting aside time to reflect on larger strategic objectives. Ring fencing time is often difficult. However, conferences can provide this free space to focus on opportunities and engage others for different perspectives.

What additional support could SCI give to mid-career professionals?
In the evolving shift to a more virtual world, change has accelerated due to the pandemic, and digital technology is of even greater importance to virtually all areas of work. SCI members may benefit from support in these areas, specifically in relation to new ways of working in the chemical industry.

Related Links:

Sustainability & Environment

To some, the almond is a villain. This admittedly tasty nut takes an extraordinary amount of water to grow (1.1 gallons per nut) and some in California say almond cultivation has contributed to drought.

And so it is no surprise to see the almond lined up in the rogue’s gallery of the thirstiest foods. In a study in the journal Nature Food, University of Michigan (U-M) and Tulane University researchers assessed how the food we eat affects water scarcity.

Meat consumption was found to be the biggest culprit in the US, with the hooves and feet of livestock accounting for 31% of the water scarcity footprint. Within the meat category, beef is the thirstiest, with almost six times more water consumption than chicken.

SCIblog 19 April 2021 - How thirsty is your food? - image of almond farm, almond harvesting

Almond crops in California have come under heavy criticism due to their heavy water consumption

However, the picture is a little more nuanced. Lead author Martin Heller, of U-M's School for Environment and Sustainability, explains: “Beef is the largest dietary contributor to the water scarcity footprint, as it is for the carbon footprint. But the dominance of animal-based food is diminished somewhat in the water scarcity footprint, in part because the production of feed grains for animals is distributed throughout less water-scarce regions, whereas the production of vegetables, fruits and nuts is concentrated in water-scarce regions of the United States, namely the West Coast states and the arid Southwest.”

Certain types of diets drain the water supply. People who eat large quantities of beef, nuts such as the infamous almond, walnut, and cashew, and a high proportion of water-intense fruits and vegetables including lemon, avocado, asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower take a heavy toll on the water footprint.

SCIblog 19 April 2021 - How thirsty is your food? - image of a bowl of roasted brussel sprouts

The Brussels sprout is not just for Christmas… it is a less water intense option for your dinner table.

“The water-use impacts of food production should be a key consideration of sustainable diets,” adds study co-author Diego Rose of Tulane University. “There is a lot of variation in the way people eat, so having a picture with this sort of granularity – at the individual level – enables a more nuanced understanding of potential policies and educational campaigns to promote sustainable diets.”

So, what do you do the next time you feel a pang of water guilt? According to the researchers, you could swear off asparagus and that crushed avocado on your toast and replace them with less water intense foods such as fresh peas, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and kale (but maybe not on your toast). Those beef steaks and hamburgers could make way for other protein sources, such as chicken, pork, and soybeans, and you could graze on peanuts and seeds instead of those honey roasted almonds you love so dearly. Just think of all those gallons of water you’ll save.

For more on this study, visit: https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-021-00256-2

Energy

Bit by bit, the green hydrogen revolution is coming to our shores. The news that a planning application has been filed for the UK’s largest electrolyser in Glasgow could be a boon for hydrogen evangelists, the local communities, and the political class.

The 20MW electrolyser will form part of the green hydrogen facility on the outskirts of Glasgow near Whitelee, the UK’s largest wind farm. The proposed project would produce up to 8 tonnes of green hydrogen each day – the equivalent of 550 return bus trips from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

If approved, the scheme would be delivered by ScottishPower, BOC, and ITM Power as part of the Green Hydrogen for Scotland Partnership. BOC would operate the facility using solar and wind power produced by Scottish Power and ITM Power would provide the all-important 20 MW electrolyser. Renewable energy would power the electrolyser, which would split the water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. The hydrogen produced by this process could then be used in various applications including transport.

Fundamentally, the people who will benefit most are the people of Glasgow, with the project aiming to provide carbon-free transport and clean air for people across the city area, while satisfying some industrial hydrogen demand. And we can all rest easy now that we know politicians will be pleased about it too, for the project coincides nicely with the United Nations 26th Climate Change Conference, which will be held in Glasgow later this year.

SCIblog - 15 April 2021 - Glasgow’s green hydrogen evolution - image of whitelee windfarm eaglesham moor scotland

The new facility will be based beside a plentiful renewable energy source, Whiteless wind farm in Eaglesham Moor. | Editorial credit: Maritxu / Shutterstock.com

If all goes swimmingly, the facility will supply hydrogen for the commercial market by 2023. “Whitelee keeps breaking barriers, first the UK’s largest onshore wind farm, and soon to be home to the UK’s largest electrolyser,” says Barry Carruthers, ScottishPower’s Hydrogen Director. “The site has played a vital role in helping the UK to decarbonise and we look forward to delivering another vital form of zero carbon energy generation at the site to help Glasgow and Scotland achieve their net zero goals.”

Tumbling renewable prices

This exciting news follows on the back of some bold green hydrogen claims made in a recent Bloomberg New Energy Foundation (NEF) report: the 1H 2021 Hydrogen Levelised Cost Update. According to Martin Tengler, BloombergNEF’s Lead Hydrogen Analyst, the report authors believe the cost of renewable hydrogen could fall 85% by 2050, 17% lower than they had previously predicted. This, he says, is due to falling renewables prices.

SCIblog - 15 April 2021 - Glasgow’s green hydrogen evolution - image of solar panels aerial view

It is becoming cheaper all the time to produce solar and wind power, which is good news for those producing green hydrogen.

Tengler also says that renewable hydrogen should be cheaper than blue hydrogen (when natural gas is split into hydrogen and CO2 via processes such as steam methane reforming) in many countries by 2030. Furthermore, Bloomberg NEF predicts that green hydrogen will be cheaper to process than natural gas in many countries by 2050.

With the prices of solar and wind power constantly tumbling, it would be no surprise to see the authors of these reports revising their projections even further in the coming years. In the mean-time, we welcome the green shoots peeking through outside Glasgow.

Health & Wellbeing

Many of us have contemplated buying a reconditioned phone. It might be that bit older but it has a new screen and works as well as those in the shop-front. I’m not sure, however, that any of us have thought of investing in a reconditioned liver – but it could be coming to a body near you.

Researchers based in São Paulo’s Institute of Biosciences have been developing a technique to create and repair transplantable livers. The proof-of-concept study published in Materials Science and Engineering by the Human Genome and Stem Cell Research Centre (HUG-CELL) is based on tissue bioengineering techniques known as decellularisation and recellularisation.

SCIblog - 12 April 2021 - A reconditioned liver? - image of a traffic jam

The organs of some donors are sometimes damaged in traffic accidents, but these may soon be transplantable if the HUG-CELL team realises its goal.

The decellularisation and recellularisation approach involves taking an organ from a deceased donor and treating it with detergents and enzymes to remove all the cells from the tissue. What remains is the organ’s extracellular matrix, containing its original structure and shape.

This extracellular matrix is then seeded with cells from the transplant patient. The theoretical advantage of this method is that the body’s immune system won’t rile against the new organ as it already contains cells from the patient’s own body, thereby boosting the chance of long-term acceptance.

However, the problem with the decellularisation process is that it removes the very molecules that tell cells to form new blood vessels. This weakens cell adhesion to the extracellular matrix. To get around this, the researchers have introduced a stage between decellularisation and recellularisation. After decellularising rat livers, the scientists injected a solution that was rich in the proteins produced by lab-grown liver cells back into the extracellular matrix. These proteins then told the liver cells to multiply and form blood vessels.

These cells then grew for five weeks in an incubator that mimicked the conditions inside the human body. According to the researchers, the results showed significantly improved recellularisation.

“It’s comparable to transplanting a ‘reconditioned’ liver, said Mayana Zatz, HUG-CELL’s principal investigator and co-author of the article. “It won't be rejected because it uses the patient’s own cells, and there’s no need to administer immunosuppressants.”

SCIblog - 12 April 2021 - A reconditioned liver? - image of the extracellular matrix of a decellularised liver

Extracellular matrix of a decellularised liver | Image Credit: HUG-CELL/USP

Obviously, there is a yawning gap between proof of concept and the operating theatre, but the goal is to scale up the process to create human-sized livers, lungs, hearts, and skin for transplant patients.

“The plan is to produce human livers in the laboratory to scale,” said lead author Luiz Carlos de Caires-Júnior to Agência FAPESP. “This will avoid having to wait a long time for a compatible donor and reduce the risk of rejection of the transplanted organ."

This technique could also be used to repair livers given by organ donors that are considered borderline or non-transplantable. “Many organs available for transplantation can’t actually be used because the donor has died in a traffic accident,” Caires-Júnior added. “The technique can be used to repair them, depending on their status.”

Even if we are at the early stages of this approach, it bodes well for future research. And for those on the organ transplant list, a reconditioned liver would be as good as a new one – complete with their very own factory settings.

Read the paper here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0928493120337814

Careers

In this new series, members of the SCI Mid-Career group offer advice on career management and how to overcome career challenges.

SCI Member David Freeman

In our latest interview, we hear from David Freeman, Research & Technology Director for Croda’s Energy Technologies business.

Please tell us about yourself and your career journey.
After a PhD in organic chemistry, I started my career with ICI Paints in Slough in 1998, working in a product development role. Within a couple of years, I moved to another ICI business, Uniqema, and had various technical roles around the chemical synthesis or process development of new materials.

These early roles – and the people I worked with during this time – had a big impact on me in terms of ways of working and how to deal with people. I subsequently joined Croda in 2006 and have since had further technical roles – initially around the technical management of Synthesis programmes in Croda, then technical management of Applications programmes, and finally on to my current role of R&T Director for Croda’s Energy Technologies business.

This last transition was probably the most interesting and challenging as it forced me to think much more strategically about the “what” rather than the “how” and what leadership versus management was all about. I see this area as being hugely important to the Mid-Career group.

What are your keys to managing your career at this stage?
Development remains really important to me from a personal perspective. I have always driven my own development, but been well supported by the organisations I’ve worked for: both by technical management teams and HR teams. At the mid-careers stage, there are lots of important things to think about but I consider the following to be key:

  • (i) Self-understanding and feedback: make sure you understand your strengths and weaknesses and how these manifest themselves with colleagues by seeking open and honest feedback
  • (ii) Get external perspectives on your areas of interest and expertise. This for me is really key in challenging thinking and bringing new ways of working and innovation to your role
  • (iii) Understand the big picture: make sure you’re clear about what’s going on in the world at a high level and the part you and your organisation have to play in meeting these challenges.

What challenges are there around mid-career support?
I feel very fortunate to have worked for organisations where development is extremely important – support is always on hand when I need it. The key challenge is a personal one and it’s about making enough time to focus on the right development areas. We are all busy but if we want to develop ourselves enough, then we will find that time!

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Sustainability & Environment

When you live in a cold country, you think of hot days as a blessing. Air conditioning units are for those in far-away places – humid countries where the baked earth smell rises to meet you when you step off the plane.

But cooling comes at a cost. According to the UN Environment Programme, it accounts for 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Some of us are visual learners; so, the sheer cost of cooling really hit me when I stared up at an apartment building in Hong Kong with hundreds of air conditioning units perched above the windows like birds.

And it isn’t just the Hong Kongers feeling the heat. The cooling industry as a whole is under pressure to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency expects emissions from cooling to double by 2030 due to heat waves, population growth, urbanisation, and the growing middle class. By 2050, it forecasts that space cooling will consume as much electricity as China and India do today.

SCIblog 1 April 2021 - The Cool Coalition feels the heat - image of Air conditioning units cling to a building

Air conditioning units cling to a building

All of this was captured by the Cooling Suppliers: Who's Winning the Race to Net Zero report released by the Race to Zero campaign, the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP), Carbon Trust and other partners in the UN Environment Programme-hosted Cool Coalition.

This report's authors found that only five of the 54 cooling companies they assessed have committed to net-zero targets. The document outlines three areas that must be addressed on the Cooling Climate Pathway: super-efficient appliances, ultra-low global warming refrigerants, and the widespread adoption of passive cooling measures such as clever home design and urban planning.

So, while builders adjust window sizes, introduce trees for shading, and choose materials (such as terracotta cooling systems) thoughtfully to temper the sun’s gaze, others are availing of different methods.

For example, the COP26 (the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference) Champions Team has just released its Net Zero Cooling Action Plan that includes a Cool Calculator tool to help companies and governments run simple calculations to see where they could decarbonise their cooling systems. Similarly, the UK's Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has launched a net-zero cooling product guide that showcases energy-efficient products run on natural refrigerants.

SCIblog 1 April 2021 - The Cool Coalition feels the heat - image of building green walls

Green walls are one of many passive cooling approaches used to reduce our reliance on mechanical systems.

However, it’s clear that the softly-softly approach won’t suffice. The EIA has called on governments to do more to encourage organisations to adopt sustainable cooling, to make concrete policy commitments, and speed-up the phase-out of climate-warming refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons.

“The development and expansion of net-zero cooling is a critical part of our Race to Zero emissions,” said Nigel Topping, UK High Level Champion for COP26. “In addition to technological breakthroughs and ambitious legislation, we also need sustainable consumer purchasing to help deliver wholesale systems change.”

We all love the technological panacea – innovations that will cure all the climate ills we have inflicted on the world. But the solution will also involve stodgy government regulations and changing consumer habits, and a reliance on the continued fall in renewable power generation.

For those in traditionally cooler climes, it’s no longer someone else’s problem. It was a balmy 22°C in London this week and we’re not even in April yet. So, it’s certainly time to turn up the heat on the cooling industry.

Agrifood

Variously known as zucchini, courgette, baby marrows and summer squash, this frost tender crop is a valuable addition for gardens and allotments. Originating in warm temperate America, the true zucchini was developed by Milanese gardeners in the 19th century and popularised in the UK by travellers in Italy. It quickly matures in 45 to 50 days from planting out in open ground by early May in the south and a couple of weeks later farther north.

Alternatively, use cloches as frost protection for early crops. Earliness is also achieved by sowing seed in pots of openly draining compost by mid-April in a greenhouse or cold frame. Courgettes have large, energy-filled seeds. Consequently, germination and subsequent growth are rapid.

Sow seed singly in 10cm diameter pots and plant out when the first 2-3 leaves are expanding (illustration number 1). Alternatively, garden centres supply transplants. These should be inspected carefully, avoiding those with yellowing leaves or wilting foliage. Each plant should have white healthy-looking roots without browning.

SCIblog 29 March 2021 - Illustration 1 - image of courgette seedlings germinated in a greenhouse

Illustration 1: Courgette seedlings germinated in a greenhouse.

Courgettes grow vigorously and each plant should be allocated at least 1 metre spacing within and between rows. They require copious watering and feeding with a balanced fertiliser containing equal quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Botanically, they are dioecious plants, having separate male and female flowers, (illustration number 2). They are beloved by bees, hence supporting biodiversity in the garden. Slugs are their main pest, causing browsing wounds on courgette fruits; mature late-season foliage is usually infected by powdery mildew fungi that cause little harm.

SCIblog 29 March 2021 - Illustration 2 - image of bee-friendly (and tasty) courgette flower

Illustration 2: Bee-friendly (and tasty) courgette flower.

Quick maturing succulent courgettes are hybrid cultivars, producing harvestable 15-25 cm long fruit (berries) before the seeds begin forming (illustration number 3). Harvest regularly at weekly intervals before the skins (epicarps) begin strengthening and toughening. Skin colour varies with different cultivars from deep green to golden yellow. The choice rests on gardeners’ preferences.

Courgettes are classed and cooked as vegetables and their dietary value is retained by steaming thinly sliced fruits. Courgettes are a low-energy food but contain useful amounts of folate, potassium and vitamin A (retinol). The latter boosts immune systems, helping defend against illness and infection and increasing respiratory efficiency. Eyesight is also protected by increasing vision in low light.

SCIblog 29 March 2021 - Illustration 3 - image of courgette fruit ready for the table

Illustration 3: Courgette fruit ready for the table.

Courgettes are, therefore, valuable dietary additions year-round. Courgette flowers are bonuses, used as garnishes or dipped in batter as fritters or tempura. Overall, the courgette is a most useful plant that provides successional cropping using ground vacated by over-wintered vegetables such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts or leeks.

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

Science & Innovation

Every day, there are subtle signs that machine learning is making our lives easier. It could be as simple as a Netflix series recommendation or your phone camera automatically adjusting to the light – or it could be something even more profound. In the case of two recent machine-learning developments, these advances could make a tangible difference to both microscopy, cancer treatment, and our health.

The first is an artificial intelligence (AI) tool that improves the information gleaned from microscopic images. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg have used this deep machine learning to enhance the accuracy and speed of analysis.

The tool uses deep learning to extract as much information as possible from data-packed images. The neural networks retrieve exactly what a scientist wants by looking through a huge trove of images (known as training data). These networks can process tens of thousands of images an hour whereas some manual methods deliver about a hundred a month.

SCIblog 23 March 2021 Machine Learning - image of herpes virus germs microorganism cells under microscope

Machine learning can be used to follow infections in a cell.

In practice, this algorithm makes it easier for researchers to count and classify cells and focus on specific material characteristics. For example, it can be used by companies to reduce emissions by showing workers in real time whether unwanted particles have been filtered out.

“This makes it possible to quickly extract more details from microscope images without needing to create a complicated analysis with traditional methods,” says Benjamin Midtvedt, a doctoral student in physics and the main author of the study. “In addition, the results are reproducible, and customised. Specific information can be retrieved for a specific purpose."

The University of Gothenburg tool could also be used in health care applications. The researchers believe it could be used to follow infections in a cell and map cellular defense mechanisms to aid the development of new medicines and treatments.

Machine learning by colour

On a similar thread, machine learning has been used to detect cancer by researchers from the National University of Singapore. The researchers have used a special dye to colour cells by pH and a machine learning algorithm to detect the changes in colour caused by cancer.

The researchers explain in their APL Bioengineering study that the pH (acidity level) of a cancerous cell is not the same as that of a healthy cell. So, you can tell if a cell is cancerous if you know its pH.

With this in mind, the researchers have treated cells with a pH-sensitive dye called bromothymol blue that changes colour depending on how acidic the solution is. Once dyed, each cell exudes its unique red, green, and blue fingerprint.

SCIblog 23 March 2021 Machine Learning - image of ph meter measuring acid alkaline balance

By isolating a cell’s pH, researchers can detect the presence of cancer.

The authors have also trained a machine learning algorithm to map combinations of colours to assess the state of cells and detect any worrying shifts. Once a sample of the cells is taken, medical professionals can use this non-invasive method to get a clearer picture of what is going on inside the body. And all they need to do all of this is an inverted microscope and a colour camera.

“Our method allowed us to classify single cells of various human tissues, both normal and cancerous, by focusing solely on the inherent acidity levels that each cell type tends to exhibit, and using simple and inexpensive equipment,” said Chwee Teck Lim, one of the study’s authors.

“One potential application of this technique would be in liquid biopsy, where tumour cells that escaped from the primary tumour can be isolated in a minimally invasive fashion from bodily fluids.”

The encouraging sign for all of us is that these two technologies are but two dots on a broad canvas, and machine learning will enhance analysis. There are certainly troubling elements to machine learning but anything that helps hinder disease is to be welcomed.

Machine Learning-Based Approach to pH Imaging and Classification of Single Cancer Cells:
https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0031615

Quantitative Digital Microscopy with Deep Learning:
https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0034891

Sustainability & Environment

What do grape stalks, pineapple leaves, corn cobs, rice husks, sheep’s wool, and straw have in common? Apart from being natural materials, they have all been used to insulate homes. Increasingly, people are turning towards natural, sustainable materials as climate change and waste have become bigger problems.

Existing building insulation materials such as synthetic rock wool are excellent at keeping our homes warm in winter, but the conversation has moved beyond thermal performance. Energy use, re-usability, toxicity, and material disposal are all live considerations now, especially with regulations and emissions targets tightening. So, rock wool might perform better than straw bale insulation but straw is biodegradable, reusable, easy to disassemble, and doesn’t require large amounts of energy to process.

Sheep’s wool and hemp insulation have also become attractive to homeowners and housebuilders alike, but an even more encouraging prospect is the use of waste materials to create next generation insulation. In this spirit, researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, have taken waste cooking oil, wool offcuts, and sulphur to process a novel housing insulation material.

SCIblog 18 March 2021 - image of recycled paper

Recycled paper is one of many waste materials that has found its way into domestic insulation.

To make this composite, they followed several stages. In the first stage of the synthesis, the researchers used inverse vulcanisation to create a polysulphide polymer from canola oil triglyceride and sulphur. They then mixed this powdered polymer with wool and coated the fibres through electrostatic attraction. This mixture was compressed through mild heating to provoke S−S metathesis in the polymer and bind the wool. The wool bolsters the tensile strength of the material, makes it less flammable, and provides excellent insulation. The result is a sustainable building material that fulfils its function without damaging the environment.

For Associate Professor Justin Chalker, the lead author of this study, this work provides an ideal jumping-off point. “The promising mechanical and insulation properties of this composite bodes well for further exploration in energy saving insulation in our built environment,” he said.

Sustainable transformation

It is clear that ventures like the one in Adelaide will continue to sprout all over the world. After all, necessity dictates that we change the way we build our homes and treat materials.

A recent report from Emergen Research predicts that the global insulation materials market will be worth US $82.96 billion (£59.78 billion) by 2027. The same report was also at pains to mention that the increasing demand for reduced energy consumption in buildings will be a significant factor in influencing industry growth.

“Market revenue growth is high and expected to incline rapidly going ahead due to rising demand for insulation materials... to reduce energy consumption in buildings,” it said. One of the main reasons given for this increased green building demand was stricter environmental regulations.

And Emergen isn’t the only organisation feeling the ground moving. Online roofing merchant Roofing Megastore, which sells more than 30,000 roofing materials, has detected a shift towards environmentally friendly materials, with many homeowners sourcing these products themselves.

SCIblog 18 March 2021 - image of a rock wool insulation panel

Rock wool insulation panels have come under greater scrutiny in recent times.

Having analysed two years of Google search data on sustainable building materials, the company found that synthetic roof tiles are generating the most interest from the public. Like the Flinders insulation, these roof tiles make use of waste materials, in this case recycled limestone and plastic. And you don’t need to look far down the list to find sustainable insulation materials, with sheep’s wool insulation in 9th place, wood fibre insulation in 10th, and hemp insulation in 12th.

Over time, the logic of the progression towards natural, less energy-intensive building materials will become harder to ignore. “Traditional materials such as synthetic glass mineral wool offer high levels of performance but require large amounts of energy to produce and must be handled with care while wearing PPE,” the company noted. “Natural materials such as hemp or sheep’s wool, however, require very little energy to create and can be installed easily without equipment.”

So, the next time you look down at your nutshells, spent cooking oil, or tattered woollen sweater, think of their potential. In a few years, these materials could be sandwiched between your walls, keeping you warm all winter.

Insulating composites made from sulphur, canola oil, and wool (2021): https://chemistry-europe.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cssc.202100187?af=R

Health & Wellbeing

Rising anxiety about air pollution, physical, and mental health, exacerbated by Covid-19 and concerns about public transport, has seen an increase in the popularity of cycling around Europe, leading many cities to transform their infrastructure correspondingly.

These days, Amsterdam is synonymous with cycling culture. Images of thousands of bikes piled up in tailor-made parking facilities continue to amaze and it is routinely held up as an example of greener, cleaner, healthier cities. Because The Netherlands is so flat, people often believe it has always been this way. But, in the 1970s, Amsterdam was a gridlocked city dominated by cars. The shift to cycling primacy took work and great public pressure.

For some cities, however, the pandemic has provided an unexpected opportunity on the roads. Milan's Deputy Mayor for Urban Planning, Green Areas and Agriculture, Pierfrancesco Maran, has explained that, "We tried to build bike lanes before, but car drivers protested". Now, however, numbers have increased from 1,000 to 7,000 on the main shopping street. "Most people who are cycling used public transport before”, he said. “But now they need an alternative”.

SCIblog 15 March 2021 - Transform your city: how to become cycle-friendly - image of London cycling network

Creating joined up cycling networks is a major challenge for urban planners.

In Paris, the Deputy Mayor David Belliard does not seem concerned that the city’s investment since the start of the pandemic will go to waste. “It's like a revolution," he said. “Some sections of this road are now completely car-free. The more you give space for bicycles, the more they will use it.” They are committed to creating a cycle culture, providing free cycling lessons and subsidising the cost of bike repairs. The city intends to create more than 650km of cycle lanes in the near future.

The success in these two cities has been supported by local government but it has also been fuelled by an understandable (and encouraged) avoidance of public transport and fewer cars on the road generally. Going forward, however, it seems likely that those last two factors won’t be present. So how do you create a cycling culture in your city in the long run?

The answer is both simple and difficult: cyclists (and pedestrians) need to have priority over cars. In Brussels, where 40km of cycle track have been put down in the last year, specific zones have been implemented where this is the case, and speed limits have been reintroduced across the city.

In Copenhagen, in the late 1970s, the Danish Cyclists’ Federation arranged demonstrations demanding more cycle tracks and a return to the first half of the century, when cyclists had dominated the roads. Eventually, public pressure paid off — although there is still high demand for more cycle lanes. A range of measures, including changes made to intersections, make cyclists feel safer and local studies show that, as cyclist numbers increase, safety also increases. In many parts of the city, it is noticeable how little of the wide roads are actually available to cars: bikes, joggers, and pedestrians are all accommodated.

SCIblog 15 March 2021 - Transform your city: how to become cycle-friendly - image of Segregated cycleways in Portugal

Segregated cycleways, like this one in Cascais, Portugal, make people more likely to cycle.

But, if you were starting from scratch, you might not simply add cycle lanes to existing roads and encourage behavioural changes on the road. Segregated, protected bike lanes like those introduced in Paris are the next level up and the results suggest they work — separated from the roads, more people are inclined to try cycling.

Dutch experts suggest, where possible, going even further. Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht, believes the best option is to create solitary paths, separated from the road by grass, trees, or elevated concrete. Consistency is also important. Cities need networks of cycle tracks, not just a few highways. Again, prioritising cyclists is key to the Dutch approach. Many cities have roads where cars are treated as guests, restricted by a speed limit of 30km/hour and not permitted to pass. Signage is also key.

In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan’s target is for 80% of journeys to be made by walking, cycling, and/or public transport by 2041. Since 2018, the city has been using artificial intelligence to better understand road use in the city and plan new cycle routes in the capital. However, the experience of other European capitals suggests that, "if you build it, they will come" might be a better approach than working off current usage.

Energy

A completely clean, renewable energy system that can be produced locally and that can easily power heat, energy storage and transportation, and travel — that's the future that promoters of a hydrogen economy envisage.

If it sounds a bit like rocket science, that's because it is. Hydrogen is what's used to fuel rockets — that’s how powerful it is. In fact, it’s three times more powerful as a fuel than gas or other fossil-based sources. And, after use, it’s frequently converted to drinking water for astronauts.

US President Joe Biden has highlighted the potential of hydrogen in his ambitious plans for economic and climate recovery and a number of recent reports have been encouraging about hydrogen’s breakthrough moment, including McKinsey and Company (Road Map to a US Hydrogen Economy, 2020) and the International Energy Agency.

SCIblog - 11 March 2021 - Hydrogen Economy - image of a Hydrogen fuel cell

Hydrogen fuel cells provide a tantalising glimpse into our low-carbon future

The McKinsey report claims that, by 2030, the hydrogen sector could generate 700,000 jobs and $140bn in revenue, growing to 3.4 million jobs and $750bn by 2050. It also believes it could account for a 16% reduction in CO2 emissions, a 36% reduction in NOx emissions, and supply 14% of US energy demand.

So how does it work?

Simply put, hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen atoms to produce electricity. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell and produces electricity, water, and heat.

This is what gets supporters so excited. In theory, hydrogen is a limitless, incredibly powerful fuel source with no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases.

So what's the problem?

Right now, there are actually a few problems. The process relies on electrolysis and steam reforming, which are extremely expensive. The IEA estimates that to produce all of today’s dedicated hydrogen output from electricity would require 3,600TWh, more than the total annual electricity generation of the European Union.

Moreover, almost 95% of hydrogen currently is produced using fossil fuels such as methane, natural gas, or coal (this is called "grey hydrogen"). Its production is responsible for annual CO2 emissions equivalent to those of Indonesia and the United Kingdom combined. In addition, its low density makes it difficult to store and transport — it must be under high pressure at all times. It’s also well-known for being highly flammable — its use as a fuel has come a long way since the Hindenburg Disaster but the association still makes many people nervous.

SCIblog - 11 March 2021 - Hydrogen Economy - image of a Hydrogen fuel station in Hamburg

A Hydrogen refuelling station Hafencity in Hamburg, Germany. Infrastructure issues must be addressed if we are to see more hydrogen-fuelled vehicles on our roads. | Image credit: fritschk / Shutterstock.com

So there are quite a few problems. What’s the good news?

In the last few years, we've seen how rapidly investment, innovation, and infrastructure policy can completely transform individual renewable energy industries. For example, the IEA analysis believes the declining costs of renewables and the scaling up of hydrogen production could reduce the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable electricity 30% by 2030.

Some of the issues around expense could be resolved by mass manufacture of fuel cells, refuelling equipment, and electrolysers (which produce hydrogen from electricity and water), made more likely by the increased interest and urgency. Those same driving forces could improve infrastructural issues such as refuelling stations for private and commercial vehicles, although this is likely to require coordination between various stakeholders, including national and local governments, industry, and investors.

The significant gains in renewable energy mean that “green” hydrogen, where renewable electricity powers the electrolysis process, is within sight.

The IEA report makes clear that international co-operation is “vital” to progress quickly and successfully with hydrogen energy. R&D requires support, as do first movers in mitigating risks. Standards need to be harmonised, good practice shared, and existing international infrastructure built on (especially existing gas infrastructure).

If hydrogen can be as efficient and powerful a contributor to a green global energy mix as its proponents believe, then it's better to invest sooner rather than later. If that investment can help power a post-Covid economic recovery, even better.