Waking up after a night of overindulgence on food and wine and realising you don’t have a headache is very satisfying. But realising, soon afterwards, you have heartburn can bring your mood down rapidly.
After years of discussion and argument around Brexit, the UK woke up to find that a Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and the EU been reached. A major headache had been avoided.
UK Businesses have a new trading landscape
However, the UK chemicals sector soon realised that after pulling back the curtains and taking a look at the new trading landscape, a feeling of heartburn was rising. The chemical sector’s regulatory obligation now requires that it establishes a UK-REACH system. The deal negotiated means that the UK has no access to the data it submitted to the EU’s REACH database.
In effect, the UK chemical sector has to populate the UK-REACH system from scratch. This will require an array of steps possibly including testing and renegotiating data sharing with other companies. According to the Chief Executive of the Chemical Industries Association (CIA), Steve Elliot, this is set to burn a £1 billion hole in the UK chemical sector’s pocket.
‘Failure to secure access to what has been a decade’s worth of investment by UK chemical businesses in data for EU REACH will leave the industry facing a bill of more than £1 billion in unnecessarily duplicating that work for a new UK regime,’ said Elliot in a statement on 24 December 2020, the day that the UK government excitedly announced the new trade deal.
UK-REACH could cost more than £1 billion
As a slightly belated Christmas gift, and perhaps just taking the edge off the heartburn, the UK government’s Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow announced, on 31 December, that the UK-REACH IT system was up and running. Pow said that the government had worked closely with partners, industry and stakeholders developing the IT system to manage the UK’s chemicals industry.
‘Having our own independent chemicals regulatory framework will ensure that we make decisions that best reflect the UK’s needs while maintaining some of the highest chemical standards in the world,’ she said.
But will these high standards do what REACH was set up for in the first place, and protect human health and the environment? According to CHEM Trust, a UK-German charity focused on preventing man-made chemicals from causing long term damage to wildlife or humans, the deal does not go far enough.
Critiquing the outcome, Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust said, ‘CHEM Trust’s initial assessment is that this agreement does not adequately protect human health and the environment in the UK from hazardous chemicals. This is because it doesn’t retain UK access to the EU’s chemicals regulation system REACH. The agreement includes an annex on chemicals, but does not facilitate the type of close cooperation with the EU post-Brexit that civil society groups such as CHEM Trust, and also the chemicals and other industries are seeking.’
But on a positive note, Warhurst added; ‘The deal […] commits the UK to not regress from current levels of protection, includes a rebalancing procedure which could increase protection on both sides and offers a platform on which a closer partnership could be negotiated in the future.’
No one doubts that there is still much to be digested, along with those left over Christmas chocolates that nobody really likes, regarding the UK-EU Free Trade Agreement. ‘Although this Free Trade Agreement represents a mixed bag for our industry,’ said the CIA’s Elliot, ‘we shouldn’t underestimate the huge value that a deal brings in terms of certainty.’
2021: A year to look forward to
As people return to their desks after the Christmas break, one might dare to hope that the heartburn can be quelled with a dose of optimism after the challenging year that has just passed. With this as a basis, along with eventually emerging from the global pandemic, Elliot believes 2021 should be ‘a year to look forward to’.
The Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge (IDC) is funded by UK government through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. One aim is to enable the deployment of low-carbon technology, at scale, by the mid-2020’s . This challenge supports the Industrial Clusters Mission which seeks to establish one net-zero industrial cluster by 2040 and at-least one low-carbon cluster by 2030 . This latest SCI Energy Group blog provides an overview of Phase 1 winners from this challenge and briefly highlights several on-going initiatives across some of the UK’s industrial clusters.
Phase 1 Winners
In April 2020, the winners for the first phase of two IDC competitions were announced. These were the ‘Deployment Competition’ and the ‘Roadmap Competition’; see Figure 1 .
Figure 1 - Winners of Phase 1 Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge Competitions. For further information, click here
Net-Zero Teesside is a carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) project. One aim is to decarbonise numerous carbon-intensive businesses by as early as 2030. Every year, up to 6 million tonnes of CO2 emissions are expected to be captured. Thiswill be stored in the southern North Sea which has more than 1,000Mt of storage capacity. The project could create 5,500 jobs during construction and could provide up to £450m in annual gross benefit for the Teesside region during the construction phase .
For further information on this project, click here.
Figure 2 – Industrial Skyscape of Teesside Chemical Plants
In 2019, Drax Group, Equinor and National Grid signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which committed them to work together to explore the opportunities for a zero-carbon cluster in the Humber. As part of this initiative, carbon capture technology is under development at the Drax Power Station’s bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) pilot. This could be scaled up to create the world’s first carbon negative power-station. This initiative also envisages a hydrogen demonstrator project, at the Drax site, which could be running by the mid-2020s. An outline of the project timeline is shown in Figure 3 .
For further information on this project, click here.
Figure 3 - Overview of Timeline for Net-Zero Humber Project
The HyNet project envisions hydrogen production and CCS technologies. In this project, CO2 will be captured from a hydrogen production plant as well as additional industrial emitters in the region. This will be transported, via pipeline, to the Liverpool Bay gas fields for long-term storage . In the short term, a hydrogen production plant has been proposed to be built on Essar’s Stanlow refinery. The Front-End Engineering Design (FEED) is expected to be completed by March 2021 and the plant could be operational by mid-2024. The CCS infrastructure is expected to follow a similar timeframe .
For further information on the status of this project, click here.
Project Acorn has successfully obtained the first UK CO2 appraisal and storage licence from the Oil and Gas Authority. Like others, this project enlists CCS and hydrogen production. A repurposed pipeline will be utilised to transport industrial CO2 emissions from the Grangemouth industrial cluster to St. Fergus for offshore storage, at rates of 2 million tonnes per year. Furthermore, the hydrogen production plant, to be located at St. Fergus, is expected to blend up to 2% volume hydrogen into the National Transmission System . A final investment decision (FID) for this project is expected in 2021. It has the potential to be operating by 2024 .
For further information on this project, click here.
Figure 4 - Emissions from Petrochemical Plant at Grangemouth
SCI Energy Group October Conference
The chemistry of carbon dioxide and its role in decarbonisation is a key topic of interest for SCI Energy Group. In October, we will be running a conference concerned with this topic. Further details can be found here.
Another month starts in the SCIence Garden with no visitors to appreciate the burgeoning growth of fresh new leaves and spring flowers, but that doesn’t mean we should forget about it!
Hopefully in our absence the Laburnum tree in the garden, Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’ will be flowering beautifully, its long racemes of golden yellow flowers looking stunning in the spring sunshine!
Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’ in the SCIence Garden
This particular cultivar originated in the late 19th century in the Netherlands, selected from the hybrid species which itself is a cross between Laburnum alpinum and L. anagyroides. This hybrid species was named for the Waterers nursery in Knaphill, Surrey and was formally named in a German publication of 1893 (Handbuch der Laubholzkunde, Berlin 3:673 (1893)
The laburnum tree is found very commonly in gardens in the UK, and is noticeable at this time of year for its long chains of golden yellow flowers. However, the beautiful flowers hide a dark side to this plant. The seeds (and indeed all parts) of the tree are poisonous to humans and many animals. They are poisonous due to the presence of a very toxic alkaloid called cytisine (not to be confused with cytosine, a component of DNA). Cytisine has a similar structure to nicotine (another plant natural product), and has similar pharmacological effects. It has been used as a smoking cessation therapy, as has varenicline, which has a structure based on that of cytisine. These molecules are partial agonists at the nicotinic receptor (compared to nicotine which is a full agonist) and reduce the cravings and “pleasurable” effects associated with nicotine.
Cytisine is found in several other plants in the legume family, including Thermopsis lanceolata, which also looks stunning in early summer and Baptisia species, also growing in the SCIence Garden and flowering later in the year.
In 2018 there were 9.6 million deaths from cancer and 33% of these were linked to exposure to tobacco smoke.* Since the link between smoking and lung cancer was established in 1950, the market for smoking cessation therapies has increased enormously. In 2018 it was worth over 18 billion dollars annually worldwide and is projected to increase to 64 billion dollars by 2026.** Staggering! Varenicline, sold under the brand names Champix and Chantix, is one of the most significant smoking cessation therapies apart from nicotine replacement products.
If you see a laburnum tree whilst out on your daily allowed exercise this month, have a thought for its use as a smoking cessation therapy!
* Data from the Cancer Research UK website https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/worldwide-cancer#heading-Zero accessed May 2020.
Here is a roundup on some of the most recent research and scientific efforts against the coronavirus.
Novartis has reached an agreement with the US Food and Drug Administration to proceed with a phase III clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine in hospitalized Covid-19 patients. The large trial will be conducted at more than a dozen sites in the US and tested on approximately 440 patients to evaluate the use for this treatment.
Additionally, Norvatis plans to make its hydroxychloroquine intellectual property available to support broad access to hydroxychloroquine. Read more here.
Causaly, an innovative technology company that harnesses AI to interpret vast databases of biomedical knowledge, is collaborating with UCL academics to increase research on potential therapeutic agents and the identification of biomarkers.
Several researchers and research groups within UCL have been granted access to Causaly technology, allowing them the access to rapidly analyse and derive insights from biomedical literature.
Read more here.
As part of the UK’s wider efforts to support the development of a vaccine, a new government-led Vaccine Taskforce will soon be launched to drive forward the manufacturing and research efforts to fight the virus.
The government will review regulations to facilitate fast and safe vaccine trials, as well as operational plans, to ensure a vaccine can be produced at a large scale when it becomes available. Industry and academic institutions will be given the resources and support needed.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma said, ‘UK scientists are working as fast as they can to find a vaccine that fights coronavirus, saving and protecting people’s lives. We stand firmly behind them in their efforts. The Vaccine Taskforce is key to coordinating efforts to rapidly accelerate the development and manufacture of a potential new vaccine.’ Read more here.
A new biosensor for the COVID-19 virus
Research teams at Empa and ETH Zurich have developed an alternative test method in the form of an optical biosensor. The sensor made up of gold nanostructure, known as gold nonoislands on a glass substrate, combines two different effects to detect covid-19: an optical and a thermal one.
According to the release, ‘Artificially produced DNA receptors that match specific RNA sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 [virus] are grafted onto the nanoislands,’ and researchers will then use the optical phenomena, - localised surface plasmon resonance - to monitor the presence of the virus.
The biosensor is not yet ready to be used to monitor and detect COVID-19, however tests showed the sensor can distinguish between very similar RNA sequences of SARS-CoV-2 virus and its relative, SARS-Cov. Read more here.
For more information and more updates on the coronavirus, please visit our hub here.
As the COVID-19 outbreak increases pressure on the UK’s NHS services and frontline staff, leading scientists and businesses are taking on new initiatives to tackle the outbreak. As there is currently no treatment or vaccine for this virus, researchers are working at unprecedented speed to accelerate the development of a treatment. Businesses are putting in more effort to help those on the frontline of this global crisis.
INEOS has managed to built a hand sanitzer plant in the UK and will soon open the facility in Germany, aiming to produce 1m bottles per month each to address a supply shortage across the UK and Europe.
BASF will soon be producing hand sanitizers at its petrochemicals hub in Germany to address the shortage in the region.
Ramping up the supply of PPE, AstraZeneca is donating nine million face masks to support healthcare workers around the world. Alongside this, AstraZeneca is accelerating the development of its diagnostic testing capabilities to scale-up screening and is also partnering with governments on existing screening programmes.
Pharmaceutical company Novartis UK, along with several others, is making available a set of compounds from its library that it considers are suitable for in vitro antiviral testing.
GSK has announced that is donating $10 million to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The Fund was created by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to help WHO and its partners to prevent, detect and manage the pandemic
Alongside the efforts and initiatives from industries, to continue to aid those on the frontline of this global crisis, social distancing interventions must remain to flatten the curve.
Research and data modelling has shown that policy strategies, such as social distancing and isolation interventions which aim to suppress the rate of transmission, might reduce death and peak healthcare demand by two-thirds.
Stopping non-essential contact can flatten the curve. Suppressing the curve means we may still experience the same number of people becoming infected but over a longer period of time and at a slower rate, reducing the stress on our healthcare system.
One of the most beloved flowers in China (and elsewhere) this small tree was planted here in the SCIence garden to represent the Chinese UK group. It is in bloom from late winter and the bright pink flowers have a strong perfume. It is growing in the centre at the back of the main area of the garden.
There are 309 accepted species in the genus Prunus listed on the Plants of the World Online database (plantsoftheworldonline.org). The genus is distributed mainly across the Northern temperate zones but there are some tropical species.
The genus Prunus is generally defined based on a combination of characteristics which include: a solitary carpel (the structure enclosing the ovules – a combination of the ovary, style and stigma) with a terminal style, a fleshy drupe (fruit), five sepals and five petals and solid branch pith. The drupe contains a single, relatively large, hard coated seed (stone) – familiar to us in cherries, apricots, nectarines, peaches etc
This particular species, Prunus mume, originates from southern China in the area around the Yangtze River. The ‘Beni-chidori’ cultivar has been given an Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.
Over 300 different cultivars of this species have been recorded in China, perhaps not surprisingly for a plant that has been domesticated for thousands of years due to its floral beauty. A recent study on the genetic architecture of floral traits across the cultivars of this species was published in Nature Communications.1
Prunus mume was introduced from China into Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam and it is now fully integrated into the cuisines of all these countries. In addition to its uses in many foodstuffs and drinks, extracts from the fruit are also widely used in traditional Chinese medicine and in the traditional medicines in Korea and Japan. Anti-bacterial, anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties have all been ascribed to the extract which has been used to treat tiredness, headaches, constipation and stomach disorders amongst other things. A recent review published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology2 gathers together information from literature reports on the anti-cancer activity of Prunus mume fruit extract.
One standardised extract in particular (MK615) has shown antitumour activity against most common cancer types.
The anti-cancer activity has not been ascribed to a particular component. Compounds isolated from the extract include ursolic acid, amygdalin, prunasin, chlorogenic acid, mumefural and syringaresinol.
Like all the plants in the SCIence garden – there’s a lot more to this one than just its ornamental beauty.
1. Zhang, Q., Zhang, H., Sun, L. et al. The genetic architecture of floral traits in the woody plant Prunus mume. Nat Commun 9, 1702 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-04093-z
2. Bailly, C. Anti-cancer properties of Prunus mume extracts. J Ethnopharmacology 246, 2020, 112215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2019.112215
Who is Dmitri Mendeleev?
Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev was born in 1834 in a Siberian village. His early life has been described as tumultuous; his father lost his sight and died when Dmitri was thirteen, leaving his family in financial difficulties.
His mother prioritised Dmitiri’s academic potential, taking him and his sister to St Petersburg, where he studied at the Main Pedagogical Institute. When his mother died, he carried out his doctoral research in St Petersburg where he explored the interactions of alcohols with water.
Between 1859 and 1861 he went to Paris to study the densities of gases, and he travelled to Germany where he studied capillarity and surface tension that subsequently led to his theory of ‘absolute boiling point.’ In 1861 he returned to Russia to publish everything he knew on organic chemistry in a 500-page textbook, and by 1864 he became a professor at the Saint Petersburg Technological Institute and Saint Petersburg State University.
As he continued his research, he tried to classify the elements according to the chemical properties. He became aware of a repeating pattern – elements with similar properties appeared at regular intervals. He arranged the elements in order of increasing relative atomic mass and noticed the chemical properties of these elements revealed a trend, which led to the formation of the periodic table.
Beyond his work in chemistry, during the 1870s, he devoted time to help the Russian industry, particularly in strengthening the productivity in agriculture. He became very active in exploring the Russian petroleum industry and developed projects in the coal industry in the Donets Basin. Additionally, he was responsible for creating and introducing the metric system to Russia.
A growing population is placing greater pressure on limited resources including land, oceans, water and energy. If agricultural production continues in its present form, water degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change will continue. As a result, people are adopting an increased interest in the environmental impact of food choice, choosing alternatives like insects.
This round-up explores examples of the various insect-based alternative foods.
According to data from Grand View Research, a US-based market research company, the global healthy snacks market is expected to reach $32.88 billion by 2025. Companies across Europe are developing healthy snack products based on insects, tapping into our desire for a variety of foods and tastes.
Eat Grub, established in 2013 and based in London UK, developed an insect snack made from house crickets, which are farmed in Europe. They are a sustainable, nutritious and tasty source of food, rich in protein. Research has indicated that insects are good for gut health due to their high chitin content. Chitinous fibre has been linked to increased levels of a metabolic enzyme associated with gut health.
A start-up Belgian beer company, Belgium Beetles Beer, described their drink as a real Belgium blond beer enriched with insect vitamins and proteins.
Upon ‘accidentally’ developing this product, they realised that the dry beetle powder offered a rich, light sweet, slightly bitter flavour.
A growing number of companies are now focusing their efforts on producing a product that looks and tastes like a traditional meat-based burger.
Bugfoundation’s burgers are based on buffalo worms, which are the larvae of the Alphitobius Diaperinus beetle. The company’s founders said that they decided to use buffalo worms because of their ‘slightly nutty flavour.’
The idea stemmed from a trip to Asia, where co-founder, Max Charmer came across fried crickets. His experience inspired him to bring these flavours to the west, hoping to please western tastes and comply with evolving European regulations.
Concerns regarding the livestock system have prompted novel inventions in the food space; insects, considered a source of protein, could outperform conventional meats to reduce environmental impacts.
So, will consumers soon be able to introduce insects to their everyday diets? Only time will tell.
Congratulations to Hallam Wheatley, voted Young Ambassador of 2019/2020!
Can you tell us about your early involvement in the chemical industry?
My career in the chemical industry began at the age of 18 as an advanced apprentice. I spent two years completing my laboratory-based apprenticeship with Lotte Chemical on Teesside, where my passion for chemistry really materialised. Applying chemical principles into the world of work gave me a great appreciation for just how big a role chemistry plays in our everyday lives. After finishing my apprenticeship, I began studying part-time, for my degree in Chemistry.
Can you tell about your work as a research chemist?
In 2017, I began working in SABIC’s research department, this really put me on the front line of the innovative technology that is being developed in the world today. As a research chemist, my main responsibilities revolve around supporting SABIC’s assets, and any chemistry related issues they may have. During my time, that’s mainly revolved around catalyst research. When I’m not helping with plant support, I work on sustainability issues, that will help answer some of the world’s toughest questions, relating to the chemical recycling of plastic waste, or helping to implement a hydrogen economy, to help reduce carbon emissions.
How do you feel to be named Young Ambassador of the year?
I was in shock when my name was called! The standard of applicants was really high, so to be named the Young Ambassador this year was a real honour.
I do feel that the award won’t mean a thing if I don’t make the most of my time as the Young Ambassador. It’s important to carry on the great work from last year and try and help the Future Forum continue to grow.
I know that task won’t be easy, but it’s really great that a lot of the short-listed finalists, have agreed to join the Leadership team this year, so I’m really excited to work with them, and I’m excited for the year ahead!
What are your plans for the year ahead as Young Ambassador and with the Future Forum?
As Young Ambassador, I’m really hoping to continue the great work that Jennifer did last year. I want to build up a resource to help Future Forum members old and new alike.
I think it’s important that as a network we communicate effectively with each other to not only get an understanding of how young people are feeling in the industry, but also to identify some of the challenges their facing, as well as offering support from within the network.
I want to make the Future Forum something that people want to join, not because it looks good on a CV, but because it will offer people real opportunities to develop and network. This won’t be easy, but through help from Jennifer and this year’s Leadership Team, I think we’ll be able to lay strong foundations, so that moving forward, to Future Forum can be more than just a young professional networking platform.
What advice would you give someone starting out their career as a research chemist?
Look around!! Whilst I knew that I had a passion for Chemistry, I wasn’t so sold on the idea of university at 18 and after college. I decided to see what my best route into the industry that was on my doorstep was, and I was fortunate enough to find an apprenticeship that suited me. The apprenticeship gave me the grounding knowledge and understanding to progress, and two years later, I felt ready to tackle the challenge of a degree.
I do know, that whilst the apprenticeship route worked for me, it won’t work for everyone, but I think it’s important that students of all ages understand that there’s multiple choices that they may not have heard. Over the coming year, I’m hoping to use the Future Forum as a tool to best showcase some of the options to get a career within the Chemical Industry.
One thing I would recommend for all students though, is email local chemical companies, ask HR departments for advice about careers, and ask about the opportunities to come in and shadow, even if it’s only for a day! You’ll learn a lot, but you never know what it might lead to!
This latest instalment of SCI Energy Group’s blog delves deeper into the working life of one of its own members and SCI ambassador – Reace Edwards. She is currently pursuing an industry funded PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Chester and, through this blog, answers some questions to shed some light on her experience so far.
Reace Edwards: Head shot
Can you please provide a brief summary of your research?
My research is concerned with the establishment of a hydrogen gas network, in the North West, as a method of large-scale decarbonisation. This cross-disciplinary work will examine different elements of the hydrogen economy from production to end-use and explore the opportunities and barriers possessed by the region. Whilst technical and economic considerations are key components of this, policy, regulatory and social aspects will also be explored.
Reace Edwards: Riding a bike that generates hydrogen from pedalling
What does a day in the life of a Chemical Engineering PhD Student look like?
“It’s hard to define a typical day for a PhD student as no one day is ever the same.
At the beginning of the PhD, I spent a lot of time reading literature to help contextualise my research and appreciate its importance at a local, national and international scale.
Within time, I began to not only read but review and analyse this literature, which ultimately led to the construction of my literature review (this is regularly updated still)! Through this process, I identified research gaps, helping me focus my research questions, and inspired my field research and methodology.
Since then, I have applied for, and gained, ethical approval. At my current stage, I have chosen semi-structured interviews for data collection. So, now, my typical day consists of conducting interviews and transcribing the recordings.
Alongside this, there have always been ample opportunities to attend conferences and networking events, which, provides another form of skills development. So, there’s lots going on. But, what’s for sure, is that though each day is busy, the results are definitely rewarding.”
How did your education prepare you for this experience?
“In 2018, I graduated, from the University of Chester, with a first-class bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering. Therefore, I was eligible to apply for the PhD studentship when it was advertised.”
Reace Edwards: Graduation
What are some of the highlights so far?
For me, one of my main highlights had been to travel abroad to deliver a presentation on my work at an international conference.
Another highlight was the opportunity to co-author a conference article with a colleague from my industrial sponsor, and others, which was presented at another major, international conference.
In addition to this, I’ve done a TEDx talk and appeared on the BBC politics show. Where, on both accounts, I have discussed the opportunities for hydrogen.
Without doing this PhD, none of this would have even been possible!
Reace Edwards: After delivering TEDx talk
What is one of the biggest challenges faced in a PhD?
Time management is definitely a challenge, from two different perspectives.
Firstly, there are many different things that you can be tasked with at one time. Therefore, it’s important to learn how to prioritise these things and assign your time accordingly.
But, as well as that, because of your passion for the research, it can be very tempting to work exceedingly long hours. Whilst this may be necessary at times, it is important to give yourself some rest to avoid becoming run down.
Reace Edwards: Whilst being interviewed by BBC
What advice would you give to someone considering a PhD?
“If you’re passionate about the subject – do it!
You won’t regret it
Nearly two years ago, while attending admissions day in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London, I was asked, ‘Why Chemical Engineering?’ That is also the question I will attempt to answer today, before beginning my second year at Imperial.
1. ChemEng is everywhere
If you look around, you will see countless things whose production involved chemical engineers. From a plastic bottle on your desk, through cosmetics and medicines, to the fuel that your car uses – all those products involve complex chemical processes designed and improved by engineers. I see chemical engineering as a job full of opportunities – and of many diverse ones, as well.
Not only are there numerous industry sectors to work in, but also possibilities beyond the scope of ChemEng. For example, other areas of employment stretch across research, finance and management, as chemical engineering equips students with many useful transferrable skills, such as problem-solving abilities or analytical thinking.
2. Chemical engineers can make the world a better place
It may sound like a slogan, but I really believe it’s true. Today’s society faces serious problems, some of which are caused by human activity. It is hard to ignore the changes in the natural environment and the problems such as climate change, but chemical engineers are here to find a way to fight it.
Nowadays, the focus in designing chemical processes is increasingly shifting towards environmental sustainability. Even our department has a carbon capture pilot plant, and when implemented on a chemical plant, carbon capture is aimed at reducing CO2 emissions. Chemical engineers can make production processes more eco-friendly and help to develop clean energy generation, which is crucial for today’s world.
Another big challenge of the 21st century is ageing society. It results in increased occurrence of diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and many other types of illnesses. Subsequently, this increases the demand for various kinds of medicines, increases the consequent development of pharma industries, and thus, more opportunities for chemical engineers to benefit society.
3. ChemEng is fun!
To be perfectly honest, this course can be challenging at times. But at the same time, I find it really exciting and rewarding. Its multidisciplinary nature is what makes it interesting; we study elements of maths, physics, mechanics, some elementary programming and different branches of chemistry. It is also a course full of practical work – lab experiments and group projects, which develop co-operation skills and the ability to solve real-life problems, but it is also a fun way to learn and to meet new people!
The most important thing is to enjoy what you study, and ChemEng is an ideal fit for those enjoying STEM subjects and willing to solve practical problems. And that is probably why I am so excited to come back to uni and start second year.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on sodium and its role in the next series of innovative nuclear energy systems.
Sodium; the sixth most abundant element on the planet is being considered as a crucial part of nuclear reactors. Implementing new safety levels in reactors is crucial as governments are looking for environmentally friendly, risk-free and financially viable reactors. Therefore, ensuring new safety levels is a main challenge that is being tackled by many industries and projects.
In the wake of Fukushima, several European nations and a number of U.S plants have shut down and switched off their ageing reactors in order to eliminate risk and safety hazards.
The sodium- cooled fast reactor (SFR), a concept pioneered in the 1950s in the U.S, is one of the nuclear reactors developed to operate at higher temperatures than today’s reactors and seems to be the viable nuclear reactor model. The SFR’s main advantage is that it can burn unwanted byproducts including uranium, reducing the need for storage. In the long run, this is deemed cost-competitive as it can produce power without having to use new natural uranium.
Nuclear reactor. Source: Hallowhalls
However, using sodium also presents challenges. When sodium comes into contact with air, it burns and when it is mixed with water, it is explosive. To prevent sodium from mixing with water, nitrogen - driven turbines are in the process of being designed as a solution to this problem.
A European Horizon 2020 Project, ESFR-SMART project (European Sodium Fast Reactor Safety Measures Assessment and Research Tools), launched in September 2017, aims to improve the safety of Generation-IV Sodium Fast Reactors (SFR). This project hopes to prove the safety of new reactors and secure its future role in Europe. The new reactor is designed to be able to reprocess its own waste, act more reliably in operation, more environmentally friendly and more affordable. It is hoped that this reactor will be considered as one of the SFR options by Generation IV International Forum (GIF), who are focused on finding new reactors with safety, reliability and sustainability as just some of their main priorities.
European Horizon. Source: artjazz
Globally, the SFR is deemed an attractive energy source, and developments are ongoing, endeavouring to meet the future energy demands in a cost-competitive way.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on lead and its place in the battery industry.
2019 is a critical year for the European Battery Industry. As policymakers set priorities to decarbonise the energy systems, whilst boosting Europe’s economic and technical performance, lead-acid batteries have become a viable player in the battery industry.
Increased government action and ongoing transformations to address the environmental situation has furthered global interest in the lead battery market, as they remain crucial in the battle to fight against the adverse effects of climate change. Subsequently, reliance on fuel technologies is lessening as we see a rise in the lead battery industry which had a market share of 31% in year 2018 with an annual growth rate of 5.4%.
According to reports by Reports and Data, the Global Lead- Acid Battery market is predicted to reach USD 95.32 Billion by 2026. Rising demand for electric vehicles and significant increases of this battery use in sectors including automotive, healthcare, and power industries, are a large push behind the growth in this market.
Thus, expansion of these sectors and particularly the automobile sector, means further development in this market will be underway, especially as it is the only battery technology to meet the technical requirements for energy storage on a large market scale.
Lead-acid battery is a rechargeable cell, comprising plates of lead and lead oxide, mixed in a sulfuric acid solution, which converts chemical energy into electrical power. The oxide component in the sulfuric acid oxidizes the lead which in turn generates electric current.
In the past, lead has fallen behind competing technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries which captured approximately 90% of the battery market. Although lithium-ion batteries are a strong opponent, lead still has advantages. Lead batteries do not have same fire risks as lithium-ion batteries and they are the most efficiently recycled commodity metal, with over 99% of lead batteries being collected and recycled in Europe and U.S.
Researchers are trying to better understand how to improve lead battery performance. A build-up of sulfation can limit lead battery performance by half its potential, and by fixing this issue, unused potential would offer even lower cost recyclable batteries. Once the chemical interactions inside the batteries are better understood, one can start to consider how to extend battery life.
British chemist and entrepreneur, Sir William Perkin (1838-1907), transformed the fashion industry and defined his career with his accidental discovery of the first synthetic organic dye, mauveine at the age of 18.
Raised in Shadwell in East London, and the youngest of seven siblings, he entered the Royal College of Chemistry at the age of 15 where he studied under the great German scientist August Wilhelm von Hofmann.
The Royal College of Chemistry. Source: Wellcome Collection gallery
At the age of 18, he was assigned a homework project to conduct over the Easter break, in which he was tasked with finding a cheap way to produce quinine. Quinine is used to treat malaria and, at the time, had to be extracted from the bark of exotic trees rendering it expensive to produce.
Perkin turned his attention to coal tar as he believed it to be similar in structure to quinine. In finishing his experiment, he found he was left with a dark substance, as opposed to colourless quinine. In trying to clean out his flask with alcohol, he found a purple residue deposit. The vivid residue transferred onto a cloth dying it a bright purple, which remained on the cloth after it was washed. Although he had failed to synthesize quinine, Sir William Perkin had fortuitously stumbled upon the first synthetic dye and had begun his journey to become one of the founders of the modern chemical industry.
Against the advice of Hofmann, Perkin commercialized the discovery and developed the production process for mauveine, inventing a method for the dye to be used on cotton in addition to silk, and giving advice to the dyeing industry on how this new synthetic dye worked. He opened his own factory in 1857 and He later ‘retired’ from industry to focus on 'pure science’ at the age of 36, having achieved international acclaim.
Colour dyes in fabric manufacturing. Source: BalLi8Tic
The discovery revolutionised colour chemistry and helped to establish the modern chemical industry. Other companies founded shortly after his discovery adopted Perkin’s innovative methods of chemical synthesis on a large scale.
The discovery also had a huge impact on the textiles and clothing industry. Until then, clothing had been largely made up of beige and brown fabrics. After Perkin’s discovery, many new aniline dyes were developed, and factories producing them were constructed across Europe. German and British dye manufacturers were keen to unearth more colours, which pushed them to advance chemical knowledge, which also linked closely to developments in medicine and pharmaceuticals.
Fabric and textile industry. Source: Mikhail Gnatkovskiy
In 1906 the Society of Chemical Industry created the Perkin Medal to commemorate the discovery of mauve and awarded the first medal to its namesake at a banquet in his honour. It remains the highest honour given for outstanding applied chemistry in the US.
Perkin Medal. Source: Science History Institute, Conrad Erb
On 8th March, I hosted my company’s first International Women’s Day event. Here’s what inspired me to do it…
1. We need to talk about the lack of women in science
There are a lot of factors at play as to why women are underrepresented in science – it’s a complex issue and there’s been a rise in efforts to tackle it, which is great to see. We need to challenge the idea of what a ‘scientist’ looks like.
Simply by making people aware of stereotype threat and inherent bias, we can begin to break the rigid mould of what it means to be a ‘scientist’. We can’t face it if we never talk about it, and dedicated events are a way of opening up the conversation.
A ‘leaky pipeline’ has actually been coined in science – women ‘trickle out’ as they go up the career ladder. If we’re making an effort to encourage younger girls to study science subjects, we need to question why they’re not being retained at more senior levels. This effort needs to come from businesses.
WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) reports the science workforce gender split in 2018. Source: WISE
2. There’s a difference between diversity and inclusion
When we think about the ‘leaky pipeline’, we need to address the difference between diversity and inclusion.
Diversity is important, but it’s not enough. Diversity is the who and what; inclusion is the how. It’s not just about who’s being recruited, or who gets a seat at the table. It’s about creating behaviours that embrace the diverse voices of these people. Diversity without inclusion is just a box-ticking exercise. We need to acknowledge our differences and show a commitment to changing company culture to embrace them.
Hosting events like International Women’s Day is a good start to demonstrating this commitment and dedicating a day for women to be heard.
3. I want to celebrate my colleagues
I’m lucky to work with some amazing scientists, some of whom happen to be women. I wanted to take a day to celebrate their accomplishments and those of all the women who are breaking glass ceilings in science. When people feel seen and recognised for their work it creates a healthier work environment. By having this day in place, we can dedicate a day each year to celebrate and congratulate women on their achievements. Plenty of my female colleagues were keen to get involved and help, and I was inspired to hear all their stories and ideas.
4. It’s a win-win
I suggested this event because I thought it was a great fit for my company and could benefit us in many tangible ways. Workplace diversity can actually boost performance - a report found that when employees “think their organisation is committed to and supportive of diversity, and they feel included”, their ability to innovate increases by 83%. It also makes perfect sense to me that, by including all genders equally, we have access to a greater pool of talent and a wider range of mentors available for junior talent. Plus, it’s a brand-booster to show that we are bringing ourselves into the future and being socially conscious.
5. It’s just the beginning
We’re starting to talk more about gender issues in the workplace, but women are not the only people who are affected by discrimination. We need inclusion for everyone.
For example, most people are aware of the gender pay gap and companies are now obliged to publish their data on this, but in the UK, black male graduates earn almost £4 less per hour than their white peers. Another study found that almost a third of LGBT+ physical scientists had considered leaving their workplace because of discrimination. These are issues that need to be openly talked about and acknowledged before we can even think about solving them. Science should be for everyone and I’m really excited to host more events to encourage this.
Image: Tiffany Pollard
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on cobalt and its current and potential uses.
In 1739, Georg Brandt, whilst studying minerals that gave gave glass a deep blue colour he discovered a new metal, namely cobalt.Today cobalt’s uses vary from health and nutrition to industry. Cobalt is an essential metal, used in the production of alloys to make rechargeable batteries and catalysts. Cobalt is an essential trace element for the human body, an important component of vitamin B12 and plays an essential role in forming amino acids, proteins in nerve cells and in creating neurotransmitters.
Cobalt is an important component of B12. Image source: flickr: Healthnutrition
Cobalt and medicine
The salts found in cobalt can be used as a form of treatment for anaemia, as well as having an important role for athletes acting as an alternative to traditional blood doping. This metal enhances synthesis of erythropoietin, increasing the erythrocyte quantity in blood, and subsequently, improving aerobic performance.
Cobalt can enter the body via various ways: one way is by the skin. This organ is susceptible to environmental pollution, especially in workers who are employed in heavy industry.
When cobalt ions from different metal objects repeatedly come into contact with skin, these cobalt ions then diffuse through the skin, causing allergic and irritant reactions.
Important raw material for electric transport
Cobalt is also a critical raw material for electric transport. It is used in the production of the most common types of lithum-ion batteries, thus, powering the current boom in electric vehicles.
The electric vehicle industry has the potential to grow from 3.2 million in 2017 to around 130 million in 2030, seeing the demand for cobalt increase almost threefold within the next decade.
As the EU continues to develop the battery industry, it is becoming a priority for manufacturing industries to secure adequate cobalt supplies. The electric vehicle boom means cobalt will increase in demand in the EU as well as globally; further projects to monitoring the supply-and-demand situation will be announced.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on iron and its importance for human health.
Iron’s biological role
Iron is an important component of hemoglobin, a protein in the red blood cells which transports oxygen throughout the body. If there is a low level of iron in your body, your body will be unable to carry healthy oxygen-carrying red blood cells and a lack of these red blood cells can result in iron deficiency anemia.
During the 17th century, iron had early medicinal uses by Egyptians, Greeks, Hindus and Romanians, and around 1932, it became established that iron was essential for haemoglobin synthesis.
Red blood cells
The World Health Organisation (WHO) released figures suggesting that iron deficiency is incredibly common in humans and therefore happens to be a primary cause of anaemia.
According to their statistics, around 1.62 bn cases of anaemia are caused by iron deficiency and according to WHO’s 2008 reports, anaemia can be caused by excessive blood loss, poor iron absorption, and low dietary intake of iron.
Iron bioavailability in food is low among populations consuming plant-based diets. Iron requirement is very important, and when low levels of iron deficiency are prominent among populations in developing countries, subsequent behavioural and health consequences follow.
These include reduced fertility rates, fatigue, decreased productivity and impaired school performance among children.
During pregnancy, iron utilisation is increased as it is essential nourishment for the developing fetus. In 1997, a study proved that pregnant women needed the increase in iron, as 51% of pregnant women suffered from anaemia, which is twice as many non-pregnant women.
As iron is a redox-active transitional metal, it can form free radicals and in excessive amounts. This is dangerous as it can cause oxidative stress which could lead to tissue damage. Epidemiological studies provide evidence to show that excessive iron can be a potent risk factor associated with chronic conditions like cardiovascular and developing metabolic abnormalities.
Dietary iron is found in two basic forms. It is found from animal sources (as haem iron) or in the form of plant sources (as non-haem iron). The most bioavailable form of iron is from animal sources, and iron from plant sources are predominantly found in cereals, vegetables, pulses, beans, nuts and fruit.
However, this form of iron is affected by various factors, as the phytate and calcium can bind iron in the intestine, unfortunately reducing absorption. Vitamin C which is present in fruit and vegetables can aid the absorption of non-haem iron when it is eaten with meat.
‘The global burden of iron deficiency anaemia hasn’t changed in the past 20 years, particularly in children and women of reproductive age,’ says researcher, Dora Pereira. Although iron is an important nutrient to keeping healthy, it is imperative that iron levels are not too high.
The banana colour scheme distinguishes seven stages from ‘All green’ to ‘All yellow with brown flecks’. The green, unripe banana peel contains leucocyanidin, a flavonoid that induces cell proliferation, accelerating the healing of skin wounds. But once it is yellowish and ready to eat, the chlorophyll breaks down, leaving the recognisable yellow colour of carotenoids.
Unripe (green) and ready-to-eat (yellow) bananas.
The fruits are cut from the plant whilst green and on average, 10-30 % of the bananas do not meet quality standards at harvest. Then they are packaged and kept in cold temperatures to reduce enzymatic processes, such as respiration and ethylene production.
However, below 14°C bananas experience ‘chilling injury’ which changes fruit ripening physiology and can lead to the brown speckles on the skin. Above 24°C, bananas also stop developing fully yellow colour as they retain high levels of chlorophyll.
Once the green bananas arrive at the ripening facility, the fruits are kept in ripening rooms where the temperature and humidity are kept constant while the amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide and ethene are controlled.
The gas itself triggers the ripening process, leads to cell walls breakdown and the conversion of starches to sugars. Certain fruits around bananas can ripen quicker because of their ethene production.
By day five, bananas should be in stage 2½ (’Green with trace of yellow’ to ‘More green than yellow’) according to the colour scale and are shipped to the shops. From stage 5 (’All yellow with green tip’), the fruits are ready to be eaten and have a three-day shelf-life.
A fruit market. Image: Gidon Pico
The very short shelf-life of the fruit makes it a very wasteful system. By day five, the sugar content and pH value are ideal for yeasts and moulds. Bananas not only start turning brown and mouldy, but they also go through a 1.5-4 mm ‘weight loss’ as the water is lost from the peel.
While scientists have been trying out different chemical and natural lipid ‘dips’ for bananas to extend their shelf-life, such methods remain one of the greatest challenges to the industry.
In fruit salads, to stop the banana slices go brown, the cut fruits are sprayed with a mixture of citric acid and amino acid to keep them yellow and firm without affecting the taste.
Bananas are a good source of potassium and vitamins.
The high starch concentration – over 70% of dry weight – banana processing into flour and starch is now also getting the attention of the industry. There are a great many pharmaceutical properties of bananas as well, such as high dopamine levels in the peel and high amounts of beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.
Whilst the ‘seven shades of yellow’ underpin the marketability of bananas, these plants are also now threatened by the fungal Panama disease. This vascular wilt disease led to the collapse of the banana industry in the 1950’s which was overcome by a new variety of bananas.
However, the uncontrollable disease has evolved to infect Cavendish bananas and has been rapidly spreading from Australia, China to India, the Middle East and Africa.
The future of the banana industry relies on strict quarantine procedures to limit further spread of the disease to Latin America, integrated crop management and continuous development of banana ‘dips’ for extending shelf-life.
But before proceeding, it is important to first distinguish between the terms ‘primary energy consumption’ and ‘final energy consumption’. The former refers to the fuel type in its original state before conversion and transformation. The latter refers to energy consumed by end users.
Oil consumption is on the decline.
In 2018, UK primary energy consumption was 193.7 m tonnes of oil equivalent. This value is down 1.3% from 2017 and down 9.4% from 2010. This year, the trend has continued so far. Compared to the same time period last year, the first three months of 2019 have shown a declination of 4.4% in primary fuel consumption.
It is also important to identify consumption trends for specific fuels. Figure 1 below illustrates the percentage increases and decreases of consumption per fuel type in 2018 compared to 2017 and 2010.
Figure 1 shows UK Primary Energy Consumption by Fuel Type in 2018 Compared to 2017 & 2010. Figure: BEIS. Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.
As can be seen in 2018, petroleum and natural gas were the most consumed fuels. However, UK coal consumption has dropped by almost 20% since 2017 and even more significantly since 2010. But perhaps the most noticeable percentage change in fuel consumption is that of renewable fuels like bioenergy and wind, solar and hydro primary electricity.
In just eight years, consumption of these fuels increased by 124% and 442%, respectively, thus emphasising the increasingly important role renewables play in UK energy consumption and the overall energy system.
Overall, the UK’s final energy consumption in 2018, compared to 2017, was 0.7% higher at a value of approximately 145 m tonnes of oil equivalent. However, since 2010, consumption has still declined by approximately 5%. More specifically, figure 2 illustrates consumption for individual sectors and how this has changed since.
Figure 2 from UK Final Energy Consumption by Sector in 2018 Compared to 2017 & 2010. Figure: BEIS. Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.
Immediately, it is seen that the majority of energy, consumed in the UK, stems from the transport and domestic sector. Though the domestic sector has reduced consumption by 18% since 2010, it still remains a heavy emitting sector and accounted for 18% of the UK’s total carbon dioxide emissions in 2018.
Therefore, further efforts but be taken to minimise emissions. This could be achieved by increasing household energy efficiency and therefore reducing energy consumption and/or switching to alternative fuels.
Loft insulation is an example of increasing household energy efficiency.
Overall, since 2010, final energy consumption within the transport sector has increased by approximately 3%. In 2017, the biggest percentage increase in energy consumption arose from air transport.
Interestingly, in 2017, electricity consumption in the transport sector increased by 33% due to an increased number of electric vehicles on the road. Despite this, this sector still accounted for one-third of total UK carbon emissions in 2018.
Year upon year, the level of primary electricity consumed from renewables has increased and the percentage of coal consumption has declined significantly, setting a positive trend for years to come.
Nowhere on earth has the power to inspire awe and wonder in the endless outcomes of evolution than a natural history museum. It’s a bold claim, but where else can you find over 500m years of biodiversity?
In a good museum, visitors can literally walk around open mouthed in astonishment at seeing the biggest animals that ever lived – whales and dinosaurs – and specimens showing extraordinary biological processes, like how a two-metre tall kangaroo is born the size of a jelly bean.
But lurking within these wondrous collections are chemical legacies of the ways they were prepared and preserved that can make museums a risky place to work. Here are four of them…
One of the main challenges of caring for a biological collection is that everything is edible, and we have to work hard to ensure that insect pests like clothes moths, carpet beetles and silverfish don’t nibble our specimens out of existence. Unchecked, they can turn invaluable objects into dust. When it comes to taxidermy and skins, the practice until recently was to coat the inside of the skins with arsenic soap or other poisons such as heavy metals or even strychnine and cyanide.
A taxidermy ocelot at the University Museum of Zoology. Image: University of Cambridge/Chris Green
While these are extremely effective at killing pests, they have the potential to make us very ill. If a specimen is old but looks in good condition, it’s likely to have been treated in this way. Short story: don’t stroke a museum skin unless you know for sure it’s poison-free.
Another mainstay of museum collections is animals preserved in jars of fluid. The first step in preparing these specimens is called ‘fixation’, which keeps the animal in suspended animation by halting the decomposition process at a cellular level, causing cross-links between molecules (including DNA). Formalin is a solution of the toxic and carcinogenic gas formaldehyde.
Preserved fish collected by Charles Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle at the University Museum of Zoology. Image: University of Cambridge/Chris Green
3. Alcohol preservative
The second step in preparing fluid specimens is to store them permanently in a preservative, and the most common is a solution of ethanol. Vodka, gin, rum, brandy etc. are all solutions of alcohol, and indeed sailors on historic voyages of discovery would find that the naturalist on board had commandeered their booze rations to preserve an important specimen.
Today, we tend to use stronger solutions of ethanol – at 70% – as it is more effective. Ethanol is obviously consumable, so why is this in a list of dangers? The ethanol museums use is called industrial methylated spirits, or denatured alcohol: it has a tiny bit of methanol added.
The toxic methanol has no beneficial properties for preservation – it’s there simply to stop museum workers from drinking it (and means that it isn’t subject to the high tax rates of alcoholic drinks).
Geological collections come with a whole different suite of hazards. Many minerals are inherently poisonous, or can break down in museum conditions to release toxic gasses. Others are naturally radioactive. If you’ve got a lump of uranium ore in your collection, that’s a pretty obvious risk, but there are also certain locations that a lot of fossils come from that have relatively high levels of radiation.
Museums have to be careful about how these are stored as once we lock these fossils up in a museum drawer or cabinet, the concentration of radioactivity in that sealed environment builds up over time, releasing a dangerous cloud once the drawer is eventually opened.
I should say that museums are pretty clued up on managing these risks, and there is no danger to the visiting public. Just don’t lick anything.
Energy is critical to life. However, we must work to find solution to source sustainable energy which compliments the UK’s emission targets. This article discusses six interesting facts concerning the UK’s diversified energy supply system and the ways it is shifting towards decarbonised alternatives.
1. In 2015, UK government announced plans to close unabated coal-fired power plants by 2025.
A coal-fired power plant
In recent years, energy generation from coal has dropped significantly. In March 2018, Eggborough power station, North Yorkshire, closed, leaving only seven coal power plants operational in the UK. In May this year, Britain set a record by going one week without coal power. This was the first time since 1882!
2. Over 40% of the UK’s electricity supply comes from gas.
A natural oil and gas production in sea
While it may be a fossil fuel, natural gas releases less carbon dioxide emissions compared to that of coal and oil upon combustion. However, without mechanisms in place to capture and store said carbon dioxide it is still a carbon intensive energy source.
3. Nuclear power accounts for approximately 8% of UK energy supply.
Nuclear power generation is considered a low-carbon process. In 2025, Hinkley Point C nuclear power-plant is scheduled to open in Somerset. With an electricity generation capacity of 3.2GW, it is considerably bigger than a typical power-plant.
In 2018, the total installed capacity of UK renewables increased by 9.7% from the previous year. Out of this, wind power, solar power and plant biomass accounted for 89%.
4. The Irish Sea is home to the world’s largest wind farm, Walney Extension.
The Walney offshore wind farm.
In addition to this, the UK has the third highest total installed wind capacity across Europe. The World Energy Council define an ‘ideal’ wind farm as one which experiences wind speed of over 6.9 metres per second at a height of 80m above ground. As can be seen in the image below, at 100m, the UK is well suited for wind production.
5. Solar power accounted for 29.5% of total renewable electricity capacity in 2018.
This was an increase of 12% from the previous year (2017) and the highest amount to date! Such growth in solar power can be attributed to considerable technology cost reductions and greater average sunlight hours, which increased by up to 0.6 hours per day in 2018.
Currently, the intermittent availability of both solar and wind energy means that fossil fuel reserves are required to balance supply and demand as they can run continuously and are easier to control.
6. In 2018, total UK electricity generation from bioenergy accounted for approximately 32% of all renewable generation.
A biofuel plant in Germany.
This was the largest share of renewable generation per source and increased by 12% from the previous year. As a result of Lynemouth power station, Northumberland, and another unit at Drax, Yorkshire, being converted from fossil fuels to biomass, there was a large increase in plant biomass capacity from 2017.
A lavender field near Provence, France.
Flowering is the process by which higher plants transfer male gametes to female organs thereby uniting two sets of chromosomes and increasing natural diversity. During the formation of male and female gametes, slight changes take place in chromosome structure. Consequently, the resultant next generation differs slightly from its parents. That is the stuff on which natural selection operates.
Useful variations increase the survival fitness of some offspring, while individuals with disadvantages wither and die. Charles Darwin recognised the power of natural selection for the environmentally fittest individuals and how that leads eventually to species evolution. Succeeding generations of scientists have discovered details of the processes involved and how these may result in more useful plants for humankind by plant breeding.
Transferring the male gametes (i.e. pollination) happens by a variety of mechanisms which are suited for the environment in which particular plants grow. At its simplest, pollen which consists of cells containing male gametes is transferred within the same flower. That is suitable for plants growing in for example, alpine environments where few other options exist.
Pollen grains contain both reproductive and non-reproductive cells.
Cross-transfer of pollen from one flower to another is achieved either by physical means such as wind or water, or by partnerships with animals – particularly insects and especially bees. Wind transfer is suitable for trees such as hazel, birch and willow, which flower ahead of leaf formation in the early spring when it is too cold for insect flight. Biologically, it is a wasteful mechanism because much of the pollen does not reach its target.
Cross-pollination by insects produces by far the most colourful and exuberant flowers. These have evolved brilliantly colourful displays and intricate mechanisms suitable for either general interaction with insects or as means for partnership. These relationships have co-evolved and converged over numerous generations meeting the needs of both parties.
Sexual reproduction in plants. Video: FuseSchool - Global Education
Plant scientists are presented with intriguing questions in understanding how these relationships could have developed. On the practical side, plant breeders are presented with enormous opportunities for developing massive arrays of new varieties, particularly with ornamentals such as the garden favourites like dahlias, chrysanthemums, lilies and roses.
Enormous international trade has developed over the last hundred years exploiting increasingly colourful flowering plants.
An estimated 24% of Europe’s bumblebees are threatened with extinction.
Cross-pollination is absolutely vital for many field vegetable crops, especially peas and beans and the top and soft fruits. A reduction in beneficial insect populations now presents dire threats for natural biodiversity, our food supplies and the enjoyment of ornamentals.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is about the various uses of nitrogen.
Nitrogen – an imperative part of DNA
The polymer that makes up the genetic code of is a sequence of nitrogen bases laid out on a backbone of sugar and phosphate molecules and blended into a double helix.
The nitrogen bases are translated into proteins and enzymes which regulate most our system’s biochemical reactions.
RDX is a nitrogen explosive. This means its explosive properties are primarily caused by the presence of many nitrogen–nitrogen bonds, which are extremely unstable, especially as nitrogen atoms want to come together to produce nitrogen gas due to the triple bond.
Ultimately, the more nitrogen–nitrogen bonds a molecule has, the more explosive it is. RDX is normally combined with other chemicals to make it less sensitive or less likely to explode.
One of the most powerful explosive chemicals is PETN, containing nitro groups and nitroglycerin in dynamite. Despite its powerful explosions, the chemical rarely will detonate alone. PETN was used frequently during World War II, whereby PETN was used to create exploding bridgewire detonators, using electric currents for detonations.
Among the least stable explosives is aziroazide azide, with 14 unstable nitrogen bonds, most of them bonded into unstable nitrogen–nitrogen bonds. Touching or handling this chemical can cause it to detonate, making it one of the most dangerous non-nuclear chemicals.
Nitrogen and plants
Nitrogen plays a significant role for plants to keep healthy. Plants usually contain 3-4% nitrogen in their above-ground tissues. Nitrogen is a major component of chlorophyll which plants use to capture sunlight energy to produce sugars, and a major component of amino acids, which are the building blocks of life.
Overall, nitrogen is a significant component to DNA, a key nutrient to plants, and the uses of nitrogen in everyday life span across various chemical industries including the production of fertilisers and explosives.
Today, most rockets are fueled by hydrazine, a toxic and hazardous chemical comprised of nitrogen and hydrogen. Those who work with it must be kitted up in protective clothing. Even so, around 12,000t of hydrazine is released into the atmosphere every year by the aerospace industry
Now, researchers are in the process of developing a greener, safer rocket fuel based on metal organic frameworks (MOFs), a porous solid material made up of clusters of metal ions joined by an organic linker molecule. Hundreds of millions of connections join in a modular structure.
Robin Rogers, formerly at McGill University, US, has worked with the US Air Force on hypergolic liquids that will burn when placed in contact with oxidisers, to try get rid of hydrazine. He teamed up with Tomislav Friščić at McGill who has developed ways to react chemicals ‘mechanochemically’ – without the use of toxic solvents.
The pair were interested in a common class of MOFs called zeolitic imidazole frameworks, or ZIFs, which show high thermal stability and are usually not thought of as energetic materials.
They discussed the potential of using ZIFs with the imidazolate linkers containing trigger groups. These trigger groups allowed them to take advantage of the usually not accessible energetic content of these MOFs.
The resulting ZIF is safe and does not explode, and it does not ignite unless placed in contact with certain oxidising materials, such as nitric acid, in this case.
Authorities continue to use hydrazine because it could cost millions of dollars to requalify new rocket fuels, says Rogers. MOF fuel would not work in current rocket engines, so he and Friščić would like to get funding or collaborate with another company to build a small prototype engine that can use it.
This is only the latest in a litany of exotics to ravage American forests. Sixty-two high-impact insect species and a dozen pathogens have arrived since the 1600′s. Only two were detected before 1860.
The emerald ash borer. Image; Wikimedia Commons
Increased global trade and travel, along with climate change and warmer winters, are all fueling the problem. And the devastation has pushed scientists and foresters to look towards biotechnology for a remedy.
‘Almost every day there appears to be a new forest pest and some of these are quite devastating,’ says tree geneticist Jeanne Romero-Severson at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, US.
‘Biotech approaches such as transgenic technology and CRISPR gene editing could be valuable tools in saving specific species.’
These biotech solutions look sexier to funders, and policymakers, and that is where the resources go. But in many ways, it is a dead end if you don’t have a foundational breeding programme to feed into,’ warns DiFazio, a plant geneticist at West Virginia University, US.
A technology like CRISPR for gene editing is fast and powerful, but mostly it is used in lab organisms where much is known about their genetics. Without deep knowledge of a tree’s genome, CRISPR will be far less useful.
CRISPR is a gene editing tool that first came to prominence in the 1990′s and is considered one of the most disruptive technologies in modern medicine.
Powell, a plant scientist at the State University of New York (SUNY), US acknowledges that ‘the biggest thing is to the get the public onboard; a lot of people are afraid of genetic engineering.
Surveys suggest that knowledge about genetic engineering technology, as well as about threats to forest health, is fairly low amongst the general public. Given these deficits, ‘public opinion might be vulnerable to changes,’ notes Delborne.
The David Miller Travel Bursary Award aims to give early career plant scientists or horticulturists the opportunity of overseas travel in connection with their horticultural careers.
Juan Carlos De la Concepcion was awarded one of the 2018 David Miller Travel Bursaries to attend the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy, which was held in Boston, US. Here, he details his experience attending the international conference and the opportunities it provided.
I’m currently completing the third-year of my rotation PhD in Plant and Microbial Science at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. My work addresses how plant pathogens cause devastating diseases that affect food security worldwide, and how plants can recognise them and organise an immune response to keep themselves healthy.
Because of the tremendous damage that plant diseases cause in agricultural and horticulturally relevant species, this topic has become central to achieving the UN Zero Hunger challenge.
Thanks to the David Miller Award, I was able to participate in the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy held in Boston, US. This event is the major international conference in the plant pathology field and only occurs once every five years.
This year, the conference gathered together over 2,700 attendees, representing the broad international community of plant pathologist across the globe. In this conference, the leading experts in the different aspects of the field presented the latest advances and innovations.
Juan’s current research looks at the rice plant’s immune response to pathogens.
These experts are setting a vision and future directions for tackling some of the most damaging plant diseases in the agriculture and horticulture industries, ensuring enough food productivity in a global economy.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today, we investigate the uses of platinum.
Around 1200BC, archaeologists discovered traces of platinum in gold in ancient Egyptian burials.
However, the extent of Egyptians’ knowledge of the metal remains unknown, which suggests that Egyptians might have been unaware that platinum existed in the gold.
The Ancient Egyptians made elaborate masks for royals to wear once they were mummified.
Platinum was also used by South Americans with dates going back 2000 years. Burial goods show that in the pacific coast of South America, people were able to work platinum, producing artifacts of a white gold-platinum alloy.
Archaeologists link the South American tradition of platinum-working with the La Tolita Culture. Archaeological sites show the highly artistic nature of this culture, with the artifacts characterised by gold and platinum jewellery, and anthropomorphic masks symbolising the hierarchical and ritualistic society.
What are its properties?
Platinum is a silvery white metal, also known as ‘white gold’. It is extremely resistant to tarnishing and corrosion and it is one of the least reactive metals, unaffected by water and air, which means it will not oxidise with air.
It is also very soft and malleable, and therefore can be shaped easily and due to its ductility, it can be easily stretched into wire.
Platinum is a member of group 10 of the periodic table. The group 10 metals have several uses including decorative purposes, electrical components, catalysts in a variety of chemical reactions and play an important role in biochemistry, particularly platinum compounds which have widely been used as anticancer drugs.
Additionally, platinum’s tarnish resistance characteristics makes it one the most well-suited elements for making jewelry.
Platinum bonds are often used as a form of medicine in treatments for cancer. However, the health effects of platinum are dependent on the kinds of bonds that are formed, levels of exposure, and the immunity of the individual.
In 1844, Michele Peyrone, an Italian chemist, discovered the anti-neo plastic properties (apparently prohibiting the development of tumours) and later in 1971, the first human cancer patient was treated with drugs containing platinum.
Today, approximately 50% of patient are treated using medicine which includes the rare metal. Scientists will look further into all the ways platinum drugs affect biology, and how to design better platinum drugs in the future.
In an era of glass and steel construction, wood may seem old-school. But researchers are currently saying its time to give timber a makeover and bring to use a material that is able to store and release heat.
Transparent wood could be the construction material of choice for eco-friendly houses of the future, after researchers have now created an even more energy efficient version that not only transmits light but also absorbs and releases heat, potentially saving on energy bills.
Researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm reported in 2019 that they would add polymer polyethylene glycol (PEG) to the formulation to stabilise the wood.
PEG can go really deep into the wood cells and store and release heat. Known as a phase change material, PEG is a solid that melts at 80°F – storing energy in the process. This process reverses at night when the PEG re-solidifies, turning the window glass opaque and releasing heat to maintain a constant temperature in the house.
Transparent wood for windows and green architecture. Video: Wise Wanderer
In principle, a whole house could be made from the wooden window glass, which is due to the property of PEG. The windows could be adapted for different climates by simply tailoring the molecular weight of the PEG, to raise or lower its melting temperature depending on the location.
Clean and fresh water is essential for human life, and water is a necessity to agricultural and other industries. However, global population growth and pollution from industrial waste has put a strain in local fresh water resources.
A hydrogel is made up of polymer chains that are hydrophilic (attracted to water) and are known for being highly absorbent.
Current clean-up costs can be extremely expensive, leaving poorer and more remote populations at risk to exposure of metal pollutants such as lead, mercury, cadmium and copper, which can lead to severe effects on the neurological, reproductive and immune systems.
Now, a group of scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas, US, have developed a 3D printable hydrogel that is capable of 95% metal removal within 30 minutes.
Clean water is also needed for one’s hygiene, including brushing your teeth and bathing.
The hydrogel is made from a cheap, abundant biopolymer chitosan and diacrylated pluronic, which forms cDAP. The cDAP mixture is then loaded into the printer as a liquid and allowed to cool to <4⁰C, before rising again to room temperature to form a gel that can be used to produce various 3D printed shapes.
The Dallas team also tested the reusability of their hydrogel and found that it had a recovery rate of 98% after five cycles of use, proving it to be a potentially reliable resource to communities with limited fresh water supply.
Life without clean water. Video: charitywater
‘This novel and cost-effective approach to remove health and environmental hazards could be useful for fabricating cheap and safe water filtration devices on site in polluted areas without the need for industrial scale manufacturing tools,’ the paper reads.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today we look at copper and some of its popular uses.
A brief history
Copper was one of the first metals ever extracted and used by humans. According to the US Geological Survey, copper ranks as the third most consumed industrial metal in the world, dating back to around 5000BC.
Around 5500BC, early ancestors discovered the malleable properties of copper, and discovered they could be fashioned into tools and weapons – a discovery that allowed humans to emerge out of the stone age and drift into the age of metals.
Volcanic rocks in Tenerife, Spain.
Approximately two-thirds of the Earth’s copper is found in volcanic rocks, while approximately one-quarter occurs in sedimentary rocks.
Th metal is malleable, meaning it can conduct heat and electricity, making copper an extremely useful industrial metal and is used to make electronics, cables and wiring.
What is it used for?
Since 4500BC humans have made and manufactured items from copper. Copper is used mostly as a pure metal, but its strength and hardness can be adjusted by adding tin to create a copper alloy known as bronze.
In the 1700s, pennies were made from pure copper; in the 1800s they were made from bronze; and today, pennies consist of approximately 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper.
Copper is utilised for a variety of industrial purposes. In addition to copper’s good thermal and electric conductivity, copper now plays an important role in renewable energy systems.
As copper is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, power systems use copper to generate and transmit energy with high efficiency and minimal environmental impacts.
E. Coli cultures on a Petri dish.
Copper plays an important role as an anti-bacterial material. Copper alloy surfaces have properties which are set out to destroy a wide range of microorganisms.
Recent studies have shown that copper alloy surfaces kill over 99.9% of E.coli microbes within two hours. In the interest of public health, especially in healthcare environments, studies led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have listed 274 different copper alloys as certified antimicrobial materials, making copper the first solid surfaced material to have been registered by the EPA.
Copper has always maintained an important role in modern society with a vast list of extensive uses. With further development of renewable energy systems and electric vehicles, we will likely see an ongoing increase in demand for copper.
Throughout the series, you will be introduced to its members through regular features that highlight their roles and major interests in energy. We welcome you to read their series and hope to spark some interesting conversation across all areas of SCI.
The burning of fossil fuels is the biggest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), by the end of 2018, their observatory at Muana Loa, Hawaii, recorded the fourth-highest annual growth of global CO2 emissions the world has seen in the last 60 years.
Adding even more concern, the Met Office confirmed that this trend is likely to continue and that the annual rise in 2019 could potentially be larger than that seen in the previous two years.
Forecast global CO2 concentration against previous years. Source: Met Office and contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.
Large concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are a major concern because it is a greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases absorb infrared radiation from solar energy from the sun and less is emitted back into space. Because the influx of radiation is greater than the outflux, the globe is warmed as a consequence.
Although CO2 emissions can occur naturally through biological processes, the biggest contributor to said emissions is human activities, such as fossil fuel burning and cement production.
Increase of CO2 emissions before and after the Industrial Era. Source: IPCC, AR5 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2014, Fig. 1.05-01, Page. 3
Weather impacts from climate change include drought and flooding, as well as a noticeable increase in natural disasters.
This warming has resulted in changes to our climate system which has created severe weather impacts that increase human vulnerability. One example of this is the European heat wave and drought which struck in 2003.
The event resulted in an estimated death toll of over 30,000 lives and is recognised as one of the top 10 deadliest natural disasters across Europe within the last century.
In 2015, in an attempt to address this issue, 195 nations from across the globe united to adopt the Paris Agreement which seeks to maintain a global temperature rise of well below 2C, with efforts to limit it even further to 1.5C.
The Paris Climate Change Agreement explained. Video: The Daily Conversation
In their latest special report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explained that this would require significant changes in energy, land, infrastructure and industrial systems, all within a rapid timeframe.
In addition, the recently published Emissions Gap report urged that it is crucial that global emissions peak by 2020 if we are to succeed in meeting this ambitious target.
Are we further away then we think?
As well as the Paris Agreement, the UK is committed to the Climate Change Act (2008) which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 relative to 1990 baseline levels. Since 1990, the UK has cut emissions by over 40%, while the economy has grown by 72%.
To ensure that we meet our 2050 target, the government has implemented Carbon Budgets, which limit the legal emissions of greenhouse gases within the UK across a five-year period. Currently, these budgets run up to 2032 and the UK is now in the third budget period (2018-2022).
The UK has committed to end the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars by 2040.
At present, the UK is on track to outperform both the second and third budget. However, it is not on track to achieve the fourth budget target (2023-2027). To be able to meet this, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) urge that UK emissions must be reduced annually by at least 3% from this point forward.
We may not be sure which technologies will allow such great emission reductions, but one thing is for certain – decarbonisation is essential, and it must happen now!
Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease can be expensive to produce, but by using novel cultivation of daffodils, one small Welsh company has managed to find a cost-effective production method of one pharmaceutical drug, galanthamine.
The disease has been identified as a protein misfolding disease which leads to the break down, or death, of neurons and synapses in the brain. The pathology of the disease is complicated and involves many processes and enzymes.
Alzheimer’s disease is the cause of 60-70% of dementia cases.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease with a range of symptoms, including language problems, memory loss, disorientation and mood swings. Despite this, the cause of Alzheimer’s is very understood. The Alzheimer’s disease drug market is currently worth an estimated US$8bn.
The main current form of treatment is acetylcholinesterase inhibitors(AChEIs). Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that is mainly involved in motor function, particularly in muscles, and its production has been found to decrease in Alzheimer’s patients as they age. AChEIs inhibit the breakdown of acetylcholine, strengthening the brain’s responses.
Agroceutical Products: on the road to sustainable Alzheimer’s medication. Video: Innovate UK
Galanthamine is a natural product that is also an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. It has been used in medicine since the 1950s and is commonly used for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. The drug can be isolated in small quantities from flowers such as Caucasian snowdrop, daffodils and red spider lilies, or produced synthetically at a high cost.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today we look at arsenic and some of its effects.
What is arsenic?
Arsenic is a chemical element found in nature – low levels of arsenic are found in water, air and soil – in man-made products. As arsenic is distributed throughout the environment, people have high exposure to elevated levels of inorganic arsenic through contaminated drinking water, as well as exposure to arsenic through oceans, food and insecticides.
Is arsenic harmful?
Arsenic can occur in an organic and inorganic form. Organic arsenic compounds are less harmful to our health, whereas, inorganic arsenic compounds (e.g those found in water) are carcinogens, which are highly toxic and dangerous. Arsenic contamination of groundwater has led to arsenic poisoning which affects the skin, liver, lungs and kidneys.
Prominently, arsenic has attracted much attention in Bangladesh, as 21.4% of all the deaths in a highly affected area were caused by levels of arsenic surpassing WHO’s provisional guideline value of 10 μg/L.
Long-term exposure to low doses of arsenic can cause a negative interference in the way cells communicate, which may minimise their ability to function, subsequently playing a role in the development of disease and causing an increase in health risks.
For example, cells use phosphate to communicate with other cells, but arsenate, which is one form of arsenic, can replace and imitate phosphate in the cell. This damages cells so they can not generate energy and impairs the ability of cells to communicate.
The health risks of arsenic in drinking water. Video: EnviroHealthBerkeley
Symptoms of arsenic poisoning can be acute, severe or chronic depending on the period of exposure and method of exposure. Symptoms may include vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea, and long-term exposure can lead to cancers of the bladder and lungs.
Certain industries may face exposure to arsenic’s toxicity, but the maximum exposure to arsenic allowed is limited to 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air for every 8-hour shift. These industries include glass production, smelting, wood treatment, and the use of pesticides. Traces of arsenic can also be found in tobacco, posing a risk to people who smoke cigarettes and other tobacco products.
A global threat
Arsenic is naturally found in the Earth’s crust and can easily contaminate water and food.
WHO has ranked arsenic as one of the top 10 chemicals posing a huge threat to public health. WHO is working to reduce arsenic exposure, however, assessing the dangers on health from arsenic is not straightforward.
As symptoms and signs caused by long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic varies across population groups, geographical regions, as well as between individuals, there is no universal definition of the disease caused by this element. However, continuous efforts and measures are being made to keep concentrations as low as possible.
Jenny Gracie was awarded a Messel Travel Bursary for an internship with the Naked Scientists based at the University of Cambridge. Here she describes how her internship has helped her to develop her skills and confidence in science communication, which she can now use to help shape her future career.
Jenny in The Naked Scientists studio.
I am currently in the final year of a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Strathclyde. My project seeks to better treat cardiovascular disease, which is still the world’s leading cause of death. I am working towards a drug delivery system which utilises hollow gold nanoparticles as a ‘vehicle’ for delivering statins to the fatty plaques that block the arteries. Although I’m still interested in my research project, I’ve developed a real enthusiasm for science communication over the last few years and would like pursue a career in this field.
As a STEM ambassador I have attended fairs, festivals and schools to help spark a curiosity in science among children. During my PhD, the opportunity of an eight-week internship with The Naked Scientists came up, and I simply couldn’t let it pass. Without the funding support from SCI I could not have taken the internship, and so I am extremely grateful for the Messel Travel Bursary, and I know that this contribution helped make this transformative career experience a reality.
The Naked Scientists are an award-winning science production group based at the University of Cambridge. They create one of the world’s most popular science shows, achieving over 50m downloads in the last five years. They broadcast weekly on BBC Cambridgeshire, BBC 5Live, ABC National Radio in Australia and also publish a podcast of the show. Podcasts are free, available on-demand and are a widely accessible source of science information to the general public. The Naked Scientist internship programme develops the skill set of early career communicators and provides first-hand experience in the world of science media communication.
Podcast production has grown exponentially in the last few years, however chemistry still remains underrepresented compared to the other traditional physical sciences, like physics and biology. As a chemist who is interested in a career in science communication, this role has allowed me to gain the necessary skills to make my own podcasts in the future.
As an intern I was part of the production team from the first day! It was a catapult into the world of radio broadcast and podcast production, but perfect for understanding how a show is produced from scratch. Our weekly show consisted of two parts – one half would cover the news and recently published articles, and the second half would cover a specific topic within science.
Media privileges gave me access to all the journals to be published that week, with them sealed under embargo until publication. We tended to pick articles that have a global impact and capture the interest of the listener. Each team member would be assigned an article, and we would then have to contact the authors to scope the story and arrange a recorded interview. The skills I required to organise and execute a good interview improved over the course of the eight weeks. I could see a real development in both my style and confidence.
During the internship I also learned how to use software to edit audio, and stitch together multiple tracks to create build pieces with music and sound effects. To accompany the interview, each week we also wrote a short article on the research. This required converting high-level science into a form that could be understood by the general public… something that is much harder than it sounds!
Organised by the National Human Genome Research Institute each year, National DNA Day in the US on 25 April celebrates the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953 and the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. Here, we explore the history of DNA and its discovery’s unparalleled effect on science, medicine and the way we now understand the human body.
Discovering DNA’s structure
Using the pictures that she had taken, Franklin was able to calculate the dimensions of the strands and found the phosphates were on the outside of the DNA helix.
Rosalind Franklin working in her lab. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, at the University of Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick deduced the double-helix structure of DNA, describing it as ‘two helical chains each coiled round the same axis’ following a right-handed helix containing phosphate diester groups joining β-D-deoxyribofuranose residues with 3’,5’ linkages.
The discoveries made by these scientists would propel the study of genetics into the modern science we know today. Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine alongside Maurice Wilkins, who worked with Rosalind Franklin, in 1962. You can read their original paper here.
Dolly the sheep
Dolly on display at the National Museum of Scotland, UK.
Dolly is arguably the most famous sheep in the world, having been the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. Born in 1996, Dolly was part of a series of experiments at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh to create GM livestock that could be used in scientific experiments.
She was cloned using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, where a cell nucleus from one adult is transferred into an unfertilised developing egg cell of another that has had its nucleus removed, which is then implanted into a surrogate mother.
The scientific legacy of Dolly the sheep. Video: Al Jazeera English
Dolly lived until 2003 when she was euthanised after contracting a form of lung cancer. Many speculated that Dolly’s early death was related to the cloning experiment but extensive health screening throughout Dolly’s life by the Roslin Institute suggest otherwise.
Her creation has led to further cloning projects and could be used in the future to preserve the populations of endangered or extinct species, and has led to significant developments in stem cell research.
In 2009, Spanish researchers announced the cloning of a Pyrenean ibex, which has been extinct since 2000, and was the first cloning of an extinct animal. Unfortunately, the ibex died shortly after birth but there have been a few successful stories since then.
The Human Genome Project
Beginning in 1990 and finishing in 2003, the Human Genome Project was an international research initiative that aimed to write the entire sequence of nucleotide base pairs that make up the human genome, including the mapping of all its genes that determine our physical and functional attributes.
The publicly funded $3bn project was able to map 99% of the human genome with 99.99% accuracy, which included its 3.2bn Mega-base pairs, 20,000 genes and 23 chromosome pairs, and has led to advancements in bioinformatics, personalised medicine and a deeper understanding of human evolution.
Improvements in robots and robotic technologies has fuelled huge advancements across many industries in recent years. The UK Industrial Strategy has several Sector Deals in which robotic innovations play a role, particularly in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Life Sciences and Nuclear.
Innovative robotics have a place in all industries to improve efficiency and processes, however, in industries where radioactive materials are commonly used, using robots can help to manage risk. This could be by limiting exposure of employees to radioactive substances or preventing potential accidents.
In the UK, legislation exists as to how much exposure to ionising radiation employees may have each year – an adult employee is classified, and therefore must be monitored, if they receive an effective dose of greater than 6mSv per year. The average adult in the UK receives 2.7 mSv of radiation per year.
Snake-like robot is used to dismantle nuclear facilities. Video: Tech Insider
Through using robots, very few professionals in the chemical industry come close to this limit, and are subsequently safe from long-term health effects, such as skin burns, radiation sickness and cancer.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today we look at mercury and some of its reactions.
Mercury is a silver, heavy, liquid metal. Though mercury is a liquid at room temperature, as a solid it is very soft. Mercury has a variety of uses, mainly in thermometers or as an alloy for tooth fillings.
Mercury & Aluminium
Mercury is added directly to aluminium after the oxide layer is removed. Source: NileRed
The reaction between mercury and aluminium forms an amalgam (alloy of mercury). The aluminium’s oxide layer is disturbed When the amalgam forms, in the following reaction:
Al+ Hg → Al.Hg
Some of the Al.Mg get’s dissolved in the mercury. The aluminium from the amalgam then reacts with the air to form white aluminium oxide fibres, which grow out of the solid metal.
Mercury & Bromine
Mercury and bromine are the only two elements that are liquid at room temperature on the periodic table. Source: Gooferking Science
When mercury and bromine are added together they form mercury(I) bromide in the following reaction:
Hg2 + Br2 → Hg2Br2
This reaction is unique as mercury can form a metal-metal covalent bond, giving mercury(I) bromide a structure of Br-Hg-Hg-Br
Making the Pharaoh's Serpent by igniting mercury (II) thiocyanate. Source: NileRed
The first step of this reaction is to generate water-soluble mercury (II) nitrate by combining mercury and concentrate nitric acid. The reaction goes as follows:
Hg + 4NO3 → Hg(NO3)2 + 2H2O + 2NO2
Next, the reaction is boiled to remove excess NO2 and convert mercury(I) nitrate by-product to mercury (II) nitrate. The mixture is them washed with water and potassium thiocyanate added to the mercury (II) nitrate:
Hg(NO3)2 + 2KSCN→ Hg(SCN)2 + 2KNO3
The mercury (II) thiocyanate appears as a white solid. After this is dried, it can be ignited to produce the Pharaoh’s serpent, as it is converted to mercury sulfide in the following reaction:
Hg(SCN)2 → 2HgS + CS2 + + C3N4
The result is the formation of a snake-like structure. Many of the final products of this process are highly toxic, so although this used to be used as a form of firework, it is no longer commercially available.
Though many reactions of mercury look like a lot of fun, mercury and many of it’s products is highly toxic - so don’t try these at home!
Cassie Sims is a PhD student and SCI early career member, sitting on the committees of SCI’s Agrisciences Group and Agrifood Early Career Committee. Read more of Cassie’s work at soci.org/news and sciblog.com.
As part of my PhD programme – the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) with the University of Nottingham – I have had the opportunity to do a 12-week internship in something different to research. Today, I am going to tell you why I think every PhD student should step outside their comfort zone and do an internship.
1. Expand your community
Doing a PhD internship allows you to temporarily leave the academic bubble, and meet some new and different people. During my internship, I had the opportunity to engage with members of SCI’s community, including a range of industrial partners, academics and other early career scientists.
Attending events at SCI HQ has given me the chance to network with people I may never have met otherwise, gaining valuable connections and career advice. I was also able to see the range of work that goes on in chemistry and the chemical industry, including the variety of different career paths that are available.
Taking a step back from the practical side of science can also allow you to gain an appreciation for other areas of science. Learning about science in journalism and digital media will inform my decisions when trying to communicate my research to the general public in the future.
2. Gain transferable skills
Undertaking an internship in an area that you are unfamiliar with will diversify your skills. Digital media has taught me many new skills, such as social media and Photoshop, but also refined skills that are valuable and transferable.
The main skills I have worked on are my writing and editing capabilities. I have found my flow for writing, learnt about proofreading, and refreshed my memory in grammar and spelling. These skills will be incredibly useful when trying to write a PhD thesis, and my experience will shine on my CV when applying for future jobs.
3. A break from the lab
A PhD can be an overwhelming experience; sometimes it can feel like you are drowning in lab work and data analysis. Doing an internship means you can take a few months to escape, allowing you the chance to free your mind from data and reactions.
During my internship, I have had time to think about my research in more depth, considering options and planning, instead of rushing into things. The opportunity to take a step back means I will be re-entering the lab with clear, coherent plans and a new-found energy.
Although I have missed the rush of scientific research, my internship has taught me useful skills and allowed me to meet so many interesting people. I have really enjoyed my time in the SCI Digital Media team, and I would urge anyone considering an internship to take the leap.
I hope to continue working with SCI through the Agri-Food Early Careers Committee and other SCI activities that I am involved with.
All Images: Andrew Lunn/SCI
On 19 March 2019, SCI hosted the second annual final of the Bright SCIdea Challenge, bringing together some of the brightest business minds of the future to pitch their science-based innovation to a panel of expert judges and a captivated audience.
As an opportunity to support UK/ROI students interested in commercialising their ideas and developing their business skills, the final included talks and training from our judges and networking with industry professionals.
The day started with a poster session and networking, including posters from teams Glubiotech, Online Analytics, HappiAppi and NovaCAT.
Training sessions came next, with Neil Wakemen from Alderley Park Accelerator speaking first on launching a successful science start-up.
Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne from Genius Foods spoke next on her personal business story, going from the kitchen to lab to supermarket shelves.
Participants could catch a glimpse of the trophies before giving their pitches.
The first team to pitch were Team Seta from UCL, with their idea for a high-throughput synthetic biology approach for biomaterials.
Team Plastech Innovation from Durham University presented their sustainable plastic-based concrete.
Closing the first session, Team DayDreamers. pitched their AI-driven mental wellness app.
The break was filled with networking between delegates and industry professionals.
Opening the second session, Team BRISL Antimicrobials, from UCL, showcased their innovative light-activated antimicrobial bristles that could be used in toothbrushes.
The final pitch of the day was from Team OxiGen, from the University of St Andrews, presenting their designer cell line for optimised protein expression.
After asking lots of questions during each pitch, the judges were left with the difficult task of deciding a winner.
Team HappiAppi, from Durham University, were voted the best poster by the audience!
The second runner-up was Team Seta!
The first runner-up was Team BRISL Antimicrobials!
Congratulations to the winners Team Plastech Innovation!! They win £5000 towards their idea.
We would like to thank our participating teams, sponsors (INEOS and Synthomer), guest speakers and judges (Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, Robin Harrison, Inna Baigozina-Goreli, Ian Howell & Dave Freeman).
Scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California, US, have designed a method in which semiconducting materials have been turned into quantum machines.
This work could revolutionise the field, and lead to new efficient electronic systems and exciting physics.
Quantum machines are generally made from two-dimensional (2D) materials – often graphene. These materials are one atom thick and can be stacked. When the materials form a repeating pattern, this can generate unique properties.
Studies with graphene have resulted in large advancements in the field of 2D materials. A new study has found a way to use two semiconducting materials – tungsten disulphide and tungsten diselenide – to develop a material with highly interacting electrons.
The researchers determined that the ‘twist angle’ – the angle between the two layers – provides the key to turning a 2D system into a quantum material.
Dr Gary Harris talks about radio technology to quantum materials. Source: TEDx Talks
‘This is an amazing discovery because we didn’t think of these semiconducting materials as strongly interacting,’ said Feng Wang, Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley. ‘Now this work has brought these seemingly ordinary semiconductors into the quantum materials space.’
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is an element which gives us life, oxygen.
Oxygen is a group 5 gas that is found abundantly in nature. Of the air we breathe, 20.8% is oxygen in its elemental, diatomic form of O2. Oxygen is also one of the most abundant elements in nature, and along with carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, makes up the structures of most of the natural world. Oxygen can be found in DNA, sugar, hormones, proteins and so many more natural structures.
Although oxygen mainly exists as a colourless gas, at -183°C it can be condensed as a pale blue liquid. Oxygen may seem unsuspecting, but it is highly reactive and highly oxidising. A common example of this reactivity is how oxygen reacts with iron to produce iron oxide, which appears as rust.
Oxygen molecules are paramagnetic – they exhibit magnetic characteristics when in the presence of a magnetic field. Liquid oxygen is so magnetic that the effect can be seen by suspending it between the poles of a powerful magnet.
Oxygen gas has applications for medicine and space travel in breathing apparatus.
Oxygen can be found as ozone or O3. Ozone is a pale blue gas and has a distinctive smell. It is not as stable as diatomic oxygen (dioxygen) and is formed when ultraviolet light (UV) and electrical charges interact with O2.
The highest concentration of ozone can be found in the Earth’s stratosphere, which absorbs the Sun’s UV radiation, providing natural protection for planet Earth.
Ozone (O3) is most concentrated in the stratosphere. Image: Pixabay
Ozone can be used industrially as a powerful oxidising agent. Unfortunately, it can be a dangerous respiratory hazard and pollutant so much be used with care.
Water consists of an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. Though this may seem remarkably unassuming, this combination gives water unique properties that are crucial to it’s functions in the natural world.
Water can form hydrogen bonds between the slightly positive hydrogen and the slightly negative oxygen. These hydrogen bonds, along with waters other practical properties, make water useful in nature.
Without the hydrogen bonding found in water, plants could not transpire – transport water through their phloem’s against gravity. The surface tension of water provides stability for many natural structures.
Oxygen plays a key role in nature, including in water molecules. Image: Pixabay
Oxygen plays a key role in nature, from the ozone layer that encapsulates our planet, to our DNA. It’s combination with hydrogen in water makes a molecule which is integral to the natural world, and both water and oxygen itself are pivotal to our existence the planet.
A big congratulations to our Agri-Food Early Careers Committee #agrifoodbecause Twitter competition winner, Hannah Blyth. Hannah is a PhD student at Rothamsted Research. Her winning entry, a fungal plate, really wowed us!
#agrifoodbecause understanding crop diseases (eg. my fungal wheat pathogen of choice, causing Septoria Tritici Blotch) will reduce yield losses, important for future food security… Photo of some mutants on a spotting plate. Spot a difference? #phdchat @SCI_AgriFood @SCIupdate pic.twitter.com/0cqK3711Uu— Hannah Blyth (@StellaRemnant)February 21, 2019
Hannah will receive a a years free membership to SCI and a £50 Amazon voucher!
Cassie Sims is a PhD student and SCI early career member, sitting on the committees of SCI’s Agrisciences Group and Agrifood Early Career Committee. Read more of Cassie’s work at soci.org/news and soci.org/blog.
Undertaking an internship in digital media has exposed me to a completely new part of science. As a young scientist, we are regularly taught the value of communicating our work, but often we are not taught how to best do this.
There are many nuances and tricks to getting digital media to be the most engaging it can be, and here are a few that I have learnt over the last couple of months.
Know your audience
Before you start producing any kind of content, you need to know your audience. Are they scientists or the general public, early- or late-career, students or professionals? Understanding your target demographic can help you make informed decisions about the media or topic you choose, and how you write the piece.
It is crucial to know who your audience is!
It is important to keep your audience in mind at every stage of the process, from conception of the idea, to writing, presentation and marketing. By targeting your piece, you will produce a higher quality piece of content and have much more engagement overall.
Image is important
When presenting a piece of work to the world, be in a long-read article or just a Tweet, image is crucial. Choosing images or photographs to best display your message takes time and careful curation.
Images can be obtained from a wide variety of sources, from stock photo websites, such as Shutterstock or Pixabay, to original images you may have designed or photographed. Remember to always give credit where appropriate.
At SCI we are big fans of gifs and emojis. When targeting a younger audience, or using more informal media like out blog, these can engage and draw the eye much more than a standard image. This again requires meticulous decision-making skills, and it can be crucial to know the meanings behind each emoji.
Trust your gut
A large part of science communication is choosing which science to communicate. This involves selecting topics and editing to the most critical and interesting information.
At SCI, we release innovation news pieces on a regular basis, where we choose the most exciting science news from the week. This involves looking through press releases, and sometimes selecting one piece from hundreds can be a daunting task.
One thing I have learnt during my time at SCI is to trust that I can select something that people will want to read. When pitching ideas for articles and blog pieces, I have learnt to value my own opinion in what is engaging and relevant science that our members and the broader public might want to read about.
The predicted mass of the global e-waste mountain by 2021 is > 52m t/year, according to the UN.
Smartphones represent a fraction of global electronic waste. Discarded electronics are one of the fastest growing waste streams, with the UN predicting that the global e-waste mountain will reach over 52m t/year by 2021. Meantime, we are gradually running out of valuable minerals, such as neodymium, terbium and iridium, that are crucial in manufacturing electronics.
More than 60% of smartphones end up in landfills. Even if recycled, some 30% of material will still be lost. Image: Pixabay
As the scale of the problem is becoming clear, there has recently been a surge in efforts to understand what goes into electronic products, and how it can be recovered, says Susanne Baker from techUK, the association for companies in the digital economy. ‘We are seeing a lot of academic proposals looking at better understanding the flow of products and waste within the economy,’ says Baker, who heads the trade body’s environment and compliance programme.
Recycling e-waste into art. Source: Great Big Story
Ivalina Minova is an SCI Ambassador, 2018 SCI Scholar, and a third-year PhD student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK, where her research involves the development of new techniques to help understand and improve industrially important reactions.
In this article, she discusses four aspects that have helped with her success as an early career scientist and the invaluable support resources she has benefited from.
Her last blog ‘How the SCI Early Careers programme helped me’ can be found here.
Mark your milestones
As a student at the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Critical Resource Catalysis (CRITICAT), one of the milestones outlined in my four-year PhD training programme is to complete a three-month industrial placement abroad.
Having a clear goal and timeline is critical in early career development. I started thinking about potential placement visit options early and took the initiative in setting up an arrangement with a chemical company, Johnson Matthey (JM).
Find a mentor
Having a mentor in industry can significantly benefit you in the early stages of your career, especially if you are working in academia. I was determined to find influential people who could help me to achieve my goals.
Part of this mission was being awarded an SCI scholarship in July 2018, which will support my three-month research placement visit at JM, a pioneering chemical company in sustainable technologies. I had built links with JM through my MChem studies at Durham University.
These have developed throughout my PhD, as I have initiated several catch-up meetings with research teams and R&D managers to discuss my research. In one of those meetings last year, I asked about the possibility of completing a placement visit at their US site, to which they agreed!
Look for funding opportunities
Once I had identified my desired placement visit abroad, I focused on applying for various funding opportunities to help fund my trip. Although my PhD programme provides financial support towards such placement visits, the costs of going to the US would exceed my budget.
There are a number of mobility grants and scholarship opportunities that I applied for listed below, that have allowed me to secure sufficient funding for this placement:
I was successful in obtaining the last two of those three.
The power of networking
I attended a lot of conferences early on in my studies and was not shy to give oral talks, where my confidence in giving presentations on my research naturally grew.
Some of my personal highlights include presenting at the 6th International Congress in Operando Spectroscopy in Spain and being awarded an SCI Messel Travel Bursary to present my first manuscript on ‘Unravelling the mechanism of direct alkene formation from methoxy groups in H-ZSM-5, as revealed by synchrotron infrared microspectroscopy’ at the ACS Spring 2019 National Meeting and Exposition in Orlando, US, in March 2019.
Overall, I found these four key things beneficial to me in advancing my early career research and I hope that this blog will inspire others to take initiative as they move towards their next career step.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is about the highly reactive gas, fluorine.
Fluorine wasn’t discovered until the 19th century, and even now very few chemists have seen elemental fluorine. Fluorite – fluorine’s source mineral – was used industrially as far back as the 16th century, but elemental fluorine wasn’t made until much later.
Fluorite is the mineral form of calcium fluoride (CaF2) and can be found in a wide variety of colours – from pastel free, to burgundy, and even purple or golden yellow. Many samples of fluorite can also be seen fluorescing under UV light. Fluorite’s main industrial use is as a source of hydrogen fluoride (HF), a highly reactive acid. It can also be used to lower the melting point of raw materials, such as steel.
Fluorite has been used in industry for hundreds of years and is fluorescent under UV light. Image: Pixabay
In 1886, French chemist Henri Moissan first made elemental fluorine by electrolysing a mixture of potassium fluoride and hydrogen fluoride. He later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work.
Large-scale production of fluorine first began during World War II, where it was used to separate uranium for the Manhattan Project – the United States’ nuclear weapons development project.
Fluorine is known for its high reactivity. It is the most electronegative element, which means it can react with almost every other element in the periodic table. Despite being difficult to handle, fluorine and fluorine containing compounds have many real-world applications.
Due to its reactivity, elemental fluorine must be handled with great care. Fluorine reacts with water to produce hydrogen fluoride, which is such a powerful acid it can eat through glassware.
Fluorine’s reactivity isn’t all bad – in fact, it has hundreds of applications. One of the most common uses of fluorine is the fluorides in toothpaste.
These fluorides exist usually as tin or sodium fluoride, and when you brush your teeth they react with calcium in the enamel to make it less soluble to acids. This gives some protection to your teeth from acidic foods such as fizzy drinks or juices.
The fluorochemical industry began in the 1930′s and 40′s with DuPont, who commercialised organofluorine compounds on a large scale. They developed Freon-12 (dichlorodifluoromethane) after General Motors showed chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs) could be used as refrigerants. The two companies joined together to market Freon-12, which quickly replaced previously used toxic kitchen refrigerants.
CFCs were found to be creating holes in the ozone layer, contributing to global warming. Image: Pixabay
CFCs were later banned by a number of countries due to the damage they caused to the ozone layer. More environmentally friendly fluorine-based alternatives are now used in refrigeration, including hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
DuPont continued to pioneer the industry, when recently hired chemist Roy J Plunkett accidentally discovered polytetrafluoroethylene, also known as the polymer Teflon. Tests of the mysterious white polymer he had generated showed its’ high temperature stability and resistance against corrosion were significantly higher than any other plastic. It only took three years for large-scale production to begin.
Fluorine – Professor Martyn Poliakoff. Video: Periodic Videos
The development of Teflon lead to many other similar fluorine-containing polymers appearing on the market, including PTFE, which is used in breathable rainwear by the Gore-Tex business and was developed by Robert Gore, the son of ex-DuPont employee Bill Gore.
The fluorochemicals industry continues to grow to this day; in 2017 the global market was estimated at $17.6 billion.
Coeliac disease is caused by an autoimmune response to gluten and affects approximately 1 in 100 people worldwide. Those affected must eat a gluten-free diet, or they may experience uncomfortable digestive symptoms, mouth ulcers, fatigue and anaemia.
What’s the big deal with gluten? Video: TED-Ed
Problems occur for coeliac disease patients when they are exposed to gluten – a protein found in wheat and other grains – and the immune system is triggered to attack the body. This results in inflammation, mainly in the intestines, and causes the subsequent acute symptoms related to the condition.
Over 90% of coeliac disease patients carry immune recognition genes known as HLA-DQ2.5. These genes are human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes, which usually relate to specific diseases.
ImmusanT, a leader in the development of therapies for autoimmune disorders, has developed a vaccine that targets patients carrying the HLA-DQ2.5 genes. This novel therapeutic vaccine, known as Nexvax2, works by reprogramming specific T cells that are responsible for triggering an inflammatory response when gluten is consumed.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is about the first element in the periodic table, hydrogen!
Hydrogen isn’t just for keeping balloons afloat. Image: Pixabay
Hydrogen (H2) gas has many uses in modern engineering. Scientists are always searching for cheaper, more renewable fuel sources that have a lower negative impact on the environment. Hydrogen was frequently used to generate energy in the past, and this drive for more renewable energy has given hydrogen-derived fuel a new lease of life.
Hydrogen can be used in fuel cells. These act like batteries, generating their energy from a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen (O2). Hydrogen fuel cells have been incorporated into many modern technologies, including automotive. As the reaction occurring only generates heat, electricity and water, fuel cells are significantly better for the environment than many alternatives. Hydrogen is also much cheaper as a commodity that typical fuels.
Hydrogen fuel cells can now be used to power automotive vehicles, including cars!
Engineering cooling systems can use hydrogen. The gases physical properties make it 7-10 times better at cooling than air. It can also be easily detected by sensors. Because of this, hydrogen is used in cooling systems, which are generally smaller and less expensive than other available options.
Hydrogen gas can be used in reactions. The most famous reaction using hydrogen is the production of ammonia (NH3), also known as the Haber process. The Haber process was developed by Fritz Haber and Car Bosch in the early 20th century to fill the need to produce nitrogen-based fertilisers. In the Haber process, atmospheric nitrogen (N2) is reacted with H2 and a metal catalyst to produce NH3.
Nitrogen-based fertilisers are still used today, but ammonia was one of the first to be commercially produced.
Ammonia is a valuable fertilised, providing much needed nitrogen to plants. It was used on a variety of agricultural plants, including food crops wheat and maize, in the 19th and early 20th century.
Chemists undertake other chemical reactions, such as hydrogenation and reduction, that utilise hydrogen, to make commercially valuable products. Some physical properties of hydrogen make it tricky, and often dangerous, to use in industry. However, careful control of conditions allow for its safe use on larger scales.
Hydrogen gas can be explosive, making it often dangerous to use.
Producing hydrogen gas
There are many ways to produce gaseous hydrogen. The four main sources of commercially produced hydrogen are natural gas, oil, coal and electrolysis. To obtain gaseous hydrogen, the fossil fuels are ‘steam reformed’, a process which involves a reaction with steam at high pressure and temperature.
Electrolysis of water is another method that is used in hydrogen production. This method is 70-80% efficient. However, it often requires large amounts of energy, specifically in the form of heat. This heat can be sourced from waste heat produced by industrial plants.
So, whats all this hot air about hydrogen? Source: Tedx Talks
An alternative method for producing hydrogen is via biohydrogen. Hydrogen gas can be produced by certain types of algae. This process involves fermentation of glucose. Some hydrogen is also produced in a form of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria. This process can be used on an industrial scale.
Overall, hydrogen technology, whether it be new developments, such as hydrogen fueled cars, or old, like the Haber process, remains critical to the chemical industry.
‘Biodegradable plastics have become more cost-competitive with petroleum-based plastics and the demand is growing significantly, particularly in Western Europe, where environmental regulations are the strictest,’ says Marifaith Hackett, director of specialty chemicals research at analysts IHS Markit. The current market value of biodegradable plastics is set to exceed $1.1bn in 2018, but could reach $1.7bn by 2023, according to IHS Markit’s new report.
In 2018, the report finds that global demand for these polymers is 360,000t, but forecasts an average annual growth rate of 9% for the five years to 2023 – equivalent to a volume increase of more than 50%. Western Europe holds the largest share (55%) of the global market, followed by Asia, and Australia and New Zealand (25%), then North America (19%).
Here’s how much plastic trash Is littering the Earth. Video: National Geographic
In another report released in May 2018, the US Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) was similarly optimistic, finding that the bioplastics sector (biodegradables made from biological substances) is at ‘a growth cycle stage’. It predicts the US sector will outpace the US economy as a whole by attracting new investments and entrants, while also bringing new products and manufacturing technologies to make bioplastics ‘more competitive and dynamic’.
As bioplastics product applications continue to expand, the dynamics of industry growth will continue to shift, the report notes. Presently, packaging is the largest market segment at 37%, followed by bottles at 32%. Changes in consumer behaviour are expected to be a significant driver.
Many countries, including China and the UK, have introduced plastic waste bans to tackle the problem. Image: Pixabay
Changes in US tax policy, particularly the full expensing of capital expenditure, should support R&D in bioplastics,’ says Perc Pineda, chief economist at PLASTICS. ‘The overall low cost of energy in the US complements nicely with R&D activities and manufacturing, which generates a stable supply of innovative bioplastic products.’ He points, for example, to efforts by companies and collaborations to develop and launch, at commercial scale, a 100% bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle as a case in point. Most PET bottles currently contain around 30% bio-based material.
University students from across the UK came to SCI HQ in London on Friday 7 December 2018 for a day of face-to-face business and innovation and entrepreneurship training, which was exclusively available to entrants to the Bright SCIdea Challenge 2019.
The students heard from experts in their fields on topics such as ‘Managing the Money’, ‘Defining the Market’, Intellectual Property (IP) and ‘How to Pitch’.
Sharon Todd, SCI’s Executive Director, introduces the students to SCI and the Bright SCIdea Challenge.
David Prest, from our corporate supporter Drochaid Research Services, talks to delegates about defining the market and taking their product from lab to the market.
Our Bright SCIdea applicants learnt about IP from Charlotte Crowhurst, a patent lawyer and partner from Potter Clarkson.
Martin Curry from our sponsor STEM Healthcare teaches the audience about managing the money of a business.
Libby Linfied – one-third of our 2018 UCL winners Team Glucoguard – spoke about her experience and journey to last year’s final.
Victor Christou, CEO of Cambridge Innovation Capital and 2018 Head Judge, ran an interactive session on how to pitch.
Groups were given everyday objects to pitch to Victor.
The students made compelling arguments for a plug adapter, hi-vis vest, ‘phone pillow’ and lunchbox.
Delegates and trainers mingled at a wine reception in the evening.
The Bright SCIdea Challenge 2019 final will take place on Tuesday 19 March 2019 at SCI HQ in London. Teams will compete for a chance to win £5,000!
Roughly 60% of the 12 million animal experiments in Europe each year involve mice. But despite their undoubted usefulness, mice haven’t been much help in getting successful drugs into patients with brain conditions such as autism, schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease. So too have researchers grown 2D human brain cells in a dish. However, human brain tissue comprises many cell types in complex 3D arrangements, necessary for true cell identity and function to emerge.
Researchers are hopeful that lab grown mini-brains – tiny 3D tissues resembling the early human brain – may offer a more promising approach. ‘We first published on them in 2013, but the number of brain organoid papers has since skyrocketed, with 300 just last year,’ says Madeline Lancaster at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology lab in Cambridge, UK.
Lancaster was the first to grow mini-brains – or brain organoids – as a postdoc in the lab of Juergen Knoblich at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, Austria. The miniature brains comprised parts of the cortex, hippocampus and even retinas, resembling a jumbled-up brain of a human foetus.
‘We were stunned by how similar the events in the organoids were to what happens in a human embryo,’ says Knoblich. To be clear, the brain tissue is not a downsized replicate. Lancaster compares the blobs of tissue to an aircraft disassembled and put back together, with the engine, cockpit and wings in the wrong place.
Growing mini brains to discover what makes us human | Madeline Lancaster. Video: TEDx Talks
‘The plane wouldn’t fly, but you can study each of those components and learn about them. This is the same with brain organoids. They develop features similar to the human brain,’ she explains.
The UK’s efforts to move towards clean energy can be seen around the UK, whether it’s the wind turbines across the hills of the countryside or solar panels on the roofs of city skyscrapers. There is, however, a technology that most people will never see, and it is set to be one of the biggest breakthroughs in a low-carbon economy yet.
Deep in the North Sea are miles of offshore pipelines, once used to transport natural gas to the UK. The pipelines all lead to a hub called the St Fergus Gas Terminal – a gas sweetening plant used by industry – that sits on the coast of north-east Scotland.
St Fergus Gas Terminal in North-East Scotland.
This network has now been reimagined as a low-cost, full-chain carbon capture, transport and offshore storage that will provide the UK will a viable solution to permanent carbon capture and storage (CCS) called the Acorn project.
CCS is a process that takes waste CO2 produced by large-scale, usually industrial, processes and transports it to a storage facility. The site, likely to be underground, stops the waste CO2 from being released into the atmosphere, storing it for later use for another purpose, such as the production of chemicals for coatings, adhesives or jet fuel.
Carbon Capture Explained | How It Happens. Video: The New York Times
High levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have been linked to global warming and the damaging effects of climate change, and CCS is one of the only proven solutions to decarbonisation that industry can currently access.
Taking advantage of existing infrastructure means that the Acorn project is running at a much lower cost and risk to comparable projects and is expected to be up and running by 2023. It is hoped the project will bring competitiveness and job retention and creation across the UK, particularly in the industrial centres of Scotland.
After eight months of operation in Antarctica, the EDEN ISS greenhouse has produced a ‘record harvest’ of fresh lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and other herbs and vegetables to support the 10-member overwintering crew stationed at the German Neumayer Station III, the team reported in September 2018. Despite outdoor temperatures of -20°C and low levels of sunlight, the greenhouse yielded 75kg of lettuce, 51kg of cucumbers, 29kg of tomatoes, 12kg of kohlrabi, 5kg of radishes and 9kg of herbs – on a cultivation area of ca13m2.
The goal of the EDEN ISS is to demonstrate technologies that could be used by future astronauts to grow their own food on long distance missions to Mars and other more distant planets, explained NASA controlled environment technician Connor Kiselchuk, speaking at the Bayer Future of Farming Dialogue event in Monheim in September 2018. ‘Food determines how far from the Earth we can go and how long we can stay,’ he said.
How does the EDEN ISS greenhouse in Antarctica work? Video: German Aerospace Center, DLR
Even if astronauts took a year and a half’s supply of food with them on a mission to Mars, for example, he pointed out that the food would be ‘very deficient in B vitamins’ by the time they came to eat it.
Microscopic membranous vesicles floating outside of cells were first discovered 50 years ago; 30 years later, a subset of these was coined exosomes. At the time, these membrane bubbles were believed to be nothing more than a cellular waste disposal mechanism. But within the past decade, extracellular vesicles – and exosomes in particular – have piqued scientists’ interests, resulting in a research boom.
In 2006, there were just 115 publications referencing exosomes; by 2015, this number had mushroomed to 1010. Today, a PubMed search brings up more than 7500 publications. Consulting firm Grand View Research estimates that the global exosome market could reach $2.28bn by 2030.
Advancements in exosome research could lead to breakthroughs in prostate cancer treatment.
The interest in exosomes has been driven by the new finding that exosomes are more than just a waste disposal system – they are also a means of communication between cells and have the ability to carry cargos such as proteins and mRNA, suggesting there could be potential medical applications.
‘Currently, research into exosomes and other extracellular vesicles is very strong,’ says Jason Webber, Prostate Cancer UK research fellow in the Division of Cancer and Genetics at Cardiff University. ‘I think this field of research will continue to grow and I believe we’ll also see greater clinical application of exosomes and a drive towards research exploring the therapeutic potential of exosomes.’
Exosomes in Cancer Research. Video: Thermo Fisher Scientific
Exosomes are best described as extracellular vescles – essentially membrane sacs – formed by the inward budding of the membrane of intracellular compartments known as multivesicular bodies (MVBs) or multivesicular endosomes (MVEs). They are released from cells when MVBs fuse with the cell’s plasma membrane, releasing its contents outside the cell. These vesicles, made of a phospholipid bilayer and ranging between 40nm and 150nm in diameter, are found in all biological fluids including blood, urine, saliva, bile, semen and breast milk.
Biopharmaceuticals are sourced from living organisms.
Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, have developed a portable drug manufacturing system that can make several different biopharmaceuticals to be used in precision medicine or to treat outbreaks in developing countries.
Biopharmaceuticals are drugs made up of proteins such as antibodies and hormones, and are produced in bioreactors using bacteria, yeast or mammalian cells. They must be purified before use, so the process has dozens of steps and it can therefore take weeks or months to produce a batch.
The Challenges in Manufacturing Biologics. Video: Amgen
Due to the complex nature of the process and its time restrictions, biopharmaceuticals are usually produced at large factories dedicated to a single drug – often one that can treat a wide range of patients.
To help supply smaller, more specific groups of patients with drugs, a group of researchers at MIT have developed a system that can be easily configured to produce three different pharmaceuticals – human growth factor, interferon alpha 2b and granulocyte colony-stimulating factor – all of a comparable quality to commercially available counterparts.
Biopharmaceuticals can treat autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis. Image: Pixabay
‘Traditional biomanufacturing relies on unique processes for each new molecule that is produced,’ said J Christopher Love, a Chemical Engineering Professor at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. ‘We’ve demonstrated a single hardware configuration that can produce different recombinant proteins in a fully automated, hands-free manner.’
Biopharmaceuticals are sourced from living organisms.
Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, have developed a portable drug manufacturing system that can make several different biopharmaceuticals to be used in precision medicine or to treat outbreaks in developing countries.
Biopharmaceuticals are drugs made up of proteins such as antibodies and hormones, and are produced in bioreactors using bacteria, yeast or mammalian cells. They must be purified before use, so the process has dozens of steps and it can therefore take weeks or months to produce a batch.
The Challenges in Manufacturing Biologics. Video: Amgen
Due to the complex nature of the process and its time restrictions, biopharmaceuticals are usually produced at large factories dedicated to a single drug – often one that can treat a wide range of patients.
To help supply smaller, more specific groups of patients with drugs, a group of researchers at MIT have developed a system that can be easily configured to produce three different pharmaceuticals – human growth factor, interferon alpha 2b and granulocyte colony-stimulating factor – all of a comparable quality to commercially available counterparts.
Biopharmaceuticals can treat autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis. Image: Pixabay
‘Traditional biomanufacturing relies on unique processes for each new molecule that is produced,’ said J Christopher Love, a Chemical Engineering Professor at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. ‘We’ve demonstrated a single hardware configuration that can produce different recombinant proteins in a fully automated, hands-free manner.’
Researchers have detected high levels of sunscreen chemicals in the waters of Shenzhen, China. These include beaches, a harbour, a reservoir, and even tap water. In tests on zebrafish, the team showed that several of these UV ﬁlters are being transmitted through the food chain, and can have adverse effects on developing offspring.
Organic UV ﬁlters found in sunscreens, skin lotions and make-up, as well as textiles, plastics, and paints, are endocrine disruptors.
The river and rice fields to the West of Shenzhen, China. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Risk assessments for single compounds have concluded that current levels of organic UV ﬁlters pose low risk, but they don’t account for interactions of mixtures and how these interactions develop over time.
Kelvin Sze-Yin Leung’s team at Hong Kong Baptist University analysed nine common organic UV ﬁlters in surface waters of Shenzhen, a city with more than 20 popular beaches. They found seven of the nine chemicals, including benzophenone derivatives BP-3, BP-8, and BP-1, as well as ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (EHMC), at public beaches, a harbour, a reservoir, and in tap water.
Which sunscreen should you use? Video: Ted-Ed
Total concentrations of UV ﬁlters were relatively high at three popular public beaches – ranging from 192 to 645ngL-1 – in the summer as expected. Shenzhen Reservoir showed UV ﬁlter pollution in both seasons, while tap water was contaminated by BP-3.
If inefficient water treatment processes are to blame, then research is needed into other ways to remove these ﬁlters to protect human health, says Sze-Yin Leung.
Each year SCI’s Scotland group runs a competition where students are invited to write a short article describing how their PhD research relates to SCI’s strapline: where science meets business.
Jack Washington (right), a Pure and Applied Chemistry PhD student at the University of Strathclyde, was the overall winner of this year’s competition. His article ‘Clavulanic acid - The fight against antibiotic resistance’ is reproduced here:
Clavulanic acid - The fight against antibiotic resistance
The molecular structure of clavulanic acid. Image: Wikimedia Commons
If you were to say that cancer is the biggest threat to public health you would be wrong.
One of the most pre-eminent risks to human existence is antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are medicines used to fight bacterial infections. However, bacteria are fighting back at an alarming rate. Without effective antibiotics, we could live in a world where infections borne from a simple wound could be deadly. Routine surgeries would no longer be possible. Whilst this bacterial apocalypse seems drastic, it’s a very real possibility, and one we could face in the near future.
Alexander Fleming. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Antibiotics are part of a multibillion-pound industry and are essential for life as we know it today. In 1928, the scientist Alexander Fleming, from Ayrshire in Scotland, serendipitously discovered penicillin. This chance discovery revolutionised the treatment of bacterial infections and spurred a wealth of antibiotic research. 88 years later, in the nearby town of Irvine, I started my PhD project in this field.
Penicillin is a β-lactam antibiotic, which made up of molecules containing a chemical entity known as a β-lactam. This β-lactam is a covalent warhead – a harpoon that grips its bacterial victim and doesn’t let go. This harpoon interrupts bacterial cell wall formation, causing the bacteria to rupture and die.
Maryn McKenna: What do we do when antibiotics don’t work any more? Video: TED
However, bacteria can retaliate by producing aggressive enzymes that destroy this warhead. Another member of the β-lactam family, clavulanic acid, can thwart these enzymes. Clavulanic acid has weak antibiotic activity on its own so is used in a double act with another antibiotic, amoxicillin, to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a team.
From monitoring our heart rate and generating renewable energy to keeping astronauts safe in space, a number of novel applications for carbon nanotubes have emerged in recent months.
Academic and industrial interest around carbon nanotubes (CNTs) continues to increase, owing to their exceptional strength, stiffness and electronic properties.
Over the years, this interest has mainly focused on creating products that are both stronger and lighter, for example, in the sporting goods sector, but recently many ‘quirkier’ applications are beginning to appear.
Carbon nanotubes are already used in sporting goods such as tennis racquets. Image: Steven Pisano/Flickr
At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, for example, researchers are currently working with NASA on new types of nano sensors to keep astronauts safer in space.
The Embry-Riddle team – along with colleagues at LUNA Innovations, a fibre-optics sensing company based in Virginia, US – have focused on developing and refining smart material sensors that can be used to detect stress or damage in critical structures using a particular class of CNT called ‘buckypaper’.
The next step in nanotechnology | George Tulevski. Video: TED
With buckypaper, layers of nanotubes can be loosely bonded to form a paper-like thin sheet, effectively creating a layer of thousands of tiny sensors. These sensor sheets could improve the safety of future space travel via NASA’s inflatable space habitats’ – pressurised structures capable of supporting life in outer space – by detecting potentially damaging micrometeroroids and orbital debris (MMOD).
CNTs coated on a large flexible membrane on an inflatable habitat, for instance, could accurately monitor strain and pinpoint impact from nearby MMODs.
Interested in the pharmaceutical industry and research community? Take a look at this short video to see how we bring science and business together.
The concept of a hydrogen economy is not new to anyone involved or familiar with the energy sector. Until the 1970s, hydrogen was a well-established source of energy in the UK, making up 50% of gas used. For several reasons, the sector moved on, and a recent renewed interest into the advantages of hydrogen has put the gas at the forefront in the search for green energy.
Confidence behind the viability of hydrogen was confirmed last October when the government announced a £20m Hydrogen Supply programme that aims to lower the price of low carbon hydrogen to encourage its use in industry, power, buildings, and transport.
Hydrogen - the Fuel of the Future? Video: Real Engineering
‘In a way, hydrogen is more relevant than ever, because in the past hydrogen was linked with transportation,’ UCL fuel cell researcher Professor Dan Brett explained to The Engineer. ‘But now with the huge uptake of renewables and the need for grid-scale energy storage to stabilise the energy system, hydrogen can have a real role to play, and what’s interesting about that […] is that there’s a number of things you can do with it.
‘You can turn it back into electricity, you can put it into vehicles or you can do a power-to-gas arrangement where you pump it into the gas grid.’
The field of regenerative medicine is at a ‘pivotal point’ in its development, according to a panel of experts speaking at the Bio meeting in Boston in June 2018.
The past six months alone saw four new product approvals, which could be the ‘beginning of a large number of successes’, said moderator Morrie Ruffin, Managing Director of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, which now has over 300 members.
Clinical results emerging from cell therapies over the next two years will be comparable with the successes seen with CAR-T cancer therapies, predicts Mike Scott, Vice-President of Product development at Toronto-based Blue Rock Therapeutics, whose lead product uses pluripotent stem cells to grow new neurons that restore the lost dopamine function in Parkinson’s patients.
‘The area of regenerative medicine allows us to do something audacious: to strive for cures. If you think of CAR-T and gene therapies, there’s every reason to say we can achieve the same with regenerative medicines,’ agreed Felicia Pagliuca, Co-Founder of Boston biotech company Semma Therapeutics.
Semma aims to replace the lost pancreatic beta cells of patients with Type 1 diabetes with its insulin producing equivalents grown in the lab. The technology is currently at preclinical stage.
Regenerative medicine could help to treat diseases like type 1 diabetes, in which pancreatic cells function abnormally. Image: Pixabay
Storing placental and cord blood cells at birth may no longer be necessary in the future, the researchers suggested. Traditional stem cell therapy approaches have used mesenchymal stem cells from these sources to regrow tissues and organs by differentiation into multiple cell types. However, newer technologies are increasingly making new cell types from pluripotent stem cells generated directly from adult cells such as skin.
The IHNV virus has spread worldwide and is fatal to salmon and rainbow trout – costing millions in sales of lost farmed fish. The current vaccination approach requires needle injection of fish, one by one. Now, however, Seattle-based Lumen Bioscience has come up with a new technology to make recombinant vaccines in a type of blue-green algae called Spirulina that costs pennies to produce and can be fed to fish in their feed.
To be effective, oral vaccines have not only to survive the gut environment intact but must also target the appropriate gut-associated immune cells. The approach developed by Lumen overcomes many of the problems with complex and expensive encapsulation strategies attempted in the past, according to CEO Brian Finrow.
‘[It] focuses on a new oral-vaccine platform [using] engineered Spirulina to express high amounts of target antigen in a form that is both provocative to the immune system – ie generates a desirable immune response that protects against future infection – and can be ingested orally without purification, in an organism that has been used as a safe food source for both humans and fish for decades.’
To produce the new oral vaccine, the Lumen researchers first developed a strain of Spirulina that manufactures recombinant proteins in its cell walls that the salmon immune system recognises as IHNV viruses. They then rapidly grew the strain in a large-scale indoor production system – requiring only light, water, salt and trace nutrients – and harvested and dried all the raw Spirulina biomass. This dried powder can then be fed to the fish.
Engineers say they have demonstrated a cost-effective way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The extracted CO2 could be used to make new fuels or go to storage.
The process of direct air capture (DAC) involves giant fans drawing ambient air into contact with an aqueous solution that traps CO2 . Through heating and several chemical reactions, CO2 is re-extracted and ready for further use.
‘The carbon dioxide generated via DAC can be combined with sequestration for carbon removal, or it can enable the production of carbon-neutral hydrocarbons, which is a way to take low-cost carbon-free power sources like solar or wind and channel them into fuels to decarbonise the transportation sector,’ said David Keith, founder of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian clean fuels enterprise, and a Professor of Physics at Harvard University, US.
Fuel from the Air – Sossina Haile. Video: TEDx Talks
DAC is not new, but its feasibility has been disputed. Now, Carbon Engineering reports how its pilot plant in British Columbia has been using standard industrial equipment since 2015. Keith’s team claims that a 1 Mt- CO2 /year DAC plant will cost $94-$232/ton of CO2 captured. Previous theoretical estimates have ranged up to $1000/ton.
In May 2018, the EU proposed a single-use plastics ban intended to protect the environment, save consumers money, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the new laws, the EU aims for all plastic bottles to be recycled by 2025, and non-recyclable single-use items such as straws, cutlery, and cotton buds to be banned.
An ambitious step – and arguably necessary – but there is no denying that plastics are extremely useful, versatile and important materials, playing a role in countless applications.
The World’s Plastic Waste Could Bury Manhattan Two Miles Deep: How To Reduce Our Impact. Video: TIME
The challenge to science, industry and society is to keep developing, producing and using materials with the essential properties offered by the ubiquitous oil-based plastics of today – but improving the feedstocks and end-of-life solutions, and ensuring that consumers use and dispose of products responsibly.
A number of innovative solutions have been proposed to help plastics move towards a more sustainable future.
A sweet solution
Deothymidine is one of four nucleosides that make up the structure of DNA. Image: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann/Flickr
‘Chemists have 100 years’ experience with using petrochemicals as a raw material, so we need to start again using renewable feedstocks like sugars as a base for synthetic but sustainable materials,’ said Dr Antoine Buchard, a Whorrod Research Fellow at the University of Bath, UK.
Dr Buchard leads a group at the Centre for Sustainable Technologies at the University of Bath that are searching for a sustainable solution for single-use plastics. Using nature as their inspiration, the team have developed a plastic derived from thymidine – the sugar found in DNA – and CO2.
Building roads with wastes can deliver a heap of performance as well as environmental benefits – so long as they don’t become a dumping ground for discarded products.
With an estimated value of around €16 trillion, Europe’s road network is its ‘most valuable asset’, according to the European Asphalt Pavement Association (EAPA). It’s also built on what many of us might consider a mountain of rubble.
‘Over the years, almost every conceivable waste material has been put into roads,’ said Fred Parrett, speaking at an SCI-organised event at a University College London, UK in March 2018. The list includes everything from crushed glass and incinerator ash to cellulose fibres and crumb rubber from end-of-life tyres – or even discarded plastic wastes.
But while using wastes in asphalt can potentially deliver big environmental and performance benefits, road experts warn that is not the best option for all wastes. In the UK, a recent survey by the Asphalt Industry Alliance revealed that the length of roads in England and Wales that could fail if not maintained in the next 12 months would stretch almost around the world.
Road cracks form when asphalt fatigues and the road loses its tensile strength. Image: MaxPixel
Roads start to deteriorate when the bitumen ‘glue’ that binds the aggregates together becomes harder and more brittle over time, causing potholes and cracks start to appear – a process accelerated by solar UV, oxygen, heat and cold, and particularly the freeze-thawing of water.
Bitumen additives or ‘modifiers’ help to slow this process down, but most of the traditional modifiers are expensive and derived from non-renewable fossil fuels. Bitumen substitutes made from end-of-life tyres and plastics wastes should potentially offer a cheaper, more sustainable option – but only if they improve rather than impair performance.
Traditional electronics are made from rigid and brittle materials. However, a new ‘self-healing’ electronic material allows a soft robot to recover its circuits after it is punctured, torn or even slashed with a razor blade.
Made from liquid metal droplets suspended in a flexible silicone elastomer, it is softer than skin and can stretch about twice its length before springing back to its original size.
Soft Robotics & Biologically Inspired Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. Video: Mouser Electronics
‘The material around the damaged area automatically creates new conductive pathways, which bypass the damage and restore connectivity in the circuit,’ explains first author Carmel Majidi at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The rubbery material could be used for wearable computing, electronic textiles, soft field robots or inflatable extra-terrestrial housing.
‘There is a sweet spot for the size of the droplets,’ says Majidi. ‘We had to get the size not so small that they never rupture and form electronic connections, but not so big they would rupture even under light pressure.’
For over thirty years, SCI has supported and recognised the excellence of early career people, by aiding their studies in the form of an SCI Scholarship.
Since 1985 around 74 scholarships have been awarded which have not only given the recipients financial assistance, but have enabled them to broaden their network, and strengthen their skills and knowledge. SCI Scholars receive access to publishing and mentoring opportunities and are given a platform to present their work amongst esteemed scientists and industrialists, thus raising their profile within the scientific community.
In the past ten years alone, SCI has generously bequeathed over £115,000 of its charitable funds to SCI Scholars and the scientists of the future.
Upon completing my degree I wanted to pursue a PhD which sits at the interface of two disciplines, synthetic organic chemistry and molecular biology, and the collaborative PhD programme between the University of Strathclyde and GlaxoSmithKline provided me with this opportunity. My project falls within the realm of chemical biology, a rapidly evolving discipline which has the potential to revolutionise our vision of molecular pathways and the complex mechanisms of life.
My research on the design and synthesis of photoactivatable probes to study protein-ligand interactions, aims to develop a new platform of drug discovery. I am designing a photoactivatable fragment library which has the potential to mitigate the limitations of traditional drug discovery, primarily by covering a wider chemical space with compounds of higher ligand efficiency.
Genome Editing with CRISPR-Cas9. Video: McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT
This platform could provide an alternative technique to traditional screening, by broadening the chemical space available to discover novel binding ligands, and so leading to higher quality medicines.
For my PhD I am studying surfactant migration on polymeric substrates. Surfactants are commonly used to modify the surface chemistry of many materials including polymers. In the manufacture of non-woven fabrics formed from polyethylene and polypropylene blends, which are used extensively in the personal care industry, non-ionic and cationic surfactants are commonly used to improve surface hydrophilicity via simple coating processes.
This surfactant loss process will be investigated by measuring key physicochemical properties of substrates treated with surfactants under different environmental conditions and as a function of time. The two primary objectives for the project are to confirm, quantify and visualise surfactant distributions on the surface of non-woven fabrics, and to develop a fundamental understanding of the surfactant loss process(es).
Common uses for surfactants include sanitary products and disposable nappies. Image: Shutterstock
The SCI scholarship will afford me great networking opportunities. In addition, it will help fund travel to relevant conferences such as the 8th Pacific Basin Conference on Adsorption Science and Technology to be held in September 2018 in Japan, to which I have been invited to present my work.
I am investigating important zeolite-catalysed reactions including the production of fuels and emission control from diesel exhaust gases. This work is being carried out in collaboration with Prof. Russell Howe and Prof. Andy Beale along with the Catalysis Hub and beam scientists at the Diamond Light Source (B22, UK). The synchrotron at Diamond can generate a bright infrared source that allows us to obtain detailed mechanistic insight and interpret structure activity relationships for the development of improved catalytic materials.
I’m now entering the second year of my PhD and I am really enjoying it so far. I have gained a great deal of practical experience and have recently attended the 6th International Congress on Operando Spectroscopy in Spain to learn more about this subject. Earlier this year, I gave a talk at the 4th UK Catalysis Conference in Loughborough and my first scientific paper as lead author is now in preparation.
A diesel exhaust. Image: Shutterstock
The funding and support offered by my SCI Scholarship will provide a valuable resource to help me extend my research to new areas of industrial importance and support my continual attendance at conferences and training courses relevant to my project work.
With a rapidly increasing population, the world is struggling to meet the demand for food, water, energy, and medicine. In 2011, the global population reached 7bn – approximately the amount of grains of sand you can fit it a post box, says Sir Martyn Poliakoff – and this number has since increased.
On Wednesday 25 April 2018 at his Public Evening Lecture, Sir Martyn discussed the role of photochemistry – the study of light’s effects on chemical reactions – in creating a greener and more sustainable society as essential resources deplete.
‘Chemists have to help address the sustainability challenges facing our society,’ he said. His research group at the University of Nottingham is proving that photochemistry can make an impact.
Fighting Malaria with Green Chemistry. Video: Periodic Videos
There are 1.3bn individuals in the world who are considered ‘profoundly’ poor. To define this Sir Martyn illustrated the profoundly poor ‘can, in their head, list everything they own’.
Today, there are more people worldwide that use mobile phones than toothbrushes. As no one wants to consume less, he asked: ‘Can we provide more for the poor without robbing the rich?’
Read the full article here....
The eighth in its series, the Kinase 2018: towards new frontiers 8th RSC/SCI symposium on kinase design took place at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge – a world-leading biomedical science research hub.
The focus of the event was to provide a space for the discussion of the ever-evolving kinase inhibitor landscape, including current challenges, opportunities and the road ahead.
A kinase is an enzyme that transfers phosphate groups to other proteins (phosphorylation). Typically, kinase activity is perturbed in many diseases, resulting in abnormal phosphorylation, thus driving disease. Kinases inhibitors are a class of drug that act to inhibit aberrant kinases activity.
Cell signalling: kinases & phosphorylation. Image: Phospho Biomedical Animation
Over 100 delegates from across the world working in both academia and industry attended the event, including delegates from GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Genentech, and Eli Lilly and Co.
The event boasted world-class speakers working on groundbreaking therapeutics involving kinase inhibitors, including designing drugs for the treatment of triple negative breast cancer, complications associated with diabetes, African sleeping sickness and more.
How can kinase inhibitors revolutionise cancer treatment?
Tsetse flies carry African sleeping sickness. Image: Oregon State University/Flickr
The keynote speaker, Prof Klaus Okkenhaug from Cambridge University, spoke about how the immune system can be manipulated to target and kill cancer cells by using kinase inhibitors.
Klaus is working on trying to better understand the effects of specific kinase inhibitors on the immune system in patients with blood cancer.
He also explored how his work can benefit those with APDS, a rare immunodeficiency disorder, which he helped to elucidate on a molecular level.
Solving graft rejection, one kinase at a time
Organ grafts are a surgical procedure where tissue is moved from one site in the body to another. Image: US Navy
Improving tolerance to organ grafts is at the forefront of transplantation medicine. James Reuberson from UCB Pharma UK, highlighted how kinase inhibitors can be utilised to improve graft tolerance.
James took the delegates on a journey, describing the plight of drug discovery and development, highlighting the challenges involved in creating a drug with high efficacy. While still in its infancy, James’ drug shows potential to prolong graft retention.
An innovative new screening method using cell aggregates shaped like spheres may lead to the discovery of smarter cancer drugs, a team from the Scripps Research Institute, California, US, has reported.
The 3D aggregates, called spheroids, can be used to obtain data from potentially thousands of compounds using high throughput screening (HTS). HTS can quickly identify active compounds and genes in a specific biomolecular pathway using robotics and data processing.
A spheroid under a confocal microscope. Image: Kota et al./The Scripps Research Institute
The spheroids – 100 to 600 microns thick in diameter – spread in a similar way to cancer cells in the body and are therefore more effective in identifying potential cancer drugs, the team hypothesises.
For this study, the team focused on KRAS – a gene belonging to the RAS family. It is estimated these genes account for one-third of all cancers.
Robots handle assays in a HTS system. Image: NIH/Flickr
Water scarcity is a truly global problem, affecting each continent and a total of 2.8bn people across the world. By 2025, 15% of the global population will not have access to sufficient water resources.
Water usage is expected to grow by 40% in the coming 20 years as demand grows from industry and agriculture, driven by accelerating population growth and increased urbanisation.
Insufficient water supply affects the health of children disproportionally, as a decrease in food and nutrient intake can lead to problems with growth and an individual’s immune system.
A shortage of water can lead to communities relying on poorly sanitised water, allowing infections that can cause diarrhoea and intestinal parasites. Both can be deadly in areas without access to quality healthcare.
A family in Somalia collects their daily water allowance. Image: Oxfam International/Flickr
But it is not only a scarcity of clean drinking water that presents a global health challenge – the agriculture industry relies on an increasing supply of fresh water for food production. It is estimated that the number of crops such as wheat, rice, and maize will decrease by 43% by the end of the 21st century.
Agriculture accounts for 70% of the world’s water use, and is constantly competing with domestic and industrial uses for an already dwindling water supply. The World Wide Fund for Nature claims that many countries, such as the US, China, and India, have already reached their renewable water resource limits.
Agriculture is responsible for 70% of the world’s water usage.
The most popular current desalination methods – the process by which salt and minerals are removed from water – are thermal and membrane desalination. Both are energy-intensive and often not cost-efficient for developing countries, which are the most likely to struggle with poor water sanitation and shortages.
As a result, both the healthcare and agricultural industries are desperately searching for a solution.
A graphene-oxide membrane is at the forefront of new water filtration techniques. Image: University of Manchester
In Manchester, UK, the development of graphene – a material comprised of a single-layer of carbon in a honeycomb structure – is revolutionising modern membrane desalination and water filtration techniques.
An ultra-thin graphene-oxide membrane developed at the University of Manchester is not only able to separate water and salt – proving to be completely impermeable to all solvents but water – but other compounds as well.
A reverse osmosis desalination plant. Image: James Grellier/Wikimedia Commons
The technology – called organic solvent nanofiltration – separates organic compounds by charge and can differentiate solvents by the nanometre. The group tested the membranes using alcohol, such as whisky and cognac, and various dyes with successful results.
‘The developed membranes are not only useful for filtering alcohol, but the precise sieve size and high flux open new opportunities to separate molecules from different organic solvents for chemical and pharmaceutical industries,’ said Rahul Nair, team leader at the National Graphene Institute and Professor of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science at the University of Manchester.
‘This development is particularly important because most of the existing polymer-based membranes are unstable in organic solvents, whereas the developed graphene-oxide membrane is highly stable.’
Graphene: Membranes and their practical applications. Video: The University of Manchester - The home of graphene
The graphene-oxide membrane is made up of sheets that are stacked in a way that creates pinholes connected by graphene nanochannels. The structure forms an atomic-scale sieve allowing the flow of solvents through the membrane.
Not only is the technology able to filter smaller molecules than existing filtration techniques – it also improves filtration efficiency by increasing the solvent flow rate.
‘Chemical separation is all about energy, with various chemical separation processes consuming about half of industrial energy usage,’ said Prof Nair. ‘Any new efficient separation process will minimise the consumption of energy, which is in high demand now.’
In April, EU Members States voted for a near complete ban of the use of neonicotinoid insecticides – an extension to restrictions in place since 2013. The ban, which currently includes a usage ban for crops such as maize, wheat, barley, and oats, will be extended to include others like sugar beet. Use in greenhouses will not be affected.
Some studies have argued that neonicotinoids contribute to declining honeybee populations, while many other scientists and farmers argue that there is no significant field data to support this.
In response to the recent ban, SCI’s Pest Management Science journal has made a number of related papers free to access to better inform on the pros and cons of neonicotinoids.
Like to know more about neonicotinoids? Click the links below…
Robin Blake and Len Copping discuss the recent political actions on the use of neonicotinoids in agriculture, and the UK’s hazard-based approach following field research unsupportive of an outright ban on the insecticides.
Conflicting evidence on the effects of neonicotinoids on the honeybee population has beekeepers confused and has led to the increase in the use of older insecticides, reports one beekeeper.
Following the 2013 EU partial ban on neonicotinoids, experts called for good field data to fill knowledge gaps after questioning of the validity of the original laboratory research. To encourage future debate, realistic field data is essential to discouraging studies using overdoses that are not of environmental relevance.
This paper describes the consequences of the ban on neonicotinoid seed treatments on pest management in oilseed rape, including serious crop losses from cabbage stem flea beetles and aphids that have developed resistance to other insecticides.
The Research Articles
Particle size is one of the most important properties affecting the driftability and behaviour of dust particles scraped from pesticide dressed seeds during sowing. Different species showed variable dust particle size distribution and all three techniques were not able to describe the real-size distribution accurately.
Aside from particle size, drift of scraped seed particles during sowing is mainly affected by two other physical properties – particle shape and envelope density. The impact of these abraded seed particles on the environment is highly dependable on their active ingredient content. In this study, the envelope density and chemical content of dust abraded from seeds was determined as a function of particle size for six seed species.
Substantial honey bee colony losses have occurred periodically in the last decades, but the drivers for these losses are not fully understood. Under field conditions, bee colonies are not adversely affected by a long‐lasting exposure to sublethal concentrations of thiacloprid – a popular neonicotinoid. No indications were found that field‐realistic and higher doses exerted a biologically significant effect on colony performance.
Transparent solar cells that can convert invisible light wavelengths into renewable energy could supply 40% of the US’ energy demand, a Michigan State University (MSU) engineering team have reported.
In contrast to the robust, opaque solar panels that take up a large amount of space – whether on rooftops or on designated solar farms – the transparent solar cells can be placed on existing surfaces, such as windows, buildings, phones, and any other object with a clear surface.
Traditional solar panels require large amounts of space.
‘Highly transparent solar cells represent the wave of the future for new solar cell applications,’ says Richard Lunt, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at MSU.
‘We analysed their potential and show that by harvesting only invisible light, these devices can provide a similar electricity generation potential as rooftop solar while providing additional functionality to enhance the efficiency of buildings, automobiles, and mobile electronics.’
Solar, or photovoltaic, cells convert the sun’s energy into electricity. Image: Pixabay
Currently, the cells are running at 5% efficiency, says the team, compared to traditional solar panels that have recorded efficiencies between 15-18%. Lunt believes that with further research, the capability of the transparent cells could increase three-fold.
‘That is what we are working towards,’ says Lunt. ‘Traditional solar applications have been actively researched for over five decades, yet we have only been working on these highly transparent solar cells for about five years.’
The cells can be added to any existing transparent surface, including mobile phones. Image: Max Pixel
While solar panels may be more efficient at converting energy than the group’s transparent cells, Lunt says that the latter can be easily applied to more surfaces and therefore a larger surface area, increasing the overall amount of energy produced by the cells.
‘Ultimately,’ he says, ‘this technology offers a promising route to inexpensive, widespread solar adoption on small and large surfaces that were previously inaccessible.’
Transparent solar cells. Video: Michigan State University
Together, and with further work on its efficiency, the authors of the paper believe that their see-through cells and traditional solar panels could fulfil the US’ energy needs.
‘The complimentary deployment of both technologies could get us close to 100% of our demand if we also improve energy storage,’ Lunt says.
The world’s largest agriculture companies have joined forces to invest in new and innovative technologies that will hopefully eradicate malaria by 2040. The ‘Zero by 40’ campaign was launched at the annual Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in London last week.
The programme has the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Innovative Vector Control Consortium, based in Liverpool, UK, as well as companies BASF, Bayer, and Syngenta – among others.
Mosquitos are known vectors of the malaria virus. Image: James Gathany/Centre for Disease Control
Malaria affects over 200 million people each year – most cases are found in Africa but the disease is still prevalent in South East Asia and in the Mediterranean. Although the number of cases has been slowly falling year-on-year, this progress is threatened by insecticide resistance.
It is estimated that four out of five malaria cases have been prevented through long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets (LLINs) and indoor residual spraying (IRS) techniques. The campaign is a continued sign of commitment from the agriculture industry, with companies already having produced innovative solutions to tackle the global issue.
Both Syngenta and Bayer have introduced new IRS products – either in the final stages of development or already employed across Africa. BASF has developed a new generation mosquito net with an insecticide derived from crop use to deter resistant mosquitos.
Insecticides used in agriculture are used as control mechanisms for the mosquito population.
‘Our industry collaboration, supported by our funders including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department of International Development, is starting to bear fruit and is saving lives today,’ said Nick Hamon, CEO of IVCC.
‘But we still have a long way to go to achieve our ambition of ending the disease burden of malaria by 2040,’ Hamon said. ‘This new initiative will not only secure the current supply of solutions, but will pave the way for desperately needed new forms of chemistry and new vector control tools to reduce the disease burden of malaria which still affects millions of people.’
A shortage of donor organs for transplant surgery is fueling research to develop artificial livers and hearts, but how closely do they match up to the real thing?
Liver failure due to alcohol abuse, drug overdose and hepatitis is a growing problem. In 2016, 1220 Americans died waiting for a liver transplant, with the cost of treating cirrhosis – late stage liver scarring – is estimated at nearly $10bn/year.
‘In 2017, if you have liver failure, we don’t have a backup system,’ says Fontes. ‘But my group has a potential backup system. We are not ready for prime time yet, but we’ve some really good data.’
Liver failure can be hereditary or caused by excessive drinking. Image: Pixabay
Transplant surgeon Paulo Fontes at the University of Pittsburgh, US, regularly meets patients who ask what their options are aside from a liver transplant.
His group has attempted to build a new bioartificial liver, by seeding liver cells onto a liver scaffold. However, others working in this area have so far met with little success.
Now Fontes, working at the Starzl Transplantation Institute, has hit on a different strategy: to grow mini livers in living organisms. The work is in collaboration with Eric Lagasse, a stem cell biologist at the University of Pittsburgh, who showed lymph nodes are excellent ‘bioreactors’ for growing different types of cells, including liver cells.
The liver – made up of hepatocytes – has the capacity to regenerate after surgery. Image: Ed Uthman/Flickr
Lymph nodes filter damaged cells and foreign particles out of the body’s lymph system, which transports fluids around the body. When someone is ill, T cells from the immune system move to the lymph nodes to be cloned and released back to the bloodstream en masse to take on the microbe causing the illness.
For the past five years, Fontes and Legasse have been working with large animal models, infusing hepatocytes into the lymph nodes of pigs. ‘Within two months, it is amazing, but you have mini livers in the lymph nodes,’ he explains. ‘When you compare the mini liver with normal livers, they look very similar.’
Pigs are common animal models as they have similar organ systems to humans. Image: Pixabay
The mini livers weigh a few grams and would not offer a complete replacement for failed livers, but rather a supplement of liver tissue in patients with end stage liver disease who are too sick to undergo a transplant.
‘A lot of these patients have significant heart and lung problems, so would not sustain a full transplant,’ says Fontes. ‘The idea is to sustain their life by increasing their liver mass by creating new small ectopic livers within their lymph nodes.’
Compared with artificial livers, artificial heart technology is much further along the road to the clinic. To date, around 2000 artificial hearts have been implanted in patients, with demand driven similarly by an acute shortage of donors.
‘We wanted an artificial heart very similar to the natural human heart,’ explains Nicolas Cohrs at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. ‘Our hypothesis is that when you mimic the human heart in function and form you will have fewer side effects.’
Cohrs and his colleagues aim to print their artificial hearts so that they fit precisely into an individual patient. This is not yet close to clinic, but promises a tailored heart.
‘We take a CT scan of a patient, put it in a computer file and design an artificial heart around it, so it closely resembles the patient heart,’ says Cohrs. ‘We use these 3D printers and print a mould in ABS [acrylonitrile butadiene styrene], which is the plastic Lego is made of, fill it with silicone and then dissolve the mould with acetone to leave behind the silicone heart.’
Testing a soft artificial heart. Video: ETH Zurich
The plastic heart deflates and inflates with pressurised air. The first-generation device, made from silicone, has two chambers but survived for only 2000 beats. ‘This is only half an hour, so there is a lot of improvement needed,’ adds Cohrs.
A new prototype made from a more resistant [so far, undisclosed] polymer has managed more than a million beats, which is the equivalent of 10 days for a human heart. The goal is to develop a four-chamber heart that beats for 10 years, so a lot more work is still needed.
Using 2D imaging techniques to diagnose problems with the heart can be challenging due to the constant movement of the cardiac system. Currently, when a patient undergoes a cardiac MRI scan they have to hold their breath while the scan takes snapshots in time with their heartbeat.
Still images are difficult to obtain with this traditional technique as a beating heart and blood flow can blur the picture. This method becomes trickier if the individual has existing breathing problems or an irregular heartbeat.
These problems can lead to trouble in acquiring accurate diagnostics.
Now, a team based at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in California, US, have detailed a new technique – MR Multitasking – that can resolve these issues by improving patient comfort and shortening testing time.
‘It is challenging to obtain good cardiac magnetic resonance images because the heart is beating incessantly, and the patient is breathing, so the motion makes the test vulnerable to errors,’ said Shlomo Melmed, Dean of the Cedars-Sinai Center faculty.
An MRI Scanner. Image: Wikimedia Commons
‘By novel approaches to this longstanding problem, this research team has found a unique solution to improve cardiac care for patients around the world for years to come.’
By developing what the team consider a six-dimensional imaging technique, the Center has embraced the motion of a heartbeat by capturing image data continuously – creating a product similar to a video.
‘MR Multitasking continuously acquires image data and then, when the test is completed, the program separates out the overlapping sources of motion and other changes into multiple time dimensions,’ said Anthony Christodoulou, first author and PhD researcher at the Center’s Biomedical Imaging Research Institute.
‘If a picture is 2D, then a video is 3D because it adds the passage of time,’ said Christodoulou. ‘Our videos are 6D because we can play them back four different ways: We can playback cardiac motion, respiratory motion, and two different tissue processes that reveal cardiac health.’
Your guide to a cardiac MRI. Video: British Heart Foundation
Testing ten healthy volunteers and ten cardiac patients, the team said the group found that the method was more comfortable for patients and took just 90 seconds – significantly quicker than the conventional MRI scan used in hospitals. For each of the participants, the scan produced accurate results.
The team are now looking to extend its work into MR Multitasking by focusing on other disease areas, such as cancer.
Around 700,000 people worldwide die every year from bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics. In the UK alone, that figure is at least 12,000 – more deaths than from breast cancer. And those numbers look set to rise even higher.
‘It’s not just the fact that resistance is increasing – that’s inevitable,’ says Nick Brown, Director of advocacy group, Antibiotic Action. ‘The issue is more the rate of increase in resistance, which appears to be accelerating.’
The Infectious Diseases Society of America recently reported resistance to drugs within six months of antibiotics coming onto the market, and in some cases, even before the drug goes on the market. Many bacterial strains are increasingly displaying resistance to combinations of commonly used and last-resort antibiotics.
Of 33 antibiotics in development targeting priority pathogens, just nine belong to five new antibiotic classes. Image: Public Domain Pictures
‘The end of the antibiotic era isn’t on the horizon just yet,’ Brown says. ‘But we can see it wouldn’t take much to get that way.’
Failure to tackle antibiotic-resistant superbugs could result in 10m deaths a year by 2050, according to the UK government-commissioned Review on Antimicrobial Resistance. The UN and G20 have both made political commitments to combat the problem. Nevertheless, time is running out.
‘This is an urgent and rapidly rising global health problem,’ says Ghada Zoubiane, science lead for the Wellcome Trusts’ drug-resistant infections team. ‘We need greater investment in developing new ways to treat and protect people from these deadly infections and we need better understanding of how resistance spreads.’
What causes antibiotic resistance? Video: TED-Ed
Despite calls for increased R&D, no new classes of antibiotics have been approved since the early 1980s, apart from the approval of linezolid in 2000, and the last new class to treat Gram-negative bacteria was discovered in 1962, Zoubiane says.
Big pharma withdrew en masse from the antibiotic space in the 1990s, due to the low returns on the high level of investment required in antibiotic R&D. Recognising the urgency of the problem, however, in January 2016 more than 90 pharma and biotech companies committed to enhancing antibiotic discovery.
The move has been accompanied by more research into understanding resistance mechanisms, as well as a shift to more outside-of-the-box thinking about alternative treatments.
In 2016, over $500m was invested into research into antibiotic resistance. Image: PxHere
In February 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) published its list of 12 antibiotic-resistant ‘priority pathogens’ that pose the greatest threat to human health. Most notable are the Gram-negative bacteria, which possess an additional outer cell membrane and are harder to treat with antibiotics than Gram-positive bacteria.
‘These bacteria have been assessed as the most critical priority for antibiotic R&D, as strains are emerging worldwide that cannot be treated with any of the antibiotics currently on the market,’ WHO says.
Despite the increased commitment to R&D, however, a WHO report in September 2017 lamented the ‘serious lack of new antibiotics under development’. Among the 33 new chemical entity antibiotics in development targeting priority pathogens, just nine belong to five new antibiotic classes.
There are 16 products, both antibiotics and biologics, with activity against one or more Gram-positive priority pathogens – although mostly targeting methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – including two new antibiotic classes.
Meanwhile, ‘the situation is worse for Gram-negative bacterial infections’, says WHO. Of ten products in Phase 1 trials, ‘almost all the agents are modifications of existing antibiotic classes […] active only against specific pathogens or a limited subset of resistant strains’.
The 2016 Lister Memorial Lecture: Dame Sally Davies on Global antiiotic resistance. Video: SCI
WHO warns that ‘more investment is needed in basic science, drug discovery and clinical development, especially for the critical priority Gram-negative carbapenem-resistant pathogens P. aeruginosa, A. baumannii, and Enterobacteriaceae.’
‘We need to find a strategy not to overcome resistance, but to be able to live with and manage it,’ Brown reflects. ‘I’m more optimistic than some. It’s important to remember that before antibiotics were discovered, the human race didn’t die out.’
Antimicrobial drug discovery
Renewables outstripped coal power for the first time in electricity generation in Europe in 2017, according to a new report. The European Power Sector in 2017 – by think-tanks Sandbag and Agora Energiewende – predicts renewables could provide half of Europe’s electricity by 2030.
Wind, solar and biomass generation collectively rose by 12% in 2017 – to 679 Terawatt hours – generating 21% of Europe’s electricity and contributing to 30% of the energy mix. ‘This is incredible progress considering just five years ago coal generation was more than twice that of wind, solar and biomass,’ the report says.
Hydroelectric power is the most popular renewable energy source worldwide. Image: PxHere
However, growth is variable. The UK and Germany alone contributed to 56% of the expansion in the past three years. There is also a ‘bias’ for wind, with a 19% increase in 2017, due to good wind conditions and huge investments, the report says.
‘This is good news now the biomass boom is over, but bad news in that solar was responsible for just 14% of the renewables growth in 2014 to 2017.’
New analysis by trade group WindEurope backs up the findings on wind power, showing that countries across Europe installed more offshore capacity than ever before: 3.14GW. This corresponds to 560 new offshore wind turbines across 17 wind farms. Fourteen projects were fully completed and connected to the grid, including the first floating offshore wind farm. Europe now has a total installed offshore wind capacity of 15.78GW.
The EU’s 2030 goals for climate and energy. Video: European Commission
Germany remains top of the European league, with the largest total installed wind-power capacity; worth 42% of the EU’s new capacity in 2017, followed by Spain, the UK, and France. Denmark boasts the largest share of wind in its power mix at 44% of electricity demand.
The Concorde was the first commercial supersonic aircraft to have been built. Image: Wikimedia Commons
In 2011, a chance encounter under the wings of Concorde at Duxford Air Museum, Cambridge, with Trinity College Dublin Professor Johnny Coleman, would set in motion a series of events that would lead, six years later, to the development of a 20t/year graphene manufacturing plant.
As soon as we got talking, I was impressed by Johnny’s practical, non-nonsense approach to solving the scalability issue with graphene production.
Coleman is a physicist, not a chemist, and believed that the solution lay in mechanical techniques. Following the conference, Thomas Swan agreed to fund his group for four years to develop a scalable process for the manufacture of graphene.
Just a nanometer thick, graphene consists of a single layer of carbon atoms joined in a hexagonal lattice. Image: Pixabay
Coleman and his team initially considered sonication – when sound waves are applied to a sample to agitate its particles – but quickly ruled it out due to its lack of scalability. He then sent one of his researchers out to the shops to buy a kitchen blender. They threw together some graphite, water, and a squirt of washing-up liquid into the blender, switched it on, and went for a cup of coffee.
When they later analysed the ‘grey soup’ they had created, they found they had successfully made few-layer graphene platelets. The group then spent months optimising the technique and worked closely with Thomas Swan scientists to transfer the process back to Thomas Swan’s manufacturing HQ in Consett, Ireland.
Graphene is 300 times stronger than steel.
The plant can make up to 20t/year of high quality graphene. It uses a high sheer continuous process to exfoliate graphite flakes into few-layer graphene platelets in an aqueous dispersion.
The dispersion is stabilised by adding various surfactants before separating out the graphene using continuous cross-flow filtration devices developed with the support of the UK’s Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult – a government initiative focused on fostering innovation and economic growth in specific research areas.
Using sticky tape, scientists pulled off graphene sheets from a block of graphite. Image: Pixabay
This de-risking of process development using a Catapult is a classic example of effective government intervention to support innovative SMEs. CPI not only showed us it worked, but also optimised the technique for us.
The company quickly realised that selling graphene in a powder form with no application data was not going to work. Instead, we developed a range of performance data to assist the sales team by highlighting what graphene can do if adopted into a range of applications.
The potential of graphene can be commercialised using composites. Video: The University of Manchester – The home of graphene
We also moved to make the product available in ‘industry friendly’ forms such as epoxy resin dispersions or polymer masterbatches. This move, slightly downstream from the raw material, has recently led to Thomas Swan announcing its intention to expand its range of formulated graphene materials, with a prototype product focusing on the manufacture of a carbon fibre composite.
Our application data shows that graphene has significant benefits as an industrial additive. Presenting this data to composite-using downstream customers is starting to open doors and create supply chain partnerships to get a raw material all the way to a fully integrated application.
Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of graphene. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The move downstream, to develop useable forms of graphene, is common in the industry, with most graphene suppliers now making their products available as an ink, dispersion or masterbatch. Thomas Swan’s experience with single-wall carbon nanotubes has made us aware of the need to take more control of graphene application development to ensure rapid market adoption.
Graphene applications drawing most interest include composites, conductive inks, battery materials, and resistive heating panels, although much of this demand is to satisfy commercial R&D rather than full commercial production.
Graphene science | Mikael Fogelström | TEDxGöteborg. Video: TEDx Talks
Thanks to innovations like our continuous high sheer manufacturing process, Thomas Swan believes that graphene is about to become very easy to make. Before it can be considered a commodity, however, it will also need to deliver real value in downstream applications. Therefore, the company is also increasing its efforts to understand market driven demand and application development.
As the initial hype over the ‘wonder’ material graphene starts to wane, progress is being made to develop scalable manufacturing techniques and to ensure graphene delivers some much-promised benefits to downstream applications.
Renewable energy has long been known as a greener alternative to fossil fuels, but that doesn’t mean that the former has no negative environmental impacts. Hydropower, for instance, has been known to reduce biodiversity in the land used for its systems.
Now, a team of Norwegian-based researchers have developed a methodology that quantifies the environmental effects of hydropower electricity production.
Ulla-Førre – Norway’s largest hydropower station.
Martin Dorber, PhD candidate in Industrial Ecology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), is part of the team that developed the analytic tool. ‘Some hydropower reservoirs may look natural at first. However, they are human-influenced and if land has been flooded for their creation, this may impact terrestrial ecosystems,’ he said,
The Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA, can be used by industry and policymakers to identify the trade-offs associated with current and future hydropower projects. Norway is one of the top hydropower producers in the world, with 95% of its domestic electricity production coming from hydropower.
Generations inside the Hoover Dam station. Image: Richard Martin/Flickr
Many hydropower facilities include a dam – many purpose-built for hydropower generation – which stores fresh water from lakes or rivers in a reservoir.
Reducing biodiversity in the areas where hydropower development is being considered is one of the main disadvantages of the renewable source. Reduced freshwater habitats and water quality, and land flooding are among the damaging effects – all of which are difficult to assess, says the team.
‘Land use and land use change is a key issue, as it is one of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss, because it leads to loss and degradation of habitat for many species,’ said Dorber.
Hydropower development can be damaging to freshwater habitats. Image: Pexels
Using reservoir surface area data from the Norwegian Water Resources and Water Resources Directorate and satellite images from the NASA-USGS Global Land Survey, the team were able to create a life cycle inventory that showed the amount of land needed to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity.
‘By dividing the inundated land area with the annual electricity production of each hydropower reservoir, we calculated site-specific net land occupation values for the life cycle inventory,’ said Dorber.
‘While it’s beyond the scope of this work, our approach is a crucial step towards quantifying impacts of hydropower electricity production on biodiversity for life cycle analysis.’
While this study is exclusive to hydropower reservoirs in Norway, the team believe this analysis could be adopted by other nations looking to extend their hydropower development and assess the potential consequences.
Pumped-storage hydropower. Video: Statkraft
‘We have shown that remote sensing data can be used to quantify the land use change caused by hydropower reservoirs,’ said Dorber. ‘At the same time our results show that the land use change differs between hydropower reservoirs.’
‘More reservoir-specific land use change assessment is a key component that is needed to quantify the potential environmental impacts.’
Combatting malnutrition in all its forms – overweight and obesity as well as undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies – is a global problem.
The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) recently published a report calling for urgent action on food and nutrition security: this action will need to include consideration of the options for changing European diets to mitigate climate change, conferring co-benefits for health.
The European Commission estimates 51.6% of the EU’s population is overweight. Image: Tony Alter/Flickr
EASAC brings together EU member states’ national science academies with the aim of offering evidence-based advice to European policy makers. EASAC provides a means for the collective voice of European science to be heard and its recent report is part of a global project led by the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP).
The analysis and recommendations for Europe are accompanied by parallel activities focusing on Africa, Asia and the Americas. The IAP report will be published later in 2018.
EASAC recommendations will incorporate global challenges and needs, not just those in Europe. Image: Pixabay
In the EASAC report we emphasise that research and innovation are central to finding solutions. We recommend being more ambitious in identifying and using scientific opportunities: How can the current evidence base shape understanding of both supply- and demand-side challenges? And how should the research agenda be defined, including basic research, to fill knowledge gaps?
Climate change will have negative impacts on food systems, necessitating the introduction of climate-smart agriculture such as the adoption of plant breeding innovations to cope with drought.
Climate-Smart Agriculture in Action. Video: Farming First
Agriculture and current diets also contribute significantly to climate change. Mitigating this contribution depends on land-sparing and agronomic management practices together with efforts to influence consumer behaviours associated with excessive greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, including the over-consumption of calories and meat.
Among the core findings in our report is that food consumption will need to change to improve consumer health. It is important to explore individual responsiveness to nutrition and the links to health, and to consider the particular needs of vulnerable groups.
High meat production has been linked to increasing carbon emissions. Image: Pixabay
As part of the changes to food consumption patterns, a decrease in the consumption of animal protein could be important for both health and the environment but, globally, more research is needed to clarify these relationships and to measure sustainability related to consumption of healthy diets. We also call for policy makers to introduce incentives for affordable nutrition.
Agriculture has significant impacts on the environment. We call for the revamp of the Common Agricultural Policy to focus on innovation rather than subsidies, in order to play a key role in European competitiveness and the bioeconomy.
Alternatives to traditional forms of animal protein include food from the oceans, laboratory-grown meat and insects. Research is needed to understand and inform consumer attitudes to innovative food and diets.
Also, research objectives for the next generation of biofuels should include examining the potential of cellulosic raw materials. Further ahead, energy research must continue to explore how to engineer systems with improved photosynthesis.
Biofuels are derived from common crops, including wheat, corn and sugar. Image: Public Domain Pictures
Europe should not stall on opportunities for innovation coming within range. Breakthroughs in genome editing and other genetic research are crucial to the future of agriculture. European policy makers must capitalise on these scientific advances.
For improved plant and animal breeding, it is important to protect and characterise wild gene pools and to continue sequencing and functional assessment to unveil the potential of genetic resources. Precision agriculture offers many opportunities to improve productivity with reduced environmental impact. Large data sets are vital to support innovation and prepare for risk and uncertainty.
Open-source automated precision farming | Rory Aronson | TEDxUCLA. Video: TEDx Talks
Underpinning all our recommendations is the recognition that research and innovation must be better integrated, across disciplines and the public and private sectors, in order to better understand the interfaces between health, nutrition, food and other ecosystem services.
EASAC emphasises that efforts to increase food systems’ efficiency should not focus on increasing agricultural productivity by ignoring environmental costs.
Researchers at the University of Waterloo, Canada, have developed an innovative method for capturing renewable natural gas from cow and pig manure for use as a fuel for heating homes, powering industry, and even as a replacement for diesel fuel in trucks.
It is based on a process called methanation. Biogas from manure is mixed with hydrogen, then run through a catalytic converter, producing methane from carbon dioxide in the biogas through a chemical reaction.
A biogas plant. Image: Pixabay
The researchers claim that power could be taken from the grid at times of low demand or generated on-site via wind or solar power to produce the hydrogen.
The renewable natural gas produced would yield a large percentage of the manure’s energy potential and efficiently store electricity, while emitting a fraction of the gases produced when the manure is used as a fertiliser.
‘The potential is huge,’ said David Simakov, Professor of Chemical Engineering at Waterloo. 'There are multiple ways we can benefit from this single approach.’
See a Farm Convert Pig Poop Into Electricity. Video: National Geographic
Using a computer model of a 2,000-head dairy farm in Ontario, which already collects manure and converts it into biogas in anaerobic digesters before burning it in generators, the researchers tested the concept.
They estimated that a $5-million investment in a methanation system would have a five-year payback period, taking government subsidies for renewable natural gas into account.
'This is how we can make the transition from fossil-based energy to renewable energy using existing infrastructure, which is a tremendous advantage,’ Simakov said.
Images of turtles trapped in plastic packaging or a fish nibbling on microfibres pull on the heartstrings, yet many scientists studying plastics in the oceans remain open-minded on the long-term effects.
While plastics shouldn’t be in our oceans, they say there is still insufficient evidence to determine whether microplastics – the very tiniest plastic particles, usually defined as being less than 1mm in diameter – are actually harmful.
It is estimated that over 1,000 turtles die each year from plastic waste. Image: NOAA Marine Debris Program
On top of this, there is debate over how much plastic is actually in the sea and why so much of it remains hidden from view. Much of the research carried out to date is in its early stages – and has so far produced no definitive answers.
‘My concern is that we have to provide the authorities with good data, so they can make good decisions,’ says Torkel Gissel Nielsen, Technical University of Denmark (DTU). ‘We need strong data – not just emotions.’
Searching the sea
Plastic shopping bags can be degraded into microplastics that litter the oceans. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Gissel Nielsen leads a team of researchers who discovered that levels of microplastics in the Baltic Sea have remained constant over the past three decades, despite rising levels of plastics production and use.
The study – by researchers at DTU Aqua, the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Geomar, Germany – analysed levels of microplastics in fish and water samples from the Baltic Sea, taken between 1987 and 2015.
‘The result is surprising,’ says Nielsen. ‘There is the same amount of plastic in both the water and the fish when you go back 30 years.’ He claims that previous studies of microplastics levels were ‘snapshots’, while this is the first time levels have been studied over a longer period.
The UK introduced a ban in January this year of the sale and manufacture of products containing microbeads. Image: MPCA Photos
‘The study raises a number of questions, such as where the plastic has gone,’ he says. ‘Does it sink to the bottom, are there organisms that break it down, or is it carried away by currents? Some is in the sediment, some is in the fish, but we need to find out exactly how much plastic is there.’
In the study, more than 800 historical samples of fish were dissected and researchers found microplastics in around 20% of them. This laborious process involved diluting the stomach contents in order to remove ‘organic’ materials, then checking the filtered contents under a microscope to determine the size and concentration of plastics. It illustrates the difficulty of quantifying plastics in any sample, says Gissel Nielsen.
‘You must remove the biology to get a clear view of the plastics,’ he says.
Just as rivers supply the sea with water, they also act as a source of pollution. Researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), Germany, found that 10 large rivers are responsible for transporting 90% of plastic waste into the sea.
The team collected pre-published data on plastics in rivers and collated it with upstream sites of ‘mismanaged’ plastics waste – municipal waste that is uncollected.
‘The more mismanaged plastic waste there was, the more you found in the river,’ says Christian Schmidt, UFZ. ‘There was an empirical relationship between the two.’
The Yangtze river (pictured in Shanghai, China) is the main polluter of plastic in the ocean in the world. Image: Pedro Szekely/Flickr
Eight of these 10 rivers are in Asia, while the other two are in Africa. All of them flow through areas of high population.
‘Countries like India and China have seen huge economic growth – and now use large amounts of plastic food packaging and bottles – but have limited waste collection systems,’ he says. The data include both microplastic and ‘macro’ plastics – but microplastics data dominate ‘because scientists are more interested in that’, says Schmidt.
Plastic Ocean. Video: United Nations
While it is important to measure how much plastic is in the environment, Schmidt believes that the next step of his research will be more important – understanding the journey the plastics make from the river to the sea.
For all the uncertainty and debate over how much plastic is in the sea – and what harm it can do – one thing is clear. Future research is likely to focus more on the plastics that we can’t see, rather than the items we can.
It’s well known that the oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb increasing amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Now, German researchers say they have found the first evidence that this is happening in freshwaters, too, with potentially widespread effects on ecosystems.
‘Many current investigations describe tremendous effects of rising CO2 levels on marine ecosystems,’ says Linda Weiss at Ruhr-University Bochum: acidic oceans can have major impacts on marine food webs, nutrient cycles, overall productivity and biodiversity. ‘However, freshwater ecosystems have been largely overlooked,’ she adds.
Waters with high acidity have reduced biodiversity.
Weiss and colleagues looked at four freshwater reservoirs in Germany. Their analysis of data over 35 years – from 1981 to 2015 – confirmed a continuous increase in CO2, measured as the partial pressure or pCO2, and an associated decrease in pH of about 0.3, suggesting that freshw