We need to create more diverse paths into research and scientific innovation. Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, explains how industry clusters and a change of mindset could help.
What do you picture when someone mentions a chemist? Maybe you see someone like you working in a lab or office with your colleagues.
But what do people at the bus stop think? What would a secondary school student say? Do they see someone like them – or do they imagine an Einstein-like figure hidden away in a dark room with crazed hair and test tubes?
One of the most interesting messages from Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser’s Fuelling the Future: science, society and the research and innovation system talk on 29 September was the need to make sure science and technology are seen as viable careers for people throughout society.
Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser
You don’t need to be a genius to work in research and innovation. You don’t necessarily need to be a specialist, and you certainly don’t need to be hunched over a microscope with a jumble of figures and formulae on a board behind you. An array of different people, technical and non-technical, are needed to make the sector thrive.
Part of Dame Ottoline’s job as Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is to improve access to these sectors and to make sure that great ideas aren’t lost due to daunting entry barriers.
‘It’s a huge challenge,’ she said. ‘A large part of the challenge is the narrow concept that we all have of what a researcher and innovator look like.’
Leyser spoke about the need to create diverse routes through the system rather than squeezing everyone through the same narrow path. ‘The assessment criteria we use for individuals have become narrower and narrower,’ she added. ‘Some of it, ironically, is to make the system fairer, but objectivity in creativity is a total pipe dream. You end up crushing creativity by narrowing the criteria.’
She noted that those with mixed careers – interwoven with varied experiences – are to be welcomed. ‘That’s nothing to do with compromising excellence,’ she said. ‘Real excellence comes in multiple forms.’
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However, Leyser also spoke of the need to level up the UK from a productivity perspective. One way to do this is through smart specialisation and industry clusters. She mentioned Lincoln as an area where this approach worked well. Lincoln is home to extensive agriculture and the multinational technology corporation Siemens. As such, it made sense to help make it a centre for agricultural robotics.
UKRI is investing heavily in research and innovation into Net Zero energy solutions.
As the largest public funder of research and innovation in the UK, UKRI has a major role to play in funding such industry clusters and intelligent innovation. It has funded more than 54,000 researchers and innovators, and UKRI grants have generated almost 900 spinouts since 2004.
These include Oxford Nanopore, a biotech company whose DNA sequencing technology is now valued at £2.5bn. It has also cast an eye on the future, including delivering more than £1bn in R&D relevant to Artificial Intelligence and in excess of £1bn towards Net Zero energy solutions.
Leyser noted that the UKRI’s goal is to embed research and innovation more broadly across society – for it to be ‘by the people and for the people, rather than the exclusive domain of the privileged few’.
It is a grand challenge, but such sentiments are certainly encouraging.
SCI was pleased to support #BlackInChem, working alongside our Corporate Partners and members to amplify the voices of our Black chemists.
We have heard stories from several Black chemists who highlighted the steps being taken by many companies to increase diversity. But we can also see that there are many more steps that can be taken to encourage the next generation of budding Black chemists and scientists.
#BlackInChem has had support from Scott Bader, an SCI Corporate Partner, with both Damilola Adebayo and Luyanda Mbongwa sharing their perspectives as employees of Scott Bader. Elsewhere, Cláudio Laurenço gave a compelling account of his journey to become a post-doctoral research associate at a leading consumer goods company.
Cláudio Laurenço worked for free and was overlooked before eventually securing his PhD and starting his career in chemistry.
These chemists are following in the footsteps of some pioneering Black scientists such as Percy Lavone Julian, who has been profiled on the SCI Blog.
Many organisations have expressed their support and shared thoughts on what steps they are taking to encourage and ensure diversity. Indeed, #BlackInChem is a global effort and companies such as GSK have shown their support as well as numerous Black chemists talking about their experiences and achievements over the last week.
Percy Lavon Julian’s pioneering work enabled a step-change in the treatment of glaucoma | Editorial credit: spatuletail / Shutterstock.com
Over the coming months, we will be profiling other Black chemists, past and present, and continuing the dialogue around diversity.
For Cláudio Lourenço, the path from student to multidisciplinary scientist has been far from smooth. The Postdoctoral Research Associate reflects on the institutional challenges that almost made him give up, the mentor whose support was so important, and the barriers that block the way for young Black chemists.
Please give a brief outline of your role.
I work for a leading consumer goods company. I am a multi-disciplinary scientist contributing to the development of novel formulations for household products.
Why are you supporting #BlackInChem?
I’m supporting #BlackInChem because I am a champion for diversity. I believe that what we see from our windows in the street is what we must have inside our workplaces. In an ideal world we should all have the same opportunities, but unfortunately this is somehow far from the truth. We need to motivate our young Black chemists to aim for a career in science by providing welcoming environments and real opportunities instead of just ticking boxes. We need to showcase our Black chemists to show to the younger generation that they can also be one of us.
What was it that led you to study chemistry and ultimately develop a career in this field? Was this your first choice?
I have always been passionate about research and science. My father had a pharmacy, so I was always close to chemistry and was a very curious child. Yes, it was my first choice but the lack of opportunities and trust from universities and scholarship providers made it a long run. My motivation faded and I nearly gave up.
Was there any one person or group of people who had a specific impact on your decision to pursue your career path?
Yes, but after my degree I nearly gave up. It took me nearly two years and changing cities to find something (a voluntary position). I was always keen on taking up mentors to show me how to progress in my career. There were a few people who helped me by training me and teaching me how to navigate the scientific world and pursue a career in science.
I only got my first job (which I worked for free) because of Peter Stambrook, an American scholar from the University of Cincinnati, who I met through a friend while polishing glasses in a restaurant. This man was open and keen to put a word in for me at a leading university in the UK. He taught me so much on how to be a scientist and humbly grow up and make a career in science. Eventually, all his advice kept me on the right path.
What impact would you like to see #BlackInChem have over the coming year?
More Black students in postgraduate courses and an increase in role models to motivate the younger generations to pursue careers in chemistry.
Could you outline the route that you took to get to where you are now, and how you were supported?
Personally, my career path was far from easy. I only managed to get my PhD at 38 years of age. I needed to first prove myself. Despite all my efforts and dozens of applications, I was never considered a good candidate. I needed to work for free for two years to land a proper job in my field of choice. During that time I took on many odd jobs to support myself. I worked for a top 10 university for free and they never saw my worth or gave me an opportunity. With that experience I landed a proper job at a leading pharmaceutical company. After one year with them, they funded my PhD studies and now here I am with a career in science.
Considering your own career route, what message do you have for people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Never ever give up - it is possible. Look for the right mentors and be humble. You do not need to reinvent the wheel, but only to find someone who can lend you theirs. Learn to grow from the experiences of others and be ready to fail a couple of times - we all do. Be open to learn and never be afraid of following your dreams.
What do you think are the specific barriers that might be preventing young black people from pursuing chemistry/science?
I think one of the biggest barriers that prevent people from pursuing careers in science is the lack of role models. If we only show advertisements for chemistry degrees with White people, it’s not encouraging for Black students to pursue a career there. The same goes for when we visit universities; role models are needed. No one wants to be the only Black person in the department. Universities need to embrace diversity at all levels. I understand that tradition sometimes prevents this, but we need to change and ignore tradition for a bit.
What steps do you think can be taken by academia and businesses to increase the number of Black people studying and pursuing chemistry/science as a career?
Showcase Black chemists and inventors to motivate the younger generations and show society that Black people are not only artists and musicians. Target extracurricular activities in schools where children are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Train your staff to be open. Create cultural events that not only target Black people but also for other people to learn and see that in the end we are all equal. We all need to learn to embrace our differences and grow together.
>> As we celebrate #BlackinChem, we mark the achievements of some inspirational chemists. Read more about the amazing career of Percy Lavon Julian.
This week SCI is joining with business and academia to mark #BlackInChem, an initiative to advance and promote a new generation of Black chemists.
Over the coming weeks, we shall be profiling past and present Black chemists, many of whom are unsung heroes, and whose work established the foundations on which some of our modern science is built. We start with the outstanding contribution made by Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975).
Born on 11 April 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, US, Percy L Julian was the son of a clerk at the United State Post Office and a teacher. He did well at school, and even though there were no public high schools for African Americans in Montgomery, he was accepted at DePauw University, Indiana, in 1916.
Due to segregation Julian had to live off campus, even struggling initially to find somewhere that would serve him food. As well as completing his studies, he worked to pay his college expenses. Excelling in his studies, he graduated with a BA in 1920.
Julian wanted to study chemistry, but with little encouragement to continue his education, based on the fact there were few job opportunities, he found a position as a chemistry instructor at Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee.
In 1922 Julian won an Austin Fellowship to Harvard University and received his MA in 1923. With no job offers forthcoming, he served on the staff of predominantly Black colleges, first at West Virginia State College and in 1928 as head of the department of chemistry at Howard University.
In 1929 Julian received a Rockefeller Foundation grant and the chance to earn his doctorate in chemistry. He studied natural products chemistry with Ernst Späth, an Austrian chemist, at the University of Vienna and received his PhD in 1931. He returned to Howard University, but it is said that internal politics forced him to leave.
Physostigmine was synthesised by Julian
Julian returned to DePauw University as a research fellow during 1933. Collaborating with fellow chemist and friend Josef Pikl, he completed research, in 1935, that resulted in the synthesis of physostigmine. His work was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Physostigmine, an alkaloid, was only available from its natural source, the Calabar bean, the seed of a leguminous plant native to tropical Africa. Julian’s research and synthesis process made the chemical readily available for the treatment of glaucoma. It is said that this development was the most significant chemical research publication to come from DePauw.
Once the grant funding had expired, and despite efforts of those who championed his work, the Board of Trustees at DePauw would not allow Julian to be promoted to teaching staff. He left to pursue a distinguished career in industry. It is said that he was denied one particular position as a town law forbid ‘housing of a Negro overnight.’ Other companies are also said to have rejected him because of his race.
However, in 1936 he was offered a position as director of research for soya products at Glidden in Chicago. Over the next 18 years, the results of his soybean protein research produced numerous patents and successful products for Glidden. These included a paper coating and a fire-retardant foam used widely in World War II to extinguish gasoline fires. Julian’s biomedical research made it possible to produce large quantities of synthetic progesterone and hydrocortisone at low cost.
Percy Lavon Julian | Editorial credit: spatuletail / Shutterstock.com
By 1953 Julian Laboratories had been established, an enterprise that he went on to sell for more than $2 million in 1961. He then established the Julian Research Institute, a non-profit research organisation. In 1967 he was appointed to the DePauw University Board of Trustees, and in 1973 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the second African American to receive the honour.
He was also widely recognised as a steadfast advocate of human rights. Julian continued his private research studies and served as a consultant to major pharmaceutical companies until his death on 19 April 1975. Percy Lavon Julian is commemorated at DePauw University with the Percy L Julian Science and Mathematics Center named in his honour. During 1993 the United States Postal Service commemorated Julian on a stamp in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to science and society.
Every day, there are subtle signs that machine learning is making our lives easier. It could be as simple as a Netflix series recommendation or your phone camera automatically adjusting to the light – or it could be something even more profound. In the case of two recent machine-learning developments, these advances could make a tangible difference to both microscopy, cancer treatment, and our health.
The first is an artificial intelligence (AI) tool that improves the information gleaned from microscopic images. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg have used this deep machine learning to enhance the accuracy and speed of analysis.
The tool uses deep learning to extract as much information as possible from data-packed images. The neural networks retrieve exactly what a scientist wants by looking through a huge trove of images (known as training data). These networks can process tens of thousands of images an hour whereas some manual methods deliver about a hundred a month.
Machine learning can be used to follow infections in a cell.
In practice, this algorithm makes it easier for researchers to count and classify cells and focus on specific material characteristics. For example, it can be used by companies to reduce emissions by showing workers in real time whether unwanted particles have been filtered out.
“This makes it possible to quickly extract more details from microscope images without needing to create a complicated analysis with traditional methods,” says Benjamin Midtvedt, a doctoral student in physics and the main author of the study. “In addition, the results are reproducible, and customised. Specific information can be retrieved for a specific purpose."
The University of Gothenburg tool could also be used in health care applications. The researchers believe it could be used to follow infections in a cell and map cellular defense mechanisms to aid the development of new medicines and treatments.
Machine learning by colour
On a similar thread, machine learning has been used to detect cancer by researchers from the National University of Singapore. The researchers have used a special dye to colour cells by pH and a machine learning algorithm to detect the changes in colour caused by cancer.
The researchers explain in their APL Bioengineering study that the pH (acidity level) of a cancerous cell is not the same as that of a healthy cell. So, you can tell if a cell is cancerous if you know its pH.
With this in mind, the researchers have treated cells with a pH-sensitive dye called bromothymol blue that changes colour depending on how acidic the solution is. Once dyed, each cell exudes its unique red, green, and blue fingerprint.
By isolating a cell’s pH, researchers can detect the presence of cancer.
The authors have also trained a machine learning algorithm to map combinations of colours to assess the state of cells and detect any worrying shifts. Once a sample of the cells is taken, medical professionals can use this non-invasive method to get a clearer picture of what is going on inside the body. And all they need to do all of this is an inverted microscope and a colour camera.
“Our method allowed us to classify single cells of various human tissues, both normal and cancerous, by focusing solely on the inherent acidity levels that each cell type tends to exhibit, and using simple and inexpensive equipment,” said Chwee Teck Lim, one of the study’s authors.
“One potential application of this technique would be in liquid biopsy, where tumour cells that escaped from the primary tumour can be isolated in a minimally invasive fashion from bodily fluids.”
The encouraging sign for all of us is that these two technologies are but two dots on a broad canvas, and machine learning will enhance analysis. There are certainly troubling elements to machine learning but anything that helps hinder disease is to be welcomed.
Machine Learning-Based Approach to pH Imaging and Classification of Single Cancer Cells:
Quantitative Digital Microscopy with Deep Learning:
Chemists have created a new type of artificial cell that can communicate with other parts of the body. A study, published in Science Advances this month, describes a new type of artificial cell that can communicate with living cells.
“This work begins to bridge the divide between more theoretical ‘what is cellular life’ type of work and applicative, useful technologies,” said Sheref Mansy, Chemistry Professor at the University of Alberta and co-author of the study.
The artificial cells are made using an oil-water emulsion, and they can detect changes within their environments and respond by releasing protein signals to influence surrounding cells. This work is the first that can chemically communicate with and influence natural living cells. They started with bacteria, later moving to multicellular organisms.
“In the future, artificial cells like this one could be engineered to synthesizes and deliver specific therapeutic molecules tailored to distinct physiological conditions or illnesses–all while inside the body,” explained Sheref Mansy, professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Chemistry,
Though the initial study was undertaken using a specific signalling system, the cells have applications in therapeutic use, going beyond traditional smart-drug delivery systems and allowing for an adaptable therapeutic.
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.
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.
Momentum for a post-pandemic ‘green recovery’ continues, as the UK government and the European Commission set out steps to accelerate their recoveries, while supporting the paths to net zero by 2050. Here we round-up just some of the initiatives announced in recent weeks to achieve these goals.
Human hands holding earth globe and tree
Plans for preservation of biodiversity
Speaking on the 3rd June 2020, at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Economic and Environmental Committee Meeting, the UK’s Second Secretary from the UK Delegation, Justin Addison, said; ‘As we recover, we have an opportunity to protect and restore nature, reducing our exposure to deadly viruses and climate impact.’
Highlighting the UK’s global outlook on addressing climate change, Addison added, ‘The UK will soon announce a £64 million package to support Colombia to tackle deforestation and build a cleaner and more resilient economy in areas affected by Covid-19 and conflict.’
As well as the UK’s efforts to preserve biodiversity, the European Commission will be looking to protect and restore biodiversity and natural ecosystems. Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s Executive Vice President added that, ‘It can boost our resilience and prevent the emergence and spread of future virus outbreaks. We have now seen that this relationship between us and the natural environment is key to our health.’
Earth held in human hands
Enabling low-carbon solutions and boosting clean growth
In early June, a letter was sent to decision-makers across the European Union from more than 100 investors, urging the EU to ensure a green recovery from the covid-19 pandemic is delivered.
Investors are keen to ensure the government builds on The European Green deal to deliver a long term commitment that will accelerate the economy into one that is more green and carbon resilient post coronavirus.
The European Green deal, set out before the pandemic, details some of their targets including, a 50-55% emissions reduction by 2030; a climate law to reach net-zero emissions by 2050; a transition fund worth €100bn and a series of new sector policies to ensure all industries are able to decarbonise.
A shoot of a plant and planet Earth
To boost clean growth, the UK Government has recently launched a £40 million Clean Growth Fund that will ‘supercharge green start-ups’.
This fund will enable UK clean growth start-ups to scale up low-carbon solutions and drive a green economic recovery.
Potential examples of projects the fund could support include areas in power and energy, buildings, transport and waste.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: ‘This pioneering new fund will enable innovative low-carbon solutions to be scaled up at speed, helping to drive a green and resilient economic recovery.’
In this third article in our ‘How to…’ series, we reflect on what we learned from Martin Curry, STEM Healthcare, in his training session on managing the money.
What is a profit and loss table?
A table detailing all business transactions showing all incoming and outgoing cash activity. This will inform potential investors and credit sources how your business will generate its income and manage its costs. Documenting this information is important to show the progression (improvement) over a period and to forecast whether your business is set to make a future profit or loss.
So why is forecasting important?
A profit and loss table give businesses an idea of where the business is headed financially.
If your forecast suggests that profit levels will be low and therefore capital will be limited, it can help you to become more cautious with your credit and supply chain arrangements. Having this level of insight can help you to manage your risks and allow you to rethink your strategy in order to reduce loss and increase profitability.
Monitoring your manufacturing costs is critical in order to represent the efficiency of the production process. There are two types of costs: fixed and variable.
Fixed: rent, rates, employee, insurance,
Variable: raw materials, transport, utilities,
Keeping track of the manufacturing costs will allow you to review the expenses associated with all the resources spent in the process of making the finished goods. To maximise the productivity of each unit of materials you use in the manufacturing process, ensure you review your procedures, materials and ensure waste is reduced to its minimum during the process.
Awareness of the market is key to impressing potential investors; knowing what the key drivers are and understanding the risks and the market demand. Having this information enables you to provide evidence that you can effectively evaluate the commerciality of the project.
In summary, investors will be able to learn a great deal from the financial figures of a business. Thus, preparing a profit and loss account (detailing the business transactions) is critical to providing an insight of the business’s overall position within the market.
On 6 December 2019 SCI held its entrepreneurial training day for this year’s Bright SCIdea Challenge. The first article in our How to series will take a look at what we learned from Neil Simpson, R&D Director at Borchers, in his training session on how to market and brand your idea.
In order to successfully promote a product or service, it is essential to understand the customer and the market. It is important to be more effective than your competitors in creating, delivering and communicating your idea.
Segmentation, Targeting and Positioning (STP) is a useful tool to help you to define your product and customer base.
When segmenting your customer base, consider the demographics including age, income and gender, as well as their geographical location and behavioural traits.
Once you have segmented your customer base, you will be able to identify which groups are the most suited for your product.
After you have considered which segments to target, you need to take into consideration what your product solves for these people – what is your unique selling point?
The 4 Ps – Marketing Mix
Once you have used the STP framework to define your product and customer base, you can use the 4 Ps Marketing Mix to develop a strategy to bring your product to the market.
Product – This can be a tangible product, for example clothing, or a service. You should consider: What does your product stand for? What needs does it satisfy? How does it differ to your competitors?
Price – It is vital to think carefully about the pricing of your product. Do you compete on price or quality? Consider the perceived value of your product, along with supply costs and competitors’ prices. Pricing your product too high or too low could harm your sales and reputation.
Place – Where is the best location to provide your product to your customer base, and how do you distribute it to them? If you understand your customer base, you will be able to answer important questions such as: Where do your target customers shop? Do they buy online, or in high street shops?
Promotion – What is the most effective way to market your product and which channels should you use? Will you run a social media and email campaign? Would you benefit from attending conferences and exhibitions?
Finally, a useful tool to analyse your current position is the SWOT model. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.
Strengths – How are you perceived by your customer base? What separates you from your competitors?
Weaknesses – What do others see as your weaknesses? What do your competitors do better than you?
Opportunities – What are current market trends? Are there any funding opportunities you could apply for? Are there any gaps in the market?
Threats – Are there any emerging competitors? Do you have any negative media or press coverage?
Using STP, the 4 Ps, and SWOT will be invaluable when it comes to completing your business plan. The more you understand your product, your customer base, where you sell it, and how you sell it, the more successful you will be!
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
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.
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.
Of all places to have an injection, the eyeball is probably near the bottom of anybody’s list. Yet this is how macular degeneration – the leading cause of sight loss in the developed world – is commonly treated.
Individuals who have macular degeneration will have blurred or no vision in the center of their visual fields (as shown above).
In the UK, nearly 1.5m people are affected by macular disease, according to the Macular Society. In its commonest ‘wet’ form, macular degeneration is caused by the growth of rogue blood vessels at the back of the eye, due to over-production of a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF).
The blood vessels leak, causing damage to the central part of the retina – the macula – and a loss of central vision. Regular injections of so-called anti-VEGF drugs help to alleviate the problem.
As well as being time-consuming, these injections can be stressful and upsetting for sufferers, many of whom are elderly. Because the condition is prevalent among older people, it is usually referred to as age-related macular degeneration, or AMD.
However, a number of emerging treatments – including eye drops, inserts and a modified ‘contact lens’ – could spell the end of regular injections, and treat the condition less invasively.
Anatomy of the eye. Video: Handwritten Tutorials
At the same time, emerging stem cell therapy, which has reversed sight loss for two patients with the ‘dry’ form of macular degeneration, could find wider use within a few years.
Scientists are closer to developing 3D printed artificial tissues that could help heal bones and cartilage, specifically those damaged in sports-related injuries. Scaffolds for the tissues have been successfully engineered.
Small injuries to osteochondral tissue – a hard bone that sits beneath a layer of cartilage that appears smooth – can be extremely painful and heal slowly. These injuries are very common in athletes and can stop their careers in their tracks. Osteochondral tissue can also lead to arthritis over time.
These types of injuries are commonly seen in athletes.
As osteochondral tissue is somewhere between bone and cartilage, and is quite porous and very difficult to reproduce. But now, bioengineering researchers at Rice University, Texas, US, have used 3D printing techniques to develop a material that may be be suitable in future for medical use.
A porous scaffold, with custom polymer mixes for cartilage and ceramic for bone, was engineered. The imbedded pores allow cells and blood vessels from the patient to infiltrate, integrating the scaffold into the natural bone and cartilage.
‘For the most part, the composition will be the same from patient to patient,’ said Sean Bittner, graduate student at Rice University and lead author of the study.
The aerogel could be used to coat spacecrafts due to its resilience to certain conditions.
The aerogel comprises a network of tiny air pockets, with each pocket separated by two atomically thin layers of hexagonal boron nitride. It’s at least 99% space. To build the aerogel, Duan’s team used a graphene template coated with borazine, which forms crystalline boron nitride when heated. When the graphene template oxidises, this leaves a ‘double-pane’ boron nitride structure.
The basis of the newly developed aerogel is the 2D structure of graphene.
‘The key to the durability of our new ceramic aerogel is its unique architecture,’ says study co-author Xiangfeng Duan of the University of California, US.
‘The “double-pane” ceramic barrier makes it difficult for heat to transfer from one air bubble to another, or to spread through the material by traveling along the hexagonal boron nitride layers themselves, because that would require following long, circuitous routes.’
How does Aerogel technology work? Video: Outdoor Research
Unlike other ceramic aerogels, the material doesn’t become brittle under extreme conditions. The new aerogel withstood 500 cycles of rapid heating and cooling from -198°C to 900°C, as well as 1400°C for one week. A piece of the insulator shielded a flower held over a 500°C flame.
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!
Cooking, cleaning and other routine household tasks generate significant quantities of volatile and particulate chemicals inside the average home, leading to indoor air quality levels on a par with a polluted major city, said a researcher from Colorado University Boulder, US.
Not only that but these chemicals, from products such as shampoo, perfume and cleaning solutions also find their way into the external environment, making up an even greater source of global atmospheric pollution than vehicles.
‘Homes have never been considered an important source of outdoor pollution and the moment is right to start exploring that,’ said Marina Vance, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at CU Boulder. ‘We wanted to know how do basic activities such as cooking and cleaning change the chemistry of a house?’
First Conclusions from the HOMEChem Experiment. Video: Home Performance
In 2018, Vance co-led the collaborative HOMEChem field campaign, which used advanced sensors and cameras to monitor the indoor air quality of a 112m2 manufactured home on the University of Texas Austin campus.
Over one month, Vance and her collaborators from a number of other US universities conducted a variety of activities, including cooking toast to a full thanksgiving dinner in the middle of the summer for 12 guests, as well as cleaning and similar tasks.
In honour of World Health Day, held on 7 April 2019 annually, we have collated the five most innovative healthcare projects we have featured on SCI’s website over the past year.
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.
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.
Several thousand antibiotic combinations have been found to be more effective in treating bacterial infections than first thought.
Antibiotic combination therapies are usually avoided when treating bacterial infections, with scientists believing combinations are likely to reduce the efficacy of the drugs used. Now, a group at UCLA, USA, have identified over 8,000 antibiotic combinations that work more effectively than predicted.
Researchers at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, have identified a mechanism that prevents natural DNA errors in our cells. These errors can lead to permanent damage to our genetic code and potentially diseases such as cancer.
Mutations occurring in human DNA can lead to fatal diseases like cancer. It is well documented that DNA-damaging processes, such as smoking tobacco or being exposed to high levels of ultraviolet (UV) light through sunburn, can lead to increased risk of developing certain forms of cancer.
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.
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.
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 helium.
Helium was first discovered by French astronomer Jules Janssen in 1868 when observing the spectral lines of the Sun during a solar eclipse. He initially thought the unidentified line was sodium, later concluding it was an element in the sun unknown to Earth.
In March 1895, Sr William Ramsey, a Scottish chemist, isolated helium on Earth for the first time by treating a mineral called cleveite with mineral acids. He was initially looking for argon, but noticed his spectral lines matched that of Jules Janssen’s.
Helium was discovered when Jules Janssen was observing the solar eclipse spectra.
Helium is a colourless, non-toxic and inert gas. It is the second lightest and second most abundant element in the universe.
Helium is often used for cryogenic (cooling) purposes. Liquid helium has a temperature of -270°C or 4K, which is only 4°C above absolute zero. It is utilised for cooling super conducting magnets.
Helium is used to cool superconducting magnets used in MRI. Image: Pixabay
Super conducting magnets have applications in imaging such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), used for analysing molecules, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a medical imaging device. These techniques are important for scientific research and medical diagnostics.
Helium can also be used a pressurising gas for welding and growing silicon wafer crystals, or as a lifting gas for balloons and airships.
Helium is also used in airships and balloons. Image: Pixabay
A commonly known use of helium is to fill balloons often found at parties and events. When people breathe in the helium gas from these balloons, their voice changes.
As helium is much less dense that nitrogen and oxygen, the two gases that make up regular air, sound travels twice as fast through it. When you speak through helium, the timbre or tone of your voice is affected by this change, causing it to appear higher in pitch.
Why is helium so important? Video: SciShow
Unfortunately, helium is a non-renewable resource, and reserves are running out. There is currently no cheap way to create helium, so industries need to be vigilant when using it, and we may see less helium balloons in the future.
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).
All images: Andrew Lunn/SCI
The event, organised by SCI’s Young Chemists Panel and Fine Chemicals Group, alongside RSC’s Heterocycle and Synthesis Group and Organic Division Council, saw 11 teams from across academia and industry to showcase their synthetic prowess.
At the event, the teams presented their synthetic routes for the novel sulfonated alkaloid Aconicarmisulfonine A. After their presentations, teams were questioned by the judges and audience on their synthetic route selections.
Scroll down to experience the day…
Chair of the Retrosynthesis Competition Organising Committee, Jason Camp, opens proceedings.
Live and Let Diene from Concept Life Sciences kick off the day’s pitches.
The Tryptophantastic Four from the University of Bristol followed.
Total Synthesisers from the University of Manchester deliver their synthesis model to a packed audience.
The Bloomsbury Group from the University of Manchester close the first session of the day.
During breaks, the competitors networked with senior scientists and our company exhibitors.
SygTeamTwo from Sygnature Discovery take to the podium.
The judges seem impressed with this year’s teams as Shawshank Reduction from the University of Oxford pitch next.
Next up is In Tsuji We Trost from Evotec.
Totally Disconnected from the University of Strathclyde close the second session.
The competition gets more competitive and popular each year! SCI and RSC members discuss the teams so far.
Hold Me Closer Vinyl Dancer from the University of Cambridge are up.
Flower Power from Syngenta give an intriguing talk.
The second University of Oxford Team, Reflux and Chill?, finish the day’s impressive set of pitches.
Audience members then casted their votes for the Audience Vote winner…
…which went to In Tsuji We Trost!
Our 3rd place finalists were SygTeamTwo…
Oxford team Shawshank Reduction took 2nd place…
Congratulations to 2019 winners, Flower Power!
The Svalbard Islands are in Northern Norway.
The finding is all the more unexpected as the team was seeking a virgin environment to try and establish what a background level of antimicrobial resistance in soil bacteria looks like.
Scientists found genes important to antimicrobial resistance in soil bacteria.
‘We took 40 samples to give us an idea of what the baseline of resistance might look like in nature, but we were surprised by how different the sites were from each other,’ says lead scientist David Graham at Newcastle University. Areas with high wildlife or human impact had greatest diversity of resistance DNA in the soil.
The results show that antibiotic resistance genes are accumulating even in the most remote locations. Included in a number of samples was a multidrug resistant gene called New Dehli strain, first isolated in India.
Newcastle University find antibiotic resistant genes in Arctic. Video: Newcastle University
Some sites had levels of antimicrobial resistance 10 times greater than others, particularly those with elevated levels of phosphorus, a nutrient usually scarce in Arctic soils.
‘There was much greater resistance diversity in sites with strong signatures of faecal matter,’ says Graham, indicating that migratory birds most likely brought the antimicrobial resistance genes, depositing them via their guano.
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.
To celebrate World Poetry Day, today we look at how poetry and science interlink, and how poetry can be a unique medium for science communication.
Poetry and science have an interesting history – John Keats once said that Isaac Newton, one of the most prominent scientists of the time, had ‘destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism’. However, poetry can be a powerful tool to disseminate scientific research to a wider audience.
In 1984, J. W. V. Storey published his works on ‘The Detection of Shocked CO Emission’ in The Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia as a lengthy poem. He even noted on the paper that his colleagues may wish to dissociate themselves from the presentation style.
A note from J. M. V. Storey’s paper dissociating his colleagues from the poetry style. Source: The Detection of Shocked CO Emission
Modern Science Poetry
Notable British poet Ruth Gabel, also the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, has written a plethora of poetry about science, including works on Darwin’s writings. She has written a multitude of poems, mainly on zoology and genetics.
In 2015, Professor Stephen Hawking, world-renowned physicist, collaborated with poet Sarah Howe to write a poem about relativity for National Poetry Day in the UK.
Stephen Hawking reads “Relativity” By Sarah Howe Film Bridget Smith. Source: National Poetry Day
Poetry can also be utilised for outreach, especially for younger audiences. The SAW Trust is a charity that uses art and poetry to engage school children in science. SAW Trust was founded by Professor Anne Osbourne, Associate Research Director and Institute Strategic Programme Leader, Plant and Microbial Metabolism at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK. The charity inspires children to find a love for science through the arts.
Science and poetry, or more generally art have always been interlinked, and by using poetry we can spread science to a wider audience.
For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. British scientists, engineers and inventors have played a significant role in developing engines and the automotive industry that stemmed from them.
Before the internal combustion engine, steam power was revolutionary in progressing industry in Britain.
The first practical steam engine was designed by English inventor Thomas Newcomen in 1712 and was later adapted by Scotsman James Watt in 1765. Watt’s steam engine was the first to make use of steam at an above atmospheric pressure.
The Steam Engine - How Does It Work? Video: Real Engineering
In 1804, the first locomotive-hauled railway journey was made by a steam locomotive design by Richard Trevithick, an inventor and mining engineer from Cornwall, UK.
After this, steam trains took off and the steam engine was used in many ways such as powering the SS Great Britain, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843.
The SS Great Britain in Bristol, UK, today.
Engines at the ready
The conception and refinement of the internal combustion engine involved many inventors from around the world, including British ones.
The automobile, using the internal combustion engine, was been invented in the United States, and Britain picked up on this emerging industry very quickly. These brands are among the most famous and abundant cars on the road today; Aston Martin, Mini, Jaguar, Land Rover and Rolls Royce may come to mind.
By the 1950s, the UK was the second-largest manufacturer of cars in the world (after the United States) and the largest exporter.
In 1930, the jet engine was patented by Sr Frank Whittle. He was an aviation engineer and pilot who started his career as an apprentice in the Royal Air Force (RAF). The jet engine became critical after the outbreak of World War II.
Great Britain are still major players in the aviation industry, and engineering innovations continue to be a major part of the British economy. British inventors have gone on to invent the hovercraft, hundreds of different jet designs and a variety of military vehicles.
For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. Discoveries made by British physicists have changed the way we see the world, and are still used and celebrated today.
It is scientific legend that during one afternoon in his garden in 1666, during which Newton was sat under an apple tree, that an apple fell on his head. This led to a moment of inspiration from which he based his theory of gravity.
Gravity is an invisible force that pulls objects towards each other – anything with mass is affected by gravity – and is the reason why we don’t float off into space and why objects fall when you throw or drop them.
An illustration of Isaac Newton in 1962.
The Earth’s gravity comes from its mass, which ultimately determines your weight. As the different plants in our universe are different masses, our weight on Earth is different to what it would be on Saturn or Uranus.
Whilst Newton’s theory has since been superseded by Einstein’s theory of relativity, it remains an important breakthrough in scientific history. The apple tree that supposedly led to his theory can still be found at Newton’s childhood home, Woolsthorpe Manor, in Grantham, UK.
Newton’s apple tree. Image: Martin Pettitt/Flickr
The Higgs boson
As a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, physicist Peter Higgs hypothesised that when the universe began, all particles had no mass. This changed a second later when they came into contact with a theoretical field – later named the Higgs field – and each particle gained mass.
The more a particle interacts with the field, the more mass it acquires and therefore the heavier it is, he postulated. The Higgs boson is a physical manifestation of the field.
A computer generated rendering of the Higgs boson.
Back in 2012, the scientific community celebrated an important discovery made by researchers at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider – the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.
After years of theorised work, they found a particle that behaved the way that the Higgs boson supposedly behaved.
The celebration was warranted, as the discovery of the Higgs boson verified the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which states that the Higgs boson gives everything in the universe its mass. It has been estimated that it cost $13.25bn to find the Higgs boson.
Inside the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. Image: Thomas Cizauskas/Flickr
In 2013, Higgs was presented with the Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shared with Belgian researcher Franҫois Englert, ‘for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles’.
Having avoided the limelight and media since his retirement, Higgs found out about his win from an ex-neighbour on his way home as he did not have a mobile phone!
Beyond the Higgs: What’s Next for the LHC? Video: The Royal Institution
The success of British physics isn’t slowing down either. It was in Manchester that two Russian scientists discovered graphene, which has influenced a wave of new research and investment into the use of this versatile material set to be a cornerstone for the fourth Industrial Revolution.
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, on International Women’s Day, we look at the two elements radium and polonium and the part Marie Curie that played in their discovery.
Who is Marie Curie?
Marie Sklodowska and her future husband Pierre Curie.
Marie Sklodowska-Curie was born in 1867 in Poland. As a young woman she had a strong preference for science and mathematics, so in 1891 she moved to Paris, France, and began her studies in physics, chemistry and mathematics at the University of Paris.
After gaining a degree in physics, Curie began working on her second degree whilst working in an industrial laboratory. As her scientific career progressed, she met her future husband, Pierre Curie, whilst looking for larger laboratory space. The two bonded over their love of science, and went on to marry, have two children and discover two elements together.
After finishing her thesis on ‘Studies in radioactivity’, Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first and only woman to win twice, and the only person to win in two different sciences.
Curie, along with husband Pierre and collaborator Henri Becquerel, won the 1903 Nobel prize in Physics for their radioactivity studies, and the 1911 Nobel prize in Chemistry for the isolation and study of elements radium and polonium.
Curie won the Nobel prize twice in two different subjects. Image: Pixabay
As of 2018, Curie is one of only three women to have won the Nobel Prize in Physics and one of the five women to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Polonium, like radium, is a rare and highly reactive metal with 33 isotopes, all of which are unstable. Polonium was named after Marie Curie’s home country of Poland and was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie from uranium ore in 1898.
Polonium is not only radioactive but is highly toxic. It was the first element discovered by the Curies when they were investigating radioactivity. There are very few applications of polonium due to its toxicity, other than for educational or experimental purposes.
Radium is an alkaline earth metal which was discovered in the form of radium chloride by Marie and her husband Pierre in December 1898. They also extracted it from uranite (uranium ore), as they did with polonium. Later, in 1911, Marie Curie and André-Louis Debierne isolated the metal radium by electrolysing radium chloride.
The discovery of radium led to the development of modern cancer treatments, like radiotherapy.
Pure radium is a silvery-white metal, which has 33 known isotopes. All isotopes of radium are radioactive – some more than others. The common historical unit for radioactivity, the curie, is based on the radioactivity of Radium-226.
Famously, radium was historically used as self-luminescent paint on clock hands. Unfortunately, many of the workers that were responsible for handling the radium became ill – radium is treated by the body as calcium, where it is deposited in bones and causes damage because of its radioactivity. Safety laws were later introduced, followed by discontinuation of the use of radium paint in the 1960s.
Marie Curie: A life of sacrifice and achievement. Source: Biographics
Curie’s work was exceptional not only in its contributions to science, but in how women in science were perceived. She was an incredibly intelligent and hard-working woman who should be celebrated to this day.
Spaceflight is a high-risk business. Spacecraft break down all the time and when that happens funding and careers evaporate. Back in the late 1960s, NASA decided to double the odds of success and send two spacecraft on one mission. Voyagers 1 and 2, for example, were the spacecraft that returned the first detailed pictures of the outer planets of our solar system and introduced us to the neighbourhood. Launched in 1977, both are still flying.
Any spacecraft must have three components: a payload, an engine and a fuel supply – by far the heaviest component. But what if we could do away with the onboard fuel supply and replace it with an external fuel supply? Say light itself?
Can you push a spacecraft with light? Video: Physics Girl
The idea of solar sail technology has been floating around for decades. Indeed, the notion of a solar pressure can be traced back to 1610 in a letter that Johannes Kepler wrote to Galileo.
But it was only in the 20th century that solar sails began to be considered as an achievable engineering reality. Broadly, solar sails fall into two categories: those using light from natural sources – the sun and ambient starlight in space; and those using coherent light from lasers.
Tracking pollen can help scientists better understand pollinator behaviour.
Pollination and pollination services are key for productive farming. In fact, many farms actively manage pollination, bringing in bees or planting effective field margins.
Fluorescent quantum dots on a bee show the distribution of the marked pollen. Image: Corneile Minnaar
Despite the importance of pollination, for many years research has been limited as there is no efficient way to study pollen distribution or track individual pollen grains.
Scientists at the university have developed an innovative method to track pollen using quantum dots.
Tracking pollen with quantum dots. Source: Stellenbosch University
Quantum dots are nanocrystals that emit bright fluorescent light when exposed to UV light. The quantum dots were equipped with lipophilic (fat-loving) ligands to allow them to stick to the fatty outer layer of pollen grains. The fluorescent colour of the quantum dots can then be used to track any pollen they have adhered to.
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.
Called Philyra, after the Greek goddess of fragrance, the AI programme developed two new fragrances for Brazilian beauty company O Boticário.
‘What she did was super innovative. She had a sweet warm background, but added cardamom-like Indian cuisine scents and a milk that came from the flavour department,’ says David Apel, Senior Perfumer with Symrise. ‘From 1.7m formulas, it is amazing for her to find something that hadn’t been done before.’
Using AI to create new fragrances. Video: IBM Research
In a demonstration at IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland, computational researcher Richard Goodwin demonstrated how Philyra is able to scan 1,000 different formulations, and over 60 raw materials, and compare them with fragrances currently on the marketplace. It is possible to request a certain type of perfume and adjust its novelty.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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.’
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.’
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.’
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.
In July 2017, the UK government announced plans to end the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, but there’s a long way for the electric vehicle market to go before that target can be reached – low-emission vehicle sales still account for just 0.5% of total car sales.
Last week, the European Commission announced a new Innovation Deal that could go some way to overcoming barriers to electric vehicle development and acceptance by consumers.
Entitled ‘From e-mobility to recycling: the vitreous loop of the electric vehicle’, it is designed to help innovators address regulatory obstacles to the recycling and re-use of propulsion batteries in second-life applications, such as energy storage.
The deal comprises a multi-disciplinary working group of partners across industry and government in France and the Netherlands. In France, Renault, Bouygues and the Ministries for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition and Economy and Finance; in the Netherlands, renewable energy technology company LomboXnet, the Provice of Utrecht, and the Ministries of Infrastructure and Water Management, Economic Affairs, and Climate Policy.
Carlos Moedas, EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said, ‘The electric vehicle revolution is a testimony to how innovation generates growth and fundamentally changes society for the better. In order for Europe to stay in the lead of this innovation race, we need to work together with innovators and authorities to make sure our laws do not hamper innovation. This Innovation Deal will clarify the regulatory landscape in this area, and boost demand for electric vehicles.’
Robin Berg, founder of LomboXnet is one such innovator set on fundamentally changing society for the better. In Utrecht, the Netherlands, his company has set up a smart solar charging network that allows excess solar power harvested via rooftop photovoltaic panels to be stored in electric vehicle batteries – the energy can then be transferred between car and home as demand requires.
‘Enhancing the economic value of car batteries through vehicle-to-grid applications, second-life battery projects and smart solar charging of cars, creates huge business opportunities,’ Berg said.
‘The Smart Solar Charging consortium in Utrecht Region led by LomboXnet together with Renault seeks to increase these opportunities to spur the transition to a renewable energy system and a zero-emission mobility future. Europe is leading in these developments; this Innovation Deal offers a chance to further strengthen Europe’s leadership.’
Pure electric vehicle sales were down in the first two months of 2018 compared with the previous year – although sales of plug-in hybrid cars, which combine a conventional petrol or diesel engine with an electric motor that can be charged at an outlet or on the move, were up by 40% over the same period.
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.
With an ever-increasing demand for data storage, the race is on to develop new materials that offer greater storage density. Researchers have identified a host of exotic materials that use new ways to pack ‘1’s and ‘0’s into ever-smaller spaces.
And, while many of them are still lab curiosities, they offer the potential to improve data storage density by 100 times or more.
Having a moment
Data storage technology has moved quickly away from floppy disks (pictured) and CD-DOMs. Image: Pexels
The principle behind many storage media is to use magnetic ‘read’ and ‘write’ heads, an idea also exploited by many of these new technologies – albeit on a much smaller scale.
A good example is recent work from Manchester University, UK, where researchers have raised the temperature at which ‘single molecule magnets’ can be magnetised. Single-molecule magnets could have 100 times the data storage density of existing memory devices.
In theory, any molecular entity can be used to store data as reversing its polarity can switch it from a ‘1’ to a ‘0’. In this case, instead of reading and writing areas of a magnetic disk, the researchers have created single molecules that exhibit magnetic ‘hysteresis’ – a prerequisite for data storage.
Researchers discuss the circuit boards in development that negotiate Moore’s Law. Video: Chemistry at The University of Manchester
‘You need a molecule that has its magnetic moment in two directions,’ says Nick Chilton, Ramsay Memorial research fellow in the school of chemistry. ‘To realise this in a single molecule, you need very specific conditions.’
In addition to having a strong magnetic moment, the molecule needs a slow relaxation time – that is, the time it takes for the molecule to ‘flip’ naturally from a ‘1’ to a ‘0’. ‘If this time is effectively indefinite, it would be useful for data storage,’ he says.
The key is that the molecule itself must have a magnetic moment. So, while a bulk substance such as iron oxide is ‘magnetic’, individual iron oxide particles are not.
A binary digit, or bit, is the smallest unit of data in computing. The system is used in nearly all modern computers and technology. Image: Pixabay
Chilton and his colleagues have identified and synthesised a single-molecule magnet – a dysprosium atom, sandwiched between two cyclopentadienyl rings – that can be magnetised at 60K. This is 46K higher than any previous single-molecule magnet – and only 17K below the temperature of liquid nitrogen.
Being able to work with liquid nitrogen – rather than liquid helium – would bring the cost of a storage device down dramatically, says Chilton. To do this, the researchers must now model and make new structures that will work at 77K or higher.
Skyrmions may sound like a new adversary for Doctor Who, but they are actually another swirl-like magnetic entity that could be used to represent a bit of digital data.
Scientists at the Max Born Institute (MBI), Germany – in collaboration with colleagues from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US – have devised a way to generate skyrmions in a controllable way, by building a ‘racetrack’ nanowire memory device that might in future be incorporated into a conventional memory chip.
‘Skyrmions can be conceived as particles – because that’s how they act,’ says Bastian Pfau, a postdoctoral researcher at MBI, as they are generated using a current pulse.
‘Earlier research put a lot of current pulses through a racetrack and created a skyrmion randomly,’ he says. ‘We’ve created them in a controlled and integrated way: they’re created on the racetrack exactly where you want them.’
This racetrack memory device could be incorporated into standard memory chips, say researchers at the Max Born Institute. Credit: Grafix
In fact, skyrmions can be both created and moved using current pulses – but the pulse for creating them is slightly stronger than the one that moves them. The advantage of using a current pulse is that it requires no moving parts.
The resulting racetrack is a three-layer nanowire about 20nm thick – a structure that will hold around 100 skyrmions along a one-micron length of wire.
While the current research is done ‘in the plane’ with the nanowires held horizontally, Pfau says that in the future, wires could be stacked vertically in an array to boost storage capacity. ‘This would increase the storage density by 100. But this is in the future and nobody has made a strip line that’s vertical yet.’
Could magnetic skyrmions hold the answer to better data storage? Video: Durham University
‘The whole function depends on how you create the multi-layer,’ he says. To stand any chance of being commercialised, which might take six or eight years, Pfau says that new materials will be needed.
However, he is confident this will happen – and that the technology can be merged with ‘conventional’ electronic devices.
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The Haber process currently helps feed more than half the world, producing 150m tonnes of ammonia a year. This is forecast to rise further, in line with the food demand of a growing world population.
And yet, it has serious drawbacks. In its traditional form, the process requires high temperatures – around 500°C – to make the extremely stable molecule nitrogen reactive.
The Haber process takes place at extremely high temperatures, similar to that of an average fire.
It also needs high pressure to shift the equilibrium towards the desired product. The process is sensitive to oxygen, meaning that nitrogen and hydrogen must be introduced as purified elements, rather than as air and water.
These requirements together make the process extremely energy-hungry; estimated to consume between 1% and 2% of global primary energy production. In 2010, the ammonia industry emitted 245m tonnes of CO2 globally, corresponding to half the UK’s emissions.
The Haber process was developed by Carl Bosch (left) and Fritz Haber (right) in the early 20th century. Image: Wikimedia Commons
In nature, the process relies on the highly complex enzyme nitrogenase, operating at an ambient pressure and temperature. But using the entire biological system would not be economical for large-scale industrial synthesis, and thus the search for an inorganic system that matches the performance of the biological has become an important challenge.
In recent years, novel electrochemical approaches and new catalysts have yielded promising results suggesting that, at least for small-scale synthesis, other ways may have a future.
The chemical reaction that feeds the world. Video: TED-Ed
‘The last [few] years brought some spectacular results on ammonia synthesis research,’ comments Hans Fredriksson from Syngaschem at Eindhoven, Netherlands.
‘On the catalyst side, there is the discovery of ‘super promoters’, helping N2 dissociation, allowing lower process temperatures, while optimised catalyst formulations yield significant improvements in activity.
‘Perhaps even more exciting are new approaches in processing, for example by electrochemistry, or simply running the reaction in an electric field, or bringing plasmas into play,’ he said.
In 2013, Shanwen Tao, then at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK, and colleagues demonstrated for the first time the production of ammonia from air and water, at ambient temperature and pressure, using a proton-conducting Nafion membrane in an electrochemical approach.
Nafion, a Teflon-like material that conducts cations but neither electrons nor anions, is also used in fuel cells.
‘Electrochemical synthesis of ammonia is an important new approach for efficient synthesis of ammonia using green renewable electricity as the energy source. This could be a key technology for a possible ‘ammonia economy’,’ where ammonia replaces or complements hydrogen as an energy carrier, says Tao.
Researchers hope new approaches will be supported by renewable energy, reducing CO2 emissions. Image: Pexels
Separate efforts using different routes are being developed in Japan, with a particular focus on ruthenium as an efficient catalyst. One approach is to apply super promoters to provide electrons that destabilise nitrogen by weakening the triple bond and making the molecule more reactive for ammonia synthesis.
This was first reported in 2012 by Hideo Hosono’s group at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who used ruthenium catalysts in combination with ‘electrides’ – a new class of ionic materials where electrons serve as the anions.
The method operates at atmospheric pressure and temperatures between 250 and 400°C, and hydrogen poisoning of ruthenium catalysts is no longer a problem.
Ruthenium is a type of metal in the platinum group. Image: Metalle-w/ Wikimedia Commons
‘This catalyst exhibits the highest activity and excellent long-term stability,’ says Hosono, who sees the future of his methods in distributed, small-scale applications of ammonia synthesis.
Hans Niemantsverdriet, director of SynCat@Beijing, China, acknowledges the rapid progress being made, but also strikes a note of caution.
‘In spite of interesting discoveries, I find it hard to imagine that these improvements will be able to replace the current large-scale and fully optimised technology,’ he says. ‘In the fertiliser area, novel technology will at best become a niche market for very special situations. Also, the CO2 footprint is hardly diminished.’
Ammonia is a core component of fertiliser, feeding nitrogen to plants for photosynthesis. Image: Maurice van Bruggen/Wikimedia Commons
In the long term, Niemantsverdriet has hope for the ammonia economy as championed by Tao and others, providing carbon-free hydrogen from renewable energies.
‘I strongly believe that there will be scope for large industrial parks where this technology can be cleverly integrated with gasification of coal in China, and perhaps biomass elsewhere,’ he says. ‘If dimensioned properly, this has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint in the future.’
Tesla is at the forefront of industrial battery technology research.
Electric cars are accelerating commercially. General Motors has already sold 12,000 models of its Chevrolet Bolt and Daimler announced in September 2017 that it is to invest $1bn to produce electric cars in the US, with Investment bank ING, meanwhile, predicts that European cars will go fully electric by 2035.
‘Batteries are a global industry worth tens of billions of dollars, but over the next 10 to 20 years it will probably grow to many hundreds of billions per year,’ says Gregory Offer, battery researcher at Imperial College London. ‘There is an opportunity now to invest in an industry, so that when it grows exponentially you can capture value and create economic growth.’
The big opportunity for technology disruption lies in extending battery lifetime, says Offer, whose team at Imperial takes market-ready or prototype battery devices into their lab to model the physics and chemistry going on inside, and then figures out how to improve them.
Lithium batteries, the battery technology of choice, are built from layers, each connected to a current connector and theoretically generating equivalent power, which flows out through the terminals. However, improvements in design of packs can lead to better performance and slower degradation.
Lithium batteries need to be adapted for electric vehicle use. Image: Public Domain Pictures
For many electric vehicles, cooling plates are placed on each side of the battery cell, but the middle layers get hotter and fatigue faster. Offer’s group cooled the cell terminals instead, because they are connected to every layer. ‘You want the battery operating warmish, not too hot and not too cold,’ he says.
‘Keeping the temperature like that, we could get more energy out and extend the lifetime three-fold.’ If the expensive Li ion batteries in electric cars can outlive the car, he says their resale value will go up and dramatically alter the economic calculation when purchasing the car. ‘If we can get costs down, we will see more electric vehicles, and reduced emissions and improved air quality,’ Offer says.
Alternatives to lithium ion
Battery systems management and thermal regulation will allow current lithium batteries to be continually improved, but there are fundamental limits to this technology. ‘Lithium ion has a good ten years of improvements ahead,’ Offer predicts. ‘At that point we will hit a plateau and we are going to need technologies like lithium (Li) sulfur.’
Will Batteries Power The World? | The Limits Of Lithium-ion. Video: minutephysics
Li sulfur has a theoretical energy density five times higher than Li ion. In September 2017, US space agency NASA said it will work with Oxis Energy in Oxford, UK, to evaluate its Li sulfur cells for applications where weight is crucial, such as drones, high-altitude aircraft and planetary missions.
However, Li sulfur is not the only challenger to Li ion. Toyota is working to develop solid-state batteries, which use solids like ceramics as the electrolyte. ‘They are based around a class of material that can conduct ions at room temperature as a solid,’ Offer explains. ‘The advantage is that you can then use metallic lithium as the anode. This means there is less parasitic mass, increasing energy density.’
The carbon-fiber structure and Li ion battery motor of one of BMW’s electric cars. Image: Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz
For electric cars, the ultimate technology in terms of energy density is rechargeable metal-air batteries. These work by oxidising metals such as lithium, zinc or aluminium with oxygen from the air. ‘Making a rechargeable air breathing electrode is really hard,’ warns Offer. ‘To get the metal to give up the oxygen over and over again, it’s difficult.’
Development in the area looks promising, with the UK nurturing battery-focused SMEs and forward-thinking research groups in universities. The latest investment plan envisages support that links across research, innovation and scale-up, as championed by Mark Walport, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor.
The Faraday Challenge – part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. Video: Innovate UK
Introducing a programme to directly tackle this challenge ‘would drive improved efficiency of translation of UK science excellence into desirable economic outcomes; would leverage significant industrial investment in the form of a “deal” with industry; and would send a strong investment signal globally,’ says Walport.
Scientists have developed a new process to manufacture ‘green’ plastic that could significantly reduce costs and provide a cleaner alternative to current materials.
Using fructose and gamma-Valerolactone (GVL) – a plant-derived solvent – researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison,US, have found a way to produce furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) that is both cost-effective and high-yielding, meaning a large amount of the product can be made. FDCA is a precursor to the renewable plastic polyethylene furanoate (PEF).
A crystal of furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) a plastic precursor created with biomass instead of petroleum. Image: Ali Hussain Motagamwala and James Runde for UW-Madison
‘Until now, FDCA has had a very low solubility in practically any solvent you make it in,’ says co-author Ali Hussain Motagamwala. ‘You have to use a lot of solvent to get a small amount of FDCA, and you end up with high separation costs and undesirable waste products.’
Currently, the plastics market relies heavily on the production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from petroleum, to meet increasing demand for plastic products.
How is FDCA made in industry? Video: Avantium
The team, alongside Motagamwala, have been able to convert fructose to FDCA in a two-step process using a solvent system of one-part GVL and one-part water.
According to Motagamwala, using GVL as a solvent is the key to reducing the high expenses that FDCA production incurs. ‘Sugars and FDCA are both highly soluble in [GVL], you get high yields, and you can easily separate and recycle the solvent,’ he says.
Fructose is a plant-based sugar found in most fruits. Image: Pexels
The team’s study also includes an extensive techno-economic analysis of the ‘green’ process, suggesting that FDCA could be produced for around £1,000 a tonne – reduced further if the reaction time and cost of feedstock could be lowered through further research.
A more cost-effective alternative to PET could have a significant impact on the plastics market, which produces an estimated 1.5m tonnes a year.
Major companies – from Coca-Cola to Procter & Gamble – are committing to 100% use of PEF in their plastic products, providing a huge market need for its precursor FDCA.
‘We think this is the streamlined and inexpensive approach to making FDCA that many people in the plastics industry has been waiting for,’ says James Dumesic, team-leader and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the university.
Introducing cost-competitive renewable plastics to the market could significantly reduce plastic waste. Image: Pixabay
‘Our hope is that this research opens the door even further to cost-competitive renewable plastics.’
Process development is an essential area of research that underpins advances in a huge range of industries.
In May 2018, the first full-scale mobile marine plastics collection system, developed by The Ocean Cleanup, will leave San Francisco, California, bound for the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ also known as the Pacific trash vortex. The plan, ultimately, is to use 60 of these $5m systems to clean up half of the debris in the Pacific Garbage Patch within five years, according to Boyan Slat, CEO of Netherlands foundation The Ocean Cleanup, speaking at the Cefic Chemical Congress held in Vienna, Austria, at the end of October 2017.
Each collection system comprises a 1km U-shaped barrier, which floats on the surface of the ocean and supports a 4m deep screen to channel floating plastic debris to a central collection point, for future recycling. A 100m prototype system has already been tested in the North Sea.
The system will leave from the San Francisco bay area. Image: Giuseppe Milo
The environmental cost of the Pacific’s plastic waste currently stands at roughly $13bn/year, while an estimated 600 wildlife species are threatened with extinction partly as a result of ingesting it. Plastic microbeads and particles only represent 5% of the plastics in the oceans, ‘but the remaining 95% will break down into small particles and chemicals that are already in the tuna we eat,’ Slat said. The larger plastics debris are all found in the top 4m of the oceans, the same depth as the system’s screens.
Plastic debris can end up in the food we eat. Image: Pixabay
Also speaking in Vienna, Emily Woglom, executive VP, Ocean Conservancy, said that 8m t/year of plastics goes into the oceans – ‘one city dump truck every minute’; between 2010 and 2025 the amount in the oceans will double. As much as ‘30% of fish on sale have plastics in them,’ she said. Most of the plastics now come from the developing economies, mainly in Asia, she added, noting that the Trash Free Seas Alliance, founded by the Ocean Conservancy and supported by the American Chemistry Council, Dow Chemical, P&G and the World Plastics Council as well as several big-name food and beverage companies have recently adopted the goal of launching a $150m fund for waste management in South East Asia.
How we roll. Video: The Ocean Cleanup
Meanwhile, Slat says that the mobile collection systems can also be used to trap plastic pollution closer to the source, for example in rivers and estuaries. Researchers at The Ocean Cleanup estimate that rivers transport between 115 and 241 m t/years of plastic waste into the oceans, with two-thirds coming from just 20 rivers, mostly in Asia.
The Pacific trash vortex forms as a result of circular ocean currents created by wind patterns and the forces created by the Earth’s rotation. Similar gyres are found in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, and North and South Atlantic.
Installing new energy infrastructure on the Isles of Scilly, UK, is a tricky proposition, given the islands’ location 28 miles off the Cornish coast, and a population of just 2,500 to share the high costs.
But an exciting new project is about to transform the islands’ energy provision, reducing energy costs and supporting clean growth, through the use of a smart energy grid.
By 2025, the Smart Islands programme aims to provide the Isles of Scilly with 40% of its electricity from renewables, cut Scillonians’ electricity bills by 40%, and revolutionise transport, with 40% of cars to be electric or low-carbon. The key to this will be an integrated smart energy system, operated by a local community energy services company and monitored through an Internet of Things platform.
In the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy, published in November 2017, it was announced that the Local Growth Fund would provide £2.95m funding to the project, via the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership.
The project will be led by Hitachi Europe Ltd in a public-private partnership, along with UK-based smart energy technology company Moixa, and smart energy software company PassivSystems.
Colin Calder, CEO of PassivSystems, explained, ‘Our scalable cloud-based energy management platform will be integrated with a range of domestic and commercial renewable technologies, allowing islanders to reduce their reliance on imported fossil fuels, increase energy independence and lower their carbon footprint.
‘These technologies have the potential to significantly increase savings from solar PV systems.’
Aiming to increase the renewable capacity installed on the island by 450kW and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 897 tonnes CO2 equivalent per annum, 100 homes on the islands (a tenth of the total) will be fitted with rooftop solar photovoltaic systems, and two 50kW solar gardens will also be built.
100 homes will also get energy management systems, and 10 of them will pilot a variety of additional smart energy technologies such as smart batteries and air source heat pumps.
Chris Wright, Moixa Chief Technology Officer, said: ‘Ordinary people will play a key role in our future energy system. Home batteries and electric vehicles controlled by smart software will help create a reliable, cost-effective, low-carbon energy system that will deliver savings to homeowners and the community.
‘Our systems will support the reduction of fuel poverty on the Scilly Isles and support their path to full energy independence. They will be scalable and flexible so they can be replicated easily to allow communities all over the world to cut carbon and benefit from the smart power revolution.’
The burgeoning smart energy industry is attracting serious investment – only this week, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) announced it will invest up to £8.8 million in new ideas for products and services that use smart meter data to reduce energy demand in small, non-domestic buildings; while Manchester-based smart energy start-up Upside Energy this week announced it had secured £5.5m in its first round of venture capital financing to commercialise and deploy its cloud-based smart grid platform.
Smart energy covers a range of technologies intended to allow both companies and households to increase their energy efficiency. Smart meters are currently being offered by energy suppliers, with the aim of allowing energy companies to automatically manage consumer energy use to reduce bills, for example, running your washing machine when energy demand (and therefore cost) is low.
Battery technology also plays a major role in smart energy, allowing users to store renewable power and potentially even sell back into the grid as demand requires. In the Industrial Strategy, the government announced a new £80m National Battery Manufacturing Development Facility (NBMD) in Coventry, which will bring together academics and businesses to work on new forms and designs of batteries, as well as their chemistry and components.
The Isles of Scilly’s small population and remote access issues make it an interesting candidate for a smart energy project. Image: NASA, International Space Station Science
The funding for this and a further £40m investment into 27 individual battery research projects have been allocated from the £246m Faraday Challenge, which was announced in July.
The Smart Islands project promises a real-world demonstration of how a community can harness the power of the Internet of Things to maintain an efficient, inexpensive, and clean energy system.
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A huge challenge faced in the pursuit of a mission to Mars is space radiation, which is known to cause several damaging diseases – from Alzheimer’s disease to cancer.
And soon, these problems will not just be exclusive to astronauts. Speculation over whether space tourism is viable is becoming a reality, with Virgin Galactic and SpaceX flights already planned for the near future. The former reportedly sold tickets for US$250,000.
But could questions over the health risks posed hinder these plans?
What is space radiation?
In space, particle radiation includes all the elements on the periodic table, each travelling at the speed of light, leading to a high impact and violent collisions with the nuclei of human tissues.
The type of radiation you would endure in space is also is different to that you would experience terrestrially. On Earth, radiation from the sun and space is absorbed by the atmosphere, but there is no similar protection for astronauts in orbit. In fact, the most common form of radiation here is electrochemical – think of the X-rays used in hospitals.
The sun is just one source of radiation astronauts face in space. Image: Pixabay
On the space station – situated within the Earth’s magnetic field – astronauts experience ten times the radiation that naturally occurs on Earth. The station’s position in the protective atmosphere means that astronauts are in far less danger compared with those travelling to the Moon, or even Mars.
Currently, NASA’s Human Research Program is looking at the consequences of an astronaut’s exposure to space radiation, as data on the effects is limited by the few subjects over a short timeline of travel.
Radiation poses one of the biggest problems for space exploration. Video: NASA
However, lining the spacecraft with heavy materials to reduce the amount of radiation reaching the body isn’t as easy as a solution as it is seems.
‘NASA doesn’t want to use heavy materials like lead for shielding spacecraft because the incoming space radiation will suffer many nuclear collisions with the shielding, leading to the production of additional secondary radiation,’ says Tony Slaba, a research physicist at NASA. ‘The combination of the incoming space radiation and secondary radiation can make the exposure worse for astronauts.’
As heavy materials cannot hamper the effects of radiation, researchers have turned to a more light-weight solution: plastics. One element – hydrogen – is well recognised for its ability to block radiation, and is present in polyethylene, the most common type of plastic.
A thick dust cloud called the Dark Rift blocks the view of the Milky Way. Image: NASA
Engineers have developed plastic-filled tiles, that can be made using astronauts rubbish, to create an extra layer of radiation protection. Water, which is already an essential for space flight, can be stored alongside these tiles to create a ‘radiation storm shelter’ in the spacecraft.
But research is still required. Plastic is not a strong material and cannot be used as a building component of spacecrafts.
Around 10 million medical devices are implanted each year into patients, while one-third of patients suffer some complication as a result. Now, researchers in Switzerland have developed a way to protect implants by dressing them in a surgical membrane of cellulose hydrogel to make them more biocompatible with patients’ own tissues and body fluids.
‘It is more than 60 years since the first medical implant was implanted in humans and no matter how hard we have tried to imitate nature, the body recognises the implant as foreign and tends to initiate a foreign body reaction, which tries to isolate and kill the implant,’ says Simone Bottan at, who leads ETH Zurich spin-off company Hylomorph.
Hylomorph is a spin-off company of ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Image: ETH-Bibliothek@Wikimedia Commons
Up to one-fifth of all implanted patients require corrective intervention or implant replacement due toan immune response that wraps the implant in connective tissue (fibrosis), which is also linked with infections and can cause patients pain. Revision surgeries are costly and require lengthy recovery times.
The new membrane is made by growing bacteria in a bioreactor on micro-engineered silicone surfaces, pitted with a hexagonal arrangement of microwells. When imprinted onto the membrane, the microwells impede the formation of layers of fibroblasts and other cells involved in fibrosis.
25,000 people in the UK have a pacemaker fitted each year. Image: Science Photo Library
The researchers ‘tuned’ the bacteria, Acetobacter xylinum, to produce ca 800 micron-thick membranes of cellulose nanofibrils that surgeons can wrap snuggly around implants. The cellulose membranes led to an 80% reduction of fibrotic tissue thickness in a pig model after six weeks, according to a study currently in press. Results after three and 12 months should be released in January 2018.
It is hoped the technology will receive its first product market authorisation by 2020. First-in-man trials will focus on pacemakers and defibrillators and will be followed by breast reconstruction implants. The strategy will be to coat the implant with a soft cellulose hydrogel, consisting of 98% water and 2% cellulose fibres.
The membrane will improve the biocompatibility of implants. Video: Wyss Zurich
‘Fibrosis of implantables is a major medical problem,’ notes biomolecular engineer Joshua Doloff at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, adding that many coating technologies are under development.
‘[The claim] that no revision surgery due to fibrosis will be needed is quite a strong claim to make,’ says Doloff, who would also like to see data on the coating’s robustness and longevity.
The silicone topography is designed using standard microfabrication techniques used in the electronics industry, assisted by IBM Research Labs.
Compared with other renewable energy resources – take solar or wind power as examples – tidal energy is still in the first stages of commercial development. But as the world moves towards a greener economy, tidal power is becoming more in demand in the competitive renewables market.
Currently, the very few tidal power plants in the world are based in Canada, China, France, Russia, South Korea, and the UK, although more are in development. Experts predict that tidal power has the potential to generate 700TWh annually, which is almost a third of the UK’s total energy consumption.
How does it work?
Tidal energy is produced by the natural movement of ocean waves during the rise and fall of tides throughout the day. Generally, generating tidal energy is easier in regions with a higher tidal range – the difference between high tide, when the water level has risen, and low tide, when levels have fallen. These levels are influenced by the moon’s gravitational pull.
The moon’s gravitational pull is responsible for the rise and fall of tides. Image: Public Domain Pictures
We are able to produce energy from this process using tidal power generators. These generators work similarly to wind turbines by drawing energy from the currents of water, and are either completely or partially submerged in water.
One advantage of tidal power generators is that water is denser than air, meaning that an individual tidal turbine can generate more power than a wind turbine, even at low currents. Tides are also predictable, with researchers arguing that it is tidal power is potentially a more reliable renewable energy source.
What is tidal power and how does it work? Video: Student Energy
There are three types of tidal energy systems: barrages, tidal streams, and tidal lagoons. Tidal barrages are structured similar to dams and generate power from river or bay tides. They are the oldest form of tidal power generation, dating back to the 1960s.
However, there is a common concern that generators and barrages can damage the environment, despite producing green energy. By creating facilities to generate energy, tidal power centres can affect the surrounding areas, leading to problems with land use and natural habitats.
Fleet tidal lagoon in Dorset, UK. Image: Geograph
Since then, technologies in tidal streams and lagoons have appeared, which work in the same fashion as barrages but have the advantage of being able to be built into the natural coastline – reducing the environmental impact often caused by the construction of barrages and generators.
However, there are no current large-scale projects with these two systems, and output is expected to be low, presenting a challenge to compete with more cost-effective renewable technologies.
Large-scale industrial mining of asbestos began towards the end of the 19th Century; predominantly in Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Brazil.
This relatively cheap material with excellent fire and heat resistance, good electrical insulating properties, and high-tensile strength was used widely in the construction industry and in many other products, including brake pads, hair dryers, and industrial filters for wine, beer and pharmaceuticals. Worldwide, an estimated two million tons of asbestos is used annually.
But asbestos exposure can be deadly. Anyone who handles the material or breathes in its fibres puts themselves at risk of lung diseases, such as asbestosis or cancer. The World Health Organization estimates that in a single year over 100,000 deaths are due to asbestos-related diseases.
Lung asbestos bodies after chemical digestion of lung tissue. Image: Wikimedia Commons
‘The truth is that it is a nasty, hazardous, toxic, carcinogenic material that has made millions and millions of people sick,’ says Arthur Frank, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Drexel University, Philadelphia, US. Frank is a longtime advocate for banning the mineral.
To date, around 60 countries have banned the use of asbestos, including the UK. Russia, India, and China, however, still use asbestos in a range of products. The US is the last among developed countries not to ban asbestos entirely. More significant for Western countries are the millions of tonnes of asbestos left in buildings – asbestos becomes a problem if disturbed, especially if the fibres go undetected.
Asbestos is a health risk to construction workers. Image: Pixabay
Traditionally, those who work in the building trade are most at risk, though workers can bring home fibres on their clothes, which poses a risk to anyone they come into contact with.
‘There is a significant amount of data that points to as little as one day of exposure being sufficient to give rise to malignancy in humans and animals,’ says Frank. It’s unclear precisely the cellular mechanism, he says, but health experts agree that asbestos poses a severe public health risk. In the UK, asbestos is responsible for half of work-related cancer deaths.
The European Parliament was one of the first to ban all future asbestos use. Image: European Parliament@Flickr
The European Parliament has pushed for the removal of asbestos from all public buildings by 2028. The asbestos industry, however, argues that it is wrong to say that any exposure to asbestos can kill and believes there is a permissible level of exposure.
In the US, asbestos-related litigation is increasingly common. ‘The companies put up a fight in most cases, delaying settlement until practically the eve of trial and disputing everything they can as to medical diagnosis and causation, and evidence of the plaintiffs’ exposure histories,’ says Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant who has spent 40 years working on asbestos as a public health problem.
However, man-made substitutes for asbestos-based construction materials are available. For over 50 years, asbestos was combined with cement in Europe because its fibres are mechanically strong and durable, says Eshmaeil Ganjian, Professor of Civil Engineering Materials at Coventry University, UK.
PVA is also widely used in glue. Image: Pixabay
These boards were used for internal and external walls as well as for roofs. Europe now uses polyvinyl alcohol – widely known as PVA - in its cement boards, Ganjian says, but this is more expensive than asbestos, which has come down in price over the past 20 years.
Waste not, want not
Ganjian is currently working on a project aimed at replacing asbestos in cement boards in Iran with waste plant fibres, such as Kraft pulp, and polymeric fibres such as acrylic and polypropylene fibres. ‘The idea is to use locally available fibres, so we use cheap acrylic fibres available from petrochemical companies in the region. The strength of cellulose fibres is lower than asbestos fibres, but when we add polypropylene or acrylic or other synthetic fibres then this increases the mechanical strength,’ he explains.
Shiraz, Iran. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The Iranian government subsequently stopped importing asbestos from Russia and banned its use in cement board factories, switching to local alternatives. ‘This was a win-win situation. It saves lives and uses a waste material,’ says Ganjian.
In recent years, novel innovation in healthcare and pharmaceuticals have hit the headlines with increasing regularity. Each story promises a better quality of life for patients and a product that will ‘revolutionise’ healthcare as we know it.
However, many of these innovations fail to materialise due to the complexity of the system. Problems with regulation, intellectual property agreements, and manufacturing are just some of the many issues that industry faces when integrating a new product into hospitals and treatment centres.
Stephen Dorrell. Image: NHS Confederation@Flickr
So, do we need rethink our expectations of innovation? Speaking at New Scientist Live in September, Stephen Dorrell, Chair of NHS Confederation and a former Health Secretary, said that as an innate characteristic of humans, innovation will not stop. However, we should be more concerned about the difficulty of making good innovation available everywhere and rethinking what we consider the most efficient way of treating patients, he said.
As the most common type of dementia – affecting one in six over the age of 80 – Alzheimer’s disease needs good innovation. With no known cure, current efforts rely heavily on having a care plan once symptoms appear and medications can only slightly improve symptoms for a time as well as slow down the progression of the disease.
Progress in pharmaceuticals
The Alzheimer’s research community are well versed in the known causes of the disease, with amyloid plaques and tau tangles the most widely accepted causes of the neurodegeneration that leads to Alzheimer’s. As a result, the majority of research and investment in the field is centred around this theory.
Neuro-Bio is a biotechnology start-up that is taking a different approach to making medicines for Alzheimer’s patients. The company is focused on a ‘previously unidentified mechanism’ of the disease that is linked to the development stages of the brain and cell death, and is working on new drug candidates that can stop the peptide involved in this mechanism from functioning improperly in adults.
After a series of setbacks in Alzheimer’s drug development, Prof Margaret Esiri, a neuropathologist at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Sciences, Oxford, said: ‘Neuro-Bio’s approach to the problem of Alzheimer’s disease is novel and scientifically well-founded. It is a good example of the new thinking that is urgently needed in this field’.
Timing it right
However, with an uncertainty for future success in Alzheimer’s pharmaceuticals, researchers interested in the genetic make-up of neurodegenerative diseases are focusing on how early diagnosis can be beneficial to patients.
Alzheimer’s can cause a significant loss of brain matter (right) compared to a healthy brain (left). Image: National Institutes of Health
According to UCL geneticist John Hardy, a loss in brain matter and amyloid build-up begins 15 to 20 years before symptoms start to appear, highlighting the need for preventative measures. This need is not consistent with what is currently available to patients in the UK however, as to qualify for a clinical trial, patients must be in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s – often exhibiting severe symptoms that can, quite drastically, negatively affect quality of life for the individual.
Scientists at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, US, may have solved this issue of early diagnosis after developing a machine learning program that outperforms other methods for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease. The program integrates known disease indicators and symptoms to predict the likelihood of Alzheimer’s onset. Multiple stage comparisons, which includes associated symptoms that are not always present in Alzheimer’s, allow the program to make a more accurate prediction of who is most vulnerable.
Development of such programs could help initiatives such as the 100,000 Genomes Project which aims to provide the NHS with a new genomic medicine service that can offer better diagnosis and more personalised treatments.
Baroness Susan Greenfield. Image: National Assembly for Wales
SCI is running a Public Evening Lecture in London on Wednesday 28 February – The 21st Century mind: Blowing it, expanding it, losing it. The talk will be given by Baroness Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist and CEO of Neuro-bio. It is free to attend, but spaces are limited. Don’t miss out – booking opening soon.
Concrete is a common fixture in the building blocks of everyday life. Image: US Navy@Wikimedia Commons
Concrete is the most widely used construction material in the world, with use dating back to Ancient Egypt.
Predictably, our needs concerning construction and the environment have changed since then, but the abundance of concrete and its uses have not. We still use concrete to build infrastructure, but building standards have changed dramatically.
Dubai city landscape. Concrete is predominantly used in residential buildings and infrastructure. Image: Pixabay
Its immense use, from house foundations to roads, means that problems cannot easily be fixed through removal of the old and replacement with the new. Such constraints have seen researchers focus on unique ways to solve the problems that widespread use of concrete can create for industry.
In the UK, four universities have created ‘self-healing’ concrete as part of a collaborative project, known as Resilient Materials 4 Life (RM4L), to produce materials that can repair themselves. Currently, monitoring and fixing building materials costs the UK construction industry £40 billion a year.
Microcapsules are mixed through the cement which then break apart when tiny cracks begin to appear. The group have also tested shape-memory polymers that can close the cracks together closely and prevent further damage. These techniques have shown success in long-term trials and in scaled-up structural elements, said Prof Bob Lark, speaking to Materials World magazine. Lark is lead investigator for RM4L at Cardiff University.
RM4L already has 20 industry partners and there is hope that, in the future, technologies can be transferred to other materials, although it has not yet reached the commercialisation stage.
Lark said: ‘What we have to do now is improve the reliability and reduce the cost of the techniques that we have developed so far, but we also need to find other, more efficient and perhaps more tailored approaches that can ensure we address the full range of damage scenarios that structures can experience.’
Making concrete eco-friendly
The abundance of concrete globally comes with an equally large carbon footprint, with concrete production equating to 5% of the annual CO2 produced by humans. For every tonne of concrete made, we contribute one tonne of CO2 to our surroundings. It is primarily due to the vast quantity produced each year that leads to this high level of environmental damage, as concrete is otherwise a ‘low impact’ material.
This inherent characteristic has led some scientists to develop stronger types of concrete. Here, the building features and low environmental impact of the material remain the same, but because less is needed of the stronger concrete to perform the same job, carbon emissions are reduced significantly.
Another method aimed at tackling emissions is the ‘upcycling’ of concrete. At UCLA, researchers have created a closed-loop process by using carbon capture from power plants that would be used to create a 3D-printed CO2NCRETE.
‘It could be a game-changer for climate policy,’ said Prof JR DeShazo, Director at the Luskin Centre for innovation, UCLA. ‘It takes what was a problem and turns it into a benefit in products and services that are going to be very much needed and valued in places like India and China.’
The next five years will be the most promising in the fight against cancer with immunotherapies – such as CAR-T and moderating T-Cell approaches, and innate immunity therapies – delivering far better patient outcomes.
In the last five years, the industry has rapidly advanced its understanding of the body’s immune response and genetic markers. As a result, combination therapies – chemotherapies will continue to play an important role – are forecast to become an increasingly standardised treatment, with pharma keen to invest.
These newer options are bringing in transformative remission rates, and check-point inhibitors have already been seen to elicit long-term cures in patients, with success rates two-to-three times higher than standard chemotherapy approaches.
Over the next ten years, we will see significant breakthroughs as the industry’s understanding of the immune system improves. There are currently more than 130 biotechs – in addition to 20 big pharma companies – working on new therapies and it is believed the smaller companies are more aggressively bringing newer innovations to market. In the long run, pharma will undoubtedly absorb the most promising players in an effort to become leaders in combination therapy approaches, which many argue will deliver the best outcomes.
The current investor frenzy is comparable to that of the genomics industry at the turn of the century. Experts argue that a more complete understanding of the genome and promise of clinical data of these transformative modalities will create a golden age for cancer therapy over the next few years.
There are, however, a number of immediate challenges. For example, CAR-T, although demonstrating good efficacy in blood cancers, has yet to show enough efficacy in solid tumours. Another challenge is how far towards cures for all patients we can get, particularly for patients with late stage metastatic cancer.
Immunotherapies are moving cancer from treatment options that simply extend life or improve experience to more effective cures. The cost of newer therapies is also coming into focus; however, this is a positive pressure on companies to produce significant, not just incremental, outcomes for patients.