Many of us have contemplated buying a reconditioned phone. It might be that bit older but it has a new screen and works as well as those in the shop-front. I’m not sure, however, that any of us have thought of investing in a reconditioned liver – but it could be coming to a body near you.
Researchers based in São Paulo’s Institute of Biosciences have been developing a technique to create and repair transplantable livers. The proof-of-concept study published in Materials Science and Engineering by the Human Genome and Stem Cell Research Centre (HUG-CELL) is based on tissue bioengineering techniques known as decellularisation and recellularisation.
The organs of some donors are sometimes damaged in traffic accidents, but these may soon be transplantable if the HUG-CELL team realises its goal.
The decellularisation and recellularisation approach involves taking an organ from a deceased donor and treating it with detergents and enzymes to remove all the cells from the tissue. What remains is the organ’s extracellular matrix, containing its original structure and shape.
This extracellular matrix is then seeded with cells from the transplant patient. The theoretical advantage of this method is that the body’s immune system won’t rile against the new organ as it already contains cells from the patient’s own body, thereby boosting the chance of long-term acceptance.
However, the problem with the decellularisation process is that it removes the very molecules that tell cells to form new blood vessels. This weakens cell adhesion to the extracellular matrix. To get around this, the researchers have introduced a stage between decellularisation and recellularisation. After decellularising rat livers, the scientists injected a solution that was rich in the proteins produced by lab-grown liver cells back into the extracellular matrix. These proteins then told the liver cells to multiply and form blood vessels.
These cells then grew for five weeks in an incubator that mimicked the conditions inside the human body. According to the researchers, the results showed significantly improved recellularisation.
“It’s comparable to transplanting a ‘reconditioned’ liver, said Mayana Zatz, HUG-CELL’s principal investigator and co-author of the article. “It won't be rejected because it uses the patient’s own cells, and there’s no need to administer immunosuppressants.”
Extracellular matrix of a decellularised liver | Image Credit: HUG-CELL/USP
Obviously, there is a yawning gap between proof of concept and the operating theatre, but the goal is to scale up the process to create human-sized livers, lungs, hearts, and skin for transplant patients.
“The plan is to produce human livers in the laboratory to scale,” said lead author Luiz Carlos de Caires-Júnior to Agência FAPESP. “This will avoid having to wait a long time for a compatible donor and reduce the risk of rejection of the transplanted organ."
This technique could also be used to repair livers given by organ donors that are considered borderline or non-transplantable. “Many organs available for transplantation can’t actually be used because the donor has died in a traffic accident,” Caires-Júnior added. “The technique can be used to repair them, depending on their status.”
Even if we are at the early stages of this approach, it bodes well for future research. And for those on the organ transplant list, a reconditioned liver would be as good as a new one – complete with their very own factory settings.
Read the paper here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0928493120337814
When you live in a cold country, you think of hot days as a blessing. Air conditioning units are for those in far-away places – humid countries where the baked earth smell rises to meet you when you step off the plane.
But cooling comes at a cost. According to the UN Environment Programme, it accounts for 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Some of us are visual learners; so, the sheer cost of cooling really hit me when I stared up at an apartment building in Hong Kong with hundreds of air conditioning units perched above the windows like birds.
And it isn’t just the Hong Kongers feeling the heat. The cooling industry as a whole is under pressure to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency expects emissions from cooling to double by 2030 due to heat waves, population growth, urbanisation, and the growing middle class. By 2050, it forecasts that space cooling will consume as much electricity as China and India do today.
Air conditioning units cling to a building
All of this was captured by the Cooling Suppliers: Who's Winning the Race to Net Zero report released by the Race to Zero campaign, the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP), Carbon Trust and other partners in the UN Environment Programme-hosted Cool Coalition.
This report's authors found that only five of the 54 cooling companies they assessed have committed to net-zero targets. The document outlines three areas that must be addressed on the Cooling Climate Pathway: super-efficient appliances, ultra-low global warming refrigerants, and the widespread adoption of passive cooling measures such as clever home design and urban planning.
So, while builders adjust window sizes, introduce trees for shading, and choose materials (such as terracotta cooling systems) thoughtfully to temper the sun’s gaze, others are availing of different methods.
For example, the COP26 (the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference) Champions Team has just released its Net Zero Cooling Action Plan that includes a Cool Calculator tool to help companies and governments run simple calculations to see where they could decarbonise their cooling systems. Similarly, the UK's Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has launched a net-zero cooling product guide that showcases energy-efficient products run on natural refrigerants.
Green walls are one of many passive cooling approaches used to reduce our reliance on mechanical systems.
However, it’s clear that the softly-softly approach won’t suffice. The EIA has called on governments to do more to encourage organisations to adopt sustainable cooling, to make concrete policy commitments, and speed-up the phase-out of climate-warming refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons.
“The development and expansion of net-zero cooling is a critical part of our Race to Zero emissions,” said Nigel Topping, UK High Level Champion for COP26. “In addition to technological breakthroughs and ambitious legislation, we also need sustainable consumer purchasing to help deliver wholesale systems change.”
We all love the technological panacea – innovations that will cure all the climate ills we have inflicted on the world. But the solution will also involve stodgy government regulations and changing consumer habits, and a reliance on the continued fall in renewable power generation.
For those in traditionally cooler climes, it’s no longer someone else’s problem. It was a balmy 22°C in London this week and we’re not even in April yet. So, it’s certainly time to turn up the heat on the cooling industry.
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:
What do grape stalks, pineapple leaves, corn cobs, rice husks, sheep’s wool, and straw have in common? Apart from being natural materials, they have all been used to insulate homes. Increasingly, people are turning towards natural, sustainable materials as climate change and waste have become bigger problems.
Existing building insulation materials such as synthetic rock wool are excellent at keeping our homes warm in winter, but the conversation has moved beyond thermal performance. Energy use, re-usability, toxicity, and material disposal are all live considerations now, especially with regulations and emissions targets tightening. So, rock wool might perform better than straw bale insulation but straw is biodegradable, reusable, easy to disassemble, and doesn’t require large amounts of energy to process.
Sheep’s wool and hemp insulation have also become attractive to homeowners and housebuilders alike, but an even more encouraging prospect is the use of waste materials to create next generation insulation. In this spirit, researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, have taken waste cooking oil, wool offcuts, and sulphur to process a novel housing insulation material.
Recycled paper is one of many waste materials that has found its way into domestic insulation.
To make this composite, they followed several stages. In the first stage of the synthesis, the researchers used inverse vulcanisation to create a polysulphide polymer from canola oil triglyceride and sulphur. They then mixed this powdered polymer with wool and coated the fibres through electrostatic attraction. This mixture was compressed through mild heating to provoke S−S metathesis in the polymer and bind the wool. The wool bolsters the tensile strength of the material, makes it less flammable, and provides excellent insulation. The result is a sustainable building material that fulfils its function without damaging the environment.
For Associate Professor Justin Chalker, the lead author of this study, this work provides an ideal jumping-off point. “The promising mechanical and insulation properties of this composite bodes well for further exploration in energy saving insulation in our built environment,” he said.
It is clear that ventures like the one in Adelaide will continue to sprout all over the world. After all, necessity dictates that we change the way we build our homes and treat materials.
A recent report from Emergen Research predicts that the global insulation materials market will be worth US $82.96 billion (£59.78 billion) by 2027. The same report was also at pains to mention that the increasing demand for reduced energy consumption in buildings will be a significant factor in influencing industry growth.
“Market revenue growth is high and expected to incline rapidly going ahead due to rising demand for insulation materials... to reduce energy consumption in buildings,” it said. One of the main reasons given for this increased green building demand was stricter environmental regulations.
And Emergen isn’t the only organisation feeling the ground moving. Online roofing merchant Roofing Megastore, which sells more than 30,000 roofing materials, has detected a shift towards environmentally friendly materials, with many homeowners sourcing these products themselves.
Rock wool insulation panels have come under greater scrutiny in recent times.
Having analysed two years of Google search data on sustainable building materials, the company found that synthetic roof tiles are generating the most interest from the public. Like the Flinders insulation, these roof tiles make use of waste materials, in this case recycled limestone and plastic. And you don’t need to look far down the list to find sustainable insulation materials, with sheep’s wool insulation in 9th place, wood fibre insulation in 10th, and hemp insulation in 12th.
Over time, the logic of the progression towards natural, less energy-intensive building materials will become harder to ignore. “Traditional materials such as synthetic glass mineral wool offer high levels of performance but require large amounts of energy to produce and must be handled with care while wearing PPE,” the company noted. “Natural materials such as hemp or sheep’s wool, however, require very little energy to create and can be installed easily without equipment.”
So, the next time you look down at your nutshells, spent cooking oil, or tattered woollen sweater, think of their potential. In a few years, these materials could be sandwiched between your walls, keeping you warm all winter.
Insulating composites made from sulphur, canola oil, and wool (2021): https://chemistry-europe.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cssc.202100187?af=R
A completely clean, renewable energy system that can be produced locally and that can easily power heat, energy storage and transportation, and travel — that's the future that promoters of a hydrogen economy envisage.
If it sounds a bit like rocket science, that's because it is. Hydrogen is what's used to fuel rockets — that’s how powerful it is. In fact, it’s three times more powerful as a fuel than gas or other fossil-based sources. And, after use, it’s frequently converted to drinking water for astronauts.
US President Joe Biden has highlighted the potential of hydrogen in his ambitious plans for economic and climate recovery and a number of recent reports have been encouraging about hydrogen’s breakthrough moment, including McKinsey and Company (Road Map to a US Hydrogen Economy, 2020) and the International Energy Agency.
Hydrogen fuel cells provide a tantalising glimpse into our low-carbon future
The McKinsey report claims that, by 2030, the hydrogen sector could generate 700,000 jobs and $140bn in revenue, growing to 3.4 million jobs and $750bn by 2050. It also believes it could account for a 16% reduction in CO2 emissions, a 36% reduction in NOx emissions, and supply 14% of US energy demand.
So how does it work?
Simply put, hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen atoms to produce electricity. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell and produces electricity, water, and heat.
This is what gets supporters so excited. In theory, hydrogen is a limitless, incredibly powerful fuel source with no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases.
So what's the problem?
Right now, there are actually a few problems. The process relies on electrolysis and steam reforming, which are extremely expensive. The IEA estimates that to produce all of today’s dedicated hydrogen output from electricity would require 3,600TWh, more than the total annual electricity generation of the European Union.
Moreover, almost 95% of hydrogen currently is produced using fossil fuels such as methane, natural gas, or coal (this is called "grey hydrogen"). Its production is responsible for annual CO2 emissions equivalent to those of Indonesia and the United Kingdom combined. In addition, its low density makes it difficult to store and transport — it must be under high pressure at all times. It’s also well-known for being highly flammable — its use as a fuel has come a long way since the Hindenburg Disaster but the association still makes many people nervous.
A Hydrogen refuelling station Hafencity in Hamburg, Germany. Infrastructure issues must be addressed if we are to see more hydrogen-fuelled vehicles on our roads. | Image credit: fritschk / Shutterstock.com
So there are quite a few problems. What’s the good news?
In the last few years, we've seen how rapidly investment, innovation, and infrastructure policy can completely transform individual renewable energy industries. For example, the IEA analysis believes the declining costs of renewables and the scaling up of hydrogen production could reduce the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable electricity 30% by 2030.
Some of the issues around expense could be resolved by mass manufacture of fuel cells, refuelling equipment, and electrolysers (which produce hydrogen from electricity and water), made more likely by the increased interest and urgency. Those same driving forces could improve infrastructural issues such as refuelling stations for private and commercial vehicles, although this is likely to require coordination between various stakeholders, including national and local governments, industry, and investors.
The significant gains in renewable energy mean that “green” hydrogen, where renewable electricity powers the electrolysis process, is within sight.
The IEA report makes clear that international co-operation is “vital” to progress quickly and successfully with hydrogen energy. R&D requires support, as do first movers in mitigating risks. Standards need to be harmonised, good practice shared, and existing international infrastructure built on (especially existing gas infrastructure).
If hydrogen can be as efficient and powerful a contributor to a green global energy mix as its proponents believe, then it's better to invest sooner rather than later. If that investment can help power a post-Covid economic recovery, even better.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines the Blue Economy as ‘all economic sectors that have a direct or indirect link to the oceans, such as marine energy, coastal tourism and marine biotechnology.’ Other organisations have their own definitions, but they all stress the economic and environmental importance of seas and oceans.
Header image: Our oceans are of economic and environmental importance
To this end there are a growing number of initiatives focused on not only protecting the world’s seas but promoting economic growth. At the start of 2021 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) joined forces to support clean and sustainable ocean initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region, and ultimately contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals and the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.
Both institutions will finance activities aimed at promoting cleaner oceans ‘through the reduction of land-based plastics and other pollutants discharged into the ocean,’ as well as projects which improve the sustainability of all socioeconomic activities that take place in oceans, or that use ocean-based resources.
ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, Bambang Susantono, said ‘Healthy oceans are critical to life across Asia and the Pacific, providing food security and climate resilience for hundreds of millions of people. This Memorandum of Understanding between the ADB and EIB will launch a framework for cooperation on clean and sustainable oceans, helping us expand our pipeline of ocean projects in the region and widen their impacts’.
The blue economy is linked to green recovery
In the European Union the blue economy is strongly linked to the bloc’s green recovery initiatives. The EU Blue Economy Report, released during June 2020, indicated that the ‘EU blue economy is in good health.’ With five million people working in the blue economy sector during 2018, an increase of 11.6% on the previous year, ‘the blue economy as a whole presents a huge potential in terms of its contribution to a green recovery,’ the EU noted. As the report was launched, Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, responsible for the Joint Research Committee said; ‘We will make sure that research, innovation and education contribute to the transition towards a European Blue Economy.’
The impact of plastics in oceans is well known and many global initiatives are actively tackling the problem. At the end of 2020 the World Economic Forum and Vietnam announced a partnership to tackle plastic pollution and marine plastic debris. The initiative aims to help Vietnam ‘dramatically reduce its flow of plastic waste into the ocean and eliminate single-use plastics from coastal tourist destinations and protected areas.’ Meanwhile young people from across Africa were congratulated for taking leadership roles in their communities as part of the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge. Participants in the challenge have raised awareness of the impact of plastic pollution in general.
But it isn’t just the health of our oceans that governments and scientists are looking at. There is growing interest in the minerals and ore that could potentially be extracted via sea-bed mining. The European Commission says that the quantity of minerals occupying the ocean floor is potentially large, and while the sector is small, the activity has been identified as having the potential to generate sustainable growth and jobs for future generations. But adding a note of caution, the Commission says, ‘Our lack of knowledge of the deep-sea environment necessitates a careful approach.’ Work aimed at shedding light on the benefits, drawbacks and knowledge gaps associated with this type of mining is being undertaken.
With the push for cleaner energy and the use of batteries, demand for cobalt will rise, and the sea-bed looks to have a ready supply of the element. But, the World Economic Forum points out that the ethical dimensions of deep-sea cobalt have the potential to become contentious and pose legal and reputational risks for mining companies and those using cobalt sourced from the sea-bed.
Energy will continue to be harnessed from the sea.
But apart from its minerals, the ocean’s ability to supply energy will continue to be harnessed through avenues such as tidal and wind energy. During the final quarter of 2020, the UK Hydrographic Office launched an Admiralty Marine Innovation Programme. Led by the UK Hydrographic Office, the programme gives innovators and start-ups a chance to develop new solutions that solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges as related to our oceans.
The UK’s Blue Economy is estimated to be worth £3.2 trillion by the year 2030. Marine geospatial data will be important in supporting this growth by enabling the identification of new areas for tidal and wind energy generation, supporting safe navigation for larger autonomous ships, which will play a vital role in mitigating climate change, and more.
Where once a country might have wanted to strike gold, now hitting upon a hydrocarbon find feels like a prize. But finding a hydrocarbon is only the beginning of the process and might not be worth it — as Lebanon is discovering.
First, a little background: for some time, Lebanon has been experiencing an energy crisis. Without resources of their own, the industry (which is government-owned) is reliant on foreign imports, which are expensive. Electricity in early 2020 was responsible for almost 50% of Lebanon's national debt. Major blackouts were common.
This contributed to a spiralling financial crisis, prompting public protests and riots as the middle class disappeared and even wealthier citizens struggled. Before Covid-19 and the devastating August 2020 blast in Beirut, Lebanon was in crisis.
The idea that the country might be able to switch from foreign oil to local gas was understandably appealing, especially when a major find was literally right there on the Lebanese shore. In 2019, a consortium of Israeli and US firms discovered more than 8tcm of natural gas in several offshore fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, much of it in Lebanese waters.
A hydrocarbon find off the Beirut coast has failed to live up to its early promise.
But a find is only the beginning. With trust in Lebanese politicians low (the country ranks highly in most government corruption indexes) and a system that has repeatedly struggled to deliver a stable government, there are additional difficulties, not least a delay in the licensing rounds and a lack of trust — both internally, from citizens, and externally, from potential bidders. Meanwhile, Lebanon's neighbours race ahead to exploit their own finds, which ratchets up tensions.
Amid all that, a drilling exploration managed to go ahead last summer. But the joint venture between Total, ENI, and Novatek, which operated a well 30km offshore Beirut and drilled to approximately 1,500 metres, did not bring back the hoped-for results. The results confirmed the presence of a hydrocarbon system generally but did not encounter any reservoirs of the Tamar formation, which was the target.
Offshore exploration is a long process, with a lot of challenges and uncertainties and Ricardo Darré, Managing Director of Total E&P Liban, said afterwards, "Despite the negative result, this well has provided valuable data and learnings that will be integrated into our evaluation of the area". But the faith national politicians have long put in the hydrocarbon find, selling it as an answer to all Lebanon's problems, seems to have only worsened the domestic situation since.
And domestic politics is just the start of the problems…
Unlike other countries in the Middle East, Lebanon has no pipeline infrastructure of its own.
Israel, Egypt, and Jordan already have pipelines, which go to Italy. Turkey is working with Libya on a pipeline. Lebanon has no pipeline infrastructure of its own yet, although Russia has storage facilities and pipelines in the country and an eye on possible competition in the gas market.
None of that is an issue if the supply is intended for domestic use but that might not be profitable enough for investors and the Lebanese government would struggle to underwrite production on its own. Cyprus has encountered similar issues exploiting its share of the find.
Lebanon has also set an ambitious goal of having 30% of domestic energy mix sourced from renewable energy by 2030. The hoped-for gas was intended to support the renewable energy mix but, with the clock ticking, it might be that priorities shift to focusing on renewables. The Covid-19 pandemic will significantly impact the budgets of drilling companies and the push for renewable energy, both from governments and investors, seems to be growing as a way to boost economic recovery.
It may be that, after all the excitement around the hydrocarbon find, Lebanon starts to look elsewhere for its energy provision.
The world’s biggest ever survey of public opinion on climate change was published on 27th January, covering 50 countries with over half of the world’s population, by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the University of Oxford. Of the respondents, 64% believe climate change is a global emergency, despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and sought broader action to combat it. Earlier in the month, US President Joe Biden reaffirmed the country's commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
It is possible that the momentum, combined with the difficulties many countries currently face, may make many look again to geoengineering as an approach. Is it likely that large scale engineering techniques could mitigate the damage of carbon emissions? And is it safe to do so or could we be exacerbating the problem?
The term has long been controversial, as have many of the suggested techniques. But it would seem that some approaches are gaining more mainstream interest, particularly Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Modification (SRM), which the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report for the UN suggested were worth further investigation (significantly, it did not use the term "geoengineering" and distinguished these two methods from others).
One of the most covered CDR techniques is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Carbon Capture, Utilisation, and Storage (CCUS), the process of capturing waste carbon dioxide, usually from carbon intensive industries, and storing (or first re-using) it so it will not enter the atmosphere. Since 2017, after a period of declining investment, more than 30 new integrated CCUS facilities have been announced. However, there is concern among many that it will encourage further carbon emissions when the goal should be to reduce and use CCS to buy time to do so.
CDR techniques that utilise existing natural processes of natural repair, such as reforestation, agricultural practices that absorb carbon in soils, and ocean fertilisation are areas that many feel could and should be pursued on a large scale and would come with ecological and biodiversity benefits, as well as fostering a different, more beneficial relationship with local environments.
A controversial iron compound deposition approach has been trialled to boost salmon numbers and biodiversity in the Pacific Ocean.
The ocean is a mostly untapped area with huge potential and iron fertilisation is one very promising area. The controversial Haida Salmon Corporation trial in 2012 is perhaps the most well-known example and brings together a lot of the pros and cons frequently discussed in geoengineering — in many ways, we can see it as a microcosm of the bigger issue.
The trial deposited 120 tonnes of iron compound in the migration routes of pink and sockeye salmon in the Pacific Ocean 300k west of Haida Gwaii over a period of 30 days, which resulted in a 35,000km2, several month long phytoplankton bloom that was confirmed by NASA satellite imagery. That phytoplankton bloom fed the local salmon population, revitalising it — the following year, the number of salmon caught in the northeast Pacific went from 50 million to 226 million. The local economy benefited, as did the biodiversity of the area, and the increased iron in the sea captured carbon (as did the biomass of fish, for their lifetimes).
Small but mighty, phytoplankton are the laborers of the ocean. They serve as the base of the food web.
But Environment Canada believes the corporation violated national environmental laws by depositing iron without a permit. Much of the fear around geoengineering is how much might be possible by rogue states or even rogue individuals, taking large scale action with global consequences without global consent.
The conversation around SRM has many similarities — who decides that the pros are worth the cons, when the people most likely to suffer the negative effects, with or without action, are already the most vulnerable? This is a concern of some of the leading experts in the field. Professor David Keith, an expert in the field, has publicly spoken about his concern around climate change and inequality, adding after the latest study that, "the poorest people tend to suffer most from climate change because they’re the most vulnerable. Reducing extreme weather benefits the most vulnerable the most. The only reason I’m interested in this is because of that."
But he doesn't believe anywhere near sufficient research has been done into the viability of the approach or the possible consequences and cautions that there is a need for "an adequate governance system in place".
There is no doubt that the research in this field is exciting but there are serious ethical and governance problems to be dealt with before it can be considered a serious component of an emissions reduction strategy.
We are increasingly conscious of the need to recycle waste products, but it is never quite so easy as rinsing and sorting your waste into the appropriate bins, especially when it comes to plastic.
Despite our best intentions, only around 16% of plastic is recycled into new products — and, worse, plastics tend to be recycled into low quality materials because transformation into high-value chemicals requires substantial amounts of energy, meaning the choices are either downcycling or prohibitively difficult. The majority of single-use plastics end up in landfills or abandoned in the environment.
This is a particular problem when it comes to polyolefins such as polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), which use cheap and readily available raw materials. Approximately 380 million tonnes of plastics are generated annually around the world and it is estimated that, by 2050, that figure will be 1.1 billion tonnes. Currently, 57% of this total are polyolefins.
Why are polyolefins an issue? The strong sp3 carbon–carbon bonds (essentially long, straight chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms) that make them useful as a material also make them particularly difficult to degrade and reuse without intensive, high energy procedures or strong chemicals. More than most plastics, downcycling or landfill disposal tend to be the main end-of-life options for polyolefins.
Polyethylene is used to make plastic bags and packaging.
Now, however, a team of scientists from MIT, led by Yuriy Román-Leshkov, believe they may have made a significant step towards solving this problem.
Previous research has demonstrated that noble metals, such as zirconium, platinum, and ruthenium can help split apart short, simple hydrocarbon chains as well as more complicated, but plant-based lignin molecules, in processes with much lower temperatures and energy.
So the team looked at using the same approach for the long hydrocarbon chains in polyolefins, aiming to disintegrate the plastics into usable chemicals and natural gas. It worked.
First, they used ruthenium-carbon nanoparticles to convert more than 90% of the hydrocarbons into shorter compounds at 200 Celsius (previously, temperatures of 430–760 Celsius were required).
Next, they tested their new method on commercially available, more complex polyolefins without pre-treatment (an energy intensive requirement). Not only were the samples completely broken down into gaseous and liquid products, the end product could be selected by tuning the reaction, yielding either natural gas or a combination of natural gas and liquid alkanes (both highly desirable) as preferred.
Polypropylene is used in bottle caps, houseware, and other packaging and consumer products.
The researchers believe that an industrial scale use of their method could eventually help reduce the volume of post-consumer waste in landfills by recycling plastics to desirable, highly valuable alkanes — but, of course, it's not that simple. The team says that more research into the effects of moisture and contaminants in the process is required, as well as product removal strategies to decrease the formation of light alkanes which will be critical for the industrialisation of this reaction.
However, they believe the path they're on could lead to affordable upcycling technology that would better integrate polyolefins into the global economy and incentivise the removal of waste plastics from landfill and the environment.
More about the study can be read here:
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published its Science Technology and Innovation Outlook 2021: Time of Crises and Opportunity report.
Published at the beginning of 2021, the report focuses on the ‘unparalleled mobilisation of the scientific and innovation community’ in response to the covid-19 pandemic. The report indicates that newly funded research initiatives have been established by public research agencies and organisations, private foundations and charities, while the health sector has similarly invested in an array of research programmes worth billions of dollars in record time.
The pandemic has led an unprecedented mobilisation of the scientific and innovation community
However, the report also exposes gaps in overall system resilience to future crises. ‘It’s a wake-up call that highlights the need to recalibrate science, technology and innovation (STI) policies, so that they better orient research and innovation efforts towards sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency goals,’ the report asserts.
Highlighting the rapid response by governments around the world, the report indicates that in the first few months of the pandemic, national research funding bodies spent around $5 billion on emergency financial support. This includes $300 million in Asia-Pacific, excluding China, over $850 million in Europe and more than $3.5 billion in North America. At the same time, research efforts led to around 75,000 scientific publications on covid-19 being released between January and November 2020, the report says. The largest share came from the US, followed by China and the UK. Research databases and scientific publishers removed paywalls so that covid-19 related information could be quickly shared.
Research efforts led to around 75,000 scientific publications on covid-19 being released between January and November 2020
‘These developments mark important changes that could accelerate the transition to a more open science in the longer run,’ the report says. It is also noted that not only have researchers continued their work with more than three quarters of scientists indicating that they had shifted to working from home at some point in 2020, but almost two thirds experienced, or expected to see, an increase in the use of digital tools for research as a consequence of the crisis. The report also mentions the contribution of the general public, with so called ‘frugal innovations’ in response to shortages of medical equipment and emergency supplies.
Looking to the future of the research community, the report says that postgraduate training regimes require reform to support a diversity of career paths. ‘The crisis has shown that the need for STI expertise is not limited to the public laboratory; it is also important for business, government and NGOs […] Reforming PhD and post-doctoral training to support a diversity of career paths is essential for improving societies’ ability to react to crises like covid-19 and to deal with long-term challenges like climate change that demand science-based responses […] There has been a 25% increase in the number of people with PhDs in OECD countries over the past decade with no corresponding increase in academic posts. The pandemic is expected to make matters worse, more than half of the scientists participating in the OECD Science Flash Survey expect the crisis to negatively affect their job security and career opportunities,’ the report says.
Post-graduate training regimes require reform to support a diversity of career paths
While still in the midst of the pandemic, the report stresses that STI policies now need to be reoriented to tackle the challenges of sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency. ‘In the short-term governments should continue their support for science and innovation activities that aim to develop solutions to the pandemic and mitigate its negative impacts, while paying attention to its uneven distributional effects. Science for policy will remain in the spotlight as governments seek to strike the right balance in their response to covid-19. This will effect public perceptions of science that could have long term implications for science-society relations.’
The report concludes that governments now have the task of developing public sector capabilities to deliver more ambitious STI policy. This will require engagement from stakeholders and citizens in order to capture a diversity of knowledge and values.
Galen (129-216 CE) is one of the most famous and influential medical practitioners in history but he was also a scientist, an author, a philosopher, and a celebrity. He wrote hundreds of treatises, travelled and studied widely, was the physician to three emperors, and left a legacy of scientific thought that lasted for fifteen hundred years — even today, his work has an influence.
Header image Editorial credit: Eray Adiguzel / Shutterstock.com
He grew up in Pergamum, an intellectual centre of the Mediterranean world, in a wealthy family that encouraged him to pursue academia and funded his travels to learn in the best environments available, acquiring the latest techniques in medicine and healing.
He understood that diet, exercise, and hygiene were essential for good health and put that into practice in the four years he spent working for the High Priest of Pergamum's Gladiator School. This was a high profile and high pressure role and we know he reduced the death rate dramatically in his four years there. The recommendation he got helped secure him a position in Rome, capital of the empire.
He was not popular in the city — at one point, he seems to have been chased out by the local physicians, who strenuously disagreed with his methods — but he was eventually summoned by the emperor Marcus Aurelius to be his personal physician. He was described by the emperor as, “First among doctors and unique among philosophers".
Galen; Line engraving | Credit: Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons
Galen continued to navigate the difficult political environment of the imperial capital and was personal physician to two more emperors, while publishing prolifically and becoming one of the most well-known figures in the Roman Empire. Much of his work is lost to us but we still know a great deal about him, including that he had a flair for showmanship and controversy.
In the Greek world where he grew up, dissections had been common — of animals and humans. In Rome, this was not the case. In fact, human dissections were banned across the empire shortly before Galen arrived in the city. Undaunted, he gave a number of public anatomical demonstrations using pigs, monkeys, sheep, and goats to show his new city what they were missing (this was one of many incidents that contributed to local dislike of his methods as well as his increasing fame).
His legacy was huge, both because he recorded and critiqued the work of others in his field and because of the huge volumes of his own observations and theories. His texts were the foundation for much of medical education in the Islamic, Byzantine, and European worlds until the 17th Century.
The ban on human dissection likely limited his progress in some areas and many of his theories have (eventually) been disproved, such as the theory of the four humours — blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm — based on Hippocrates' system and elaborated, as well as the efficacy of bloodletting.
Galen observed that cataracts could be removed.
In other areas, however, he was remarkably successful. He observed that the heart has four valves that allow blood to flow in only one direction, that a patient's pulse or urine held clues to their disease, that urine forms in kidneys (previously thought to be the bladder), that arteries carry liquid blood (previously thought to be air), that cataracts could be removed from patients' eyes, among others. He also identified seven of the 12 cranial nerves, including the optic and acoustic nerves.
His focus on practical methods such as direct observation, dissection, and vivisection is obviously still relevant to modern medical research. Indeed, scientists who disproved his theories, such as Andreas Vesalius and Michael Servetus in the 16th century, did so using Galen's own methods.
The study of his work remains hugely important to the history and understanding of medicine and science, as well as the ancient world. The Galenic formulation, which deals with the principles of preparing and compounding medicines in order to optimise their absorption, is named after him.
A year after the world was put on alert about the rapidly spreading covid-19 virus, mass vaccination programmes are providing a welcome light at the end of the tunnel.
However, for many people vaccination remains a concern. A World Economic Forum – Ipsos survey: Global Attitudes on a Covid-19 Vaccine, indicates that while an increasing number of people in the US and UK plan to get vaccinated, the intent has dropped in South Africa, France, Japan and South Korea. The survey was conducted in December 2020, following the first vaccinations in the US and the UK.
This study shows that overall vaccination intent is below 50% in France and Russia. ‘Strong intent’ is below 15% in Japan, France and Russia.
Many cities are still in lockdown
Between 57% and 80% of those surveyed cited concerns over side effects as a reason for not getting a covid-19 vaccination. Doubts over the effectiveness of a vaccine was the second most common reason cited in many countries, while opposition to vaccines in general was mentioned by around 25% those who will refuse a vaccination.
The survey was conducted among 13,542 adults aged 18–74 in Canada, South Africa, and the US, while those surveyed in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea, Spain and the UK were aged 16–74.
A previous survey, Global Attitudes on a Covid-19 Vaccine carried out in July and August 2020, indicated that 74% of those surveyed intended to get vaccinated. At that time the World Economic Forum said that this majority could still fall short of the number required to ‘beat covid-19.’
Commenting on the newest data Arnaud Bernaert, Head of Health and Healthcare at the World Economic Forum said; ‘As vaccinations roll out, it is encouraging to see confidence improve most in countries where vaccines are already made available. It is critical that governments and the private sector come together to build confidence and ensure that manufacturing capacity meets the global demand.’
World Economic Forum-Ipsos Survey indicates a rise in number of people in US and UK intending to get vaccinated.
With the imperative now to move towards some sort of ‘normality’, as well as getting economies moving, fears over vaccination need to be allayed. However, what also needs to be considered is what underlies those fears. Misinformation, no doubt, has a part to play. This highlights a lack of trust in governments and a sector that has worked tirelessly to develop vaccines in record time.
As different companies bring their vaccines to the market, care now needs to be taken to reassure people around the world that whichever manufacturer’s vaccine they are given, they are in safe hands. As any adverse reactions occur – an inevitability with any vaccine rollout – these ought to be made known to the wider public by companies and governments as soon as it is feasible, preventing space for the spread of rumour and misinformation, which could undo the hard work of the scientists, businesses and governments bringing vaccines to the public.
Researchers have worked tirelessly to bring vaccines to the market
Waking up after a night of overindulgence on food and wine and realising you don’t have a headache is very satisfying. But realising, soon afterwards, you have heartburn can bring your mood down rapidly.
After years of discussion and argument around Brexit, the UK woke up to find that a Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and the EU been reached. A major headache had been avoided.
UK Businesses have a new trading landscape
However, the UK chemicals sector soon realised that after pulling back the curtains and taking a look at the new trading landscape, a feeling of heartburn was rising. The chemical sector’s regulatory obligation now requires that it establishes a UK-REACH system. The deal negotiated means that the UK has no access to the data it submitted to the EU’s REACH database.
In effect, the UK chemical sector has to populate the UK-REACH system from scratch. This will require an array of steps possibly including testing and renegotiating data sharing with other companies. According to the Chief Executive of the Chemical Industries Association (CIA), Steve Elliot, this is set to burn a £1 billion hole in the UK chemical sector’s pocket.
‘Failure to secure access to what has been a decade’s worth of investment by UK chemical businesses in data for EU REACH will leave the industry facing a bill of more than £1 billion in unnecessarily duplicating that work for a new UK regime,’ said Elliot in a statement on 24 December 2020, the day that the UK government excitedly announced the new trade deal.
UK-REACH could cost more than £1 billion
As a slightly belated Christmas gift, and perhaps just taking the edge off the heartburn, the UK government’s Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow announced, on 31 December, that the UK-REACH IT system was up and running. Pow said that the government had worked closely with partners, industry and stakeholders developing the IT system to manage the UK’s chemicals industry.
‘Having our own independent chemicals regulatory framework will ensure that we make decisions that best reflect the UK’s needs while maintaining some of the highest chemical standards in the world,’ she said.
But will these high standards do what REACH was set up for in the first place, and protect human health and the environment? According to CHEM Trust, a UK-German charity focused on preventing man-made chemicals from causing long term damage to wildlife or humans, the deal does not go far enough.
Critiquing the outcome, Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust said, ‘CHEM Trust’s initial assessment is that this agreement does not adequately protect human health and the environment in the UK from hazardous chemicals. This is because it doesn’t retain UK access to the EU’s chemicals regulation system REACH. The agreement includes an annex on chemicals, but does not facilitate the type of close cooperation with the EU post-Brexit that civil society groups such as CHEM Trust, and also the chemicals and other industries are seeking.’
But on a positive note, Warhurst added; ‘The deal […] commits the UK to not regress from current levels of protection, includes a rebalancing procedure which could increase protection on both sides and offers a platform on which a closer partnership could be negotiated in the future.’
No one doubts that there is still much to be digested, along with those left over Christmas chocolates that nobody really likes, regarding the UK-EU Free Trade Agreement. ‘Although this Free Trade Agreement represents a mixed bag for our industry,’ said the CIA’s Elliot, ‘we shouldn’t underestimate the huge value that a deal brings in terms of certainty.’
2021: A year to look forward to
As people return to their desks after the Christmas break, one might dare to hope that the heartburn can be quelled with a dose of optimism after the challenging year that has just passed. With this as a basis, along with eventually emerging from the global pandemic, Elliot believes 2021 should be ‘a year to look forward to’.
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.
Today we chat to SCI member Luca Steel about her life as a plant pathology PhD student in 2020.
Zymoseptoria tritici is a fungal pathogen of wheat which can cause yield losses of up to 50%. We’re investigating an effector protein secreted by Z. tritici which acts as a ‘mask’, hiding the pathogen from host immune receptors and avoiding immune response.
What does a day in the life of a plant pathology PhD Student look like?
My days are very varied – from sowing wheat seeds to swabbing pathogenic spores onto their leaves, imaging symptoms, discussing results with my supervisor and lab team, and of course lots of reading. It doesn’t always go to plan - I recently attempted to make some wheat leaf broth, which involved lots of messy blending and ended up turning into a swampy mess in the autoclave!
Wheat in the incubator!
How did your education prepare you for this experience?
The most valuable preparation was my placement year at GSK and my final year project at university. Being in the lab and having my own project to work on made me confident that I wanted to do a PhD – even if it was a totally different research area (I studied epigenetics/immunoinflammation at GSK!).
What are some of the highlights so far?
My highlight was probably attending the European Conference on Fungal Genetics in Rome earlier this year. It was great to hear about so much exciting work going on – and it was an added bonus that we got to explore Rome. I’ve also loved getting to know my colleagues and being able to do science every day.
What is one of the biggest challenges faced in a PhD?
My biggest challenge so far has probably been working from home during lockdown. Although I am very privileged to have a distraction-free space and good internet connection, it was difficult to adjust to working from my kitchen! It was sad abandoning unfinished experiments, and I missed being in the lab – so I’m glad to be back now.
What advice would you give to someone considering a PhD?
If you’re sure you want to do one, then absolutely go for it and don’t be afraid to sell yourself! If not, I’d recommend spending some time working in a lab before you apply and chatting to any prospective labs. If you don’t get a reply from the PI, existing students/post-docs in the group are often very happy to talk and give honest opinions.
How have things been different for you because of the global pandemic?
I was lucky that the pandemic came early on in my PhD, so I had a lot of flexibility to change what I was working on. I switched from lab work involving lots of bioimaging, towards a more bioinformatic approach. My poor laptop will be glad when I’m back to using my computer at work!
At this month’s Vitae Connections Week Event, Amanda Solloway, Member of Parliament and Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, spoke about the promoting a culture of wellbeing for researchers and improving the way we evaluate research success.
Academia has long had cultural issues, including harassment, inequality and the overall high-pressure environment. Though there are great examples of effective career mentorship and support by many senior academics, often early career researchers, particularly those from underrepresented groups, are exposed to the dark side of academia.
So what can be done? These problems are not new, or surprising, to anyone who has worked in academia. The perfect world solution involves a vast systemic change, an uprising of equality within academic departments across the world. This can only happen if, as Amanda rightfully suggests, there is an increase in diverse and sustainable funding. Consistently, large grants, which allow researchers to develop independent research careers, hire new talent and maintain stable job roles within their institutions, are disproportionately awarded to those who fit a certain mould, with underrepresented groups constantly underfunded. This creates an ongoing system of inequality, and a review of how these grants are awarded is essential for academic culture to evolve.
Stress, high-pressure working and elitism are common in academia.
In addition to large scale systemic changes, more needs to be done to help the wellbeing of researchers and crush the culture of high academic expectations. Stable, long-term job roles form one part of this, and the pressure to publish research is a huge part of academic life. However, the wellbeing of early career researchers is often affected by a culture of harassment, discrimination and elitism. For example, the #MeToo movement shook the world, with the exposure of sexual harassment in academia being no exception to this. The recent increase in online events from Black Scientists is empowering, but also highlights the struggles of being a minority group in science and academia in 2020. Every day, the academic Twitter space is filled with early career researchers speaking of their ongoing problems getting through a career in academic research.
The assessment and valuation of researchers based on metrics needs to be switched up. Often, the value placed on outputs like scientific publications disadvantages those who do not fall into a particular group, those who do not have to take on extra responsibilities, something which disproportionately affects women for example. It gives an advantage to those who have support, both through finances and mentorship. It is a self-perpetuating cycle of exclusion, where success is not measured on the individuals work. Amanda Solloway is right, that many researchers are passionate, driven, love their research, and it isn’t reflected in the outputs. Many of those researchers leave academia to seek a happier and more stable existence elsewhere when we should be fighting to keep them.
Mental health and wellbeing often suffers in academia. Inforgraphic by Zoe Ayres.
As a young woman starting out on an academic career, I have experienced my fair share of these problem, including sexism, high-pressure working and mental health problems. It fills me with fear to see how things never appear to get better as you move through the ranks. I am extremely passionate about my research, but I cannot disagree with the sentiment of the PhD student Amanda spoke to: “I just can’t see myself having a future in research”. Personally, I will keep trying, but the idea of being a successful academic, within the culture of academia we sit in right now, feels like a pipe dream.
This motion from Amanda Solloway to “create a culture that welcomes the widest range of viewpoints, experiences and approaches” and “provide funding… properly and sustainably” is hopeful. A systemic change to academic culture is needed, and this can be fuelled by diversifying funding, providing more stable career progressions for early career academics and creating a workplace that is a supportive, encouraging and safe place to be.
Dinosaurs were some of the largest creatures to ever roam the Earth, but the mystery of how they supported their great weight remains. A new study published in PLOS ONE now indicates that the answer may lie in their unique bone structure, which differs from mammals and birds.
The bone is made up of different layers of different consistency, including the spongy interior, or trabecular. This part of the bone is formed of porous, honeycomb like structures.
A group of inter-disciplinary researchers, including palaeontologists, mechanical engineers, and biomedical engineers, analysed trabecular bone structure in a range of dinosaur samples, ranging from only 23 kg to 8000 kg in body mass. Their study found that the structure of dinosaur bones possessed unique properties allowing them to support large weights.
‘The structure of the trabecular, or spongy bone that forms in the interior of bones we studied is unique within dinosaurs,’ said Tony Fiorillo, palaeontologist and one of the study authors. ‘Unlike in mammals and birds, the trabecular bone does not increase in thickness as the body size of dinosaurs increase, instead it increases in density of the occurrence of spongy bone. Without this weight-saving adaptation, the skeletal structure needed to support the hadrosaurs would be so heavy, the dinosaurs would have had great difficulty moving.’
Their analysis included scanning the distal femur and proximal tibia bones from dinosaur fossils, and modelling how mechanical behaviour may have occurred. The research team also used allometry scaling – a method of understanding how physical characteristics change with physical size. They then compared the architecture of the bones to scans of both living and extinct large animals, such as Asian elephants and mammoths.
Researchers hope that they can apply their findings to design other lightweight structures such as those used in aerospace, construction, or vehicles.
‘Understanding the mechanics of the trabecular architecture of dinosaurs may help us better understand the design of other lightweight and dense structures,’ said Trevor Aguirre, mechanical engineer and lead author of the paper.
June 27th 2020 marked the fourth Micro-, Small and Medium-sized Enterprise (MSME) day, established by the International Council for Small Businesses (ICSB).
Along with online events, the ICSB published its annual report highlighting not only the importance of MSMEs as they relate to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals but also calling for further political and regulatory support for the sector as the global economy looks to make a recovery.
Concept of a green economy
Ahmed Osman, President of the ICSB, used the annual report to share his perspectives on the future for MSMEs in the post pandemic world and posed the question ‘What is the new normal for MSMEs?’
‘There are six key factors every MSME or start-up needs to keep in mind post Covid-19,’ Osman stated, the first of these being financial assessment and security. Encouraging MSMEs to put in place a financial action plan, obtaining information about government relief packages and getting a clear picture of investor expectations, Osman said; ‘Once this financial risk assessment and support ecosystem are in place, one can execute the plan. This may involve deciding on a potential pay cut, pull back on investments related to infrastructure or expansion, halting new recruitment etc…’
Digital Business and Technology Concept
Having secured the financial footing the next factor was to re-evaluate the business plan in light of the new conditions. Osman stressed the importance of involving all stakeholders to come up with a mutually agreed set of new targets. The third factor to consider, according to Osman, was creating a ‘strong digital ecosystem.’ ‘If there is one thing that Covid-19 has taught businesses. It is the power of digital engagement. Even as an MSME, it helps to be present and active on digital media…Additionally, a digitally enabled internal ecosystem also needs to be in place that can accommodate remote working…without compromising data security or productivity of employees.’
The fourth factor Osman highlighted was adoption of the fourth revolution for business. ‘…This is also time to leverage the new age technology innovations and adopt the fourth revolution for business. While most SMEs and MSMEs look at this as an ‘out of league’ investment, it is actually very simple and can be incorporated for a higher ROI in the long run. Be it automation, CRM, ERP, IoT, a well planned strategy to scale to technology-enabled, highly productive next generation business can be worked out with a two to three year plan,’ Osman said.
Bulb future technology
Less reliance on physical space was the fifth factor Osman highlighted, anticipating a reversal in the trend that led to increasing the number of people in an office and home working becoming more normal.
The final factor Osman highlighted was the need to have a crisis management strategy in place. ‘It is vital to chalk up an effective crisis management plan that will take into consideration both immediate and long-term impact,’ he said.
Encouraging MSMEs to take stock, Osman asked ‘How did you help in the great pandemic? Quantify what you did for your employees, customers, community and country. Leverage the opportunity to build a better business, have credible solutions to the new major challenge and think globally act locally.’
Some plants such as lettuce require cool conditions for germination (<10 oC), a condition known as thermo-dormancy. This reflects the evolution of the wild parent species in cooler environments and growth cycles limited by higher summer temperatures. Transforming live but dormant seed into new healthy self-sufficient plants requires care and planning. The conditions in which seed is stored before use greatly affect the vigour and quality of plants post-germination. Seed which is stored too long or in unsuitable environments deteriorates resulting in unthrifty seedlings.
Seed is either sown directly into soil or into compost designed especially as an aid for germination. These composts contain carefully balanced nutrient formulae which provide larger proportions of potassium and phosphorus compounds which promote rooting and shoot growth. The amounts of nitrogen needed at and immediately post-germination are limited. Excess nitrogen immediately post-germination will cause over-rapid growth which is susceptible to pest and pathogen damage.
Minor nutrients will also be included in composts which ensures the establishment of efficient metabolic activities free from deficiency disorders. Composts require pH values at ~ 7.0 for the majority of seedlings unless they are of calicifuge (unsuited for calcareous soils) species where lime requirement is limited and the compost pH will be formulated at 6.0. Additionally, the pC will be carefully tuned ensuring correctly balanced ionic content avoiding root burning disorders. Finally, the compost should be water retentive but offering a rooting environment with at least 50 percent of the pore spaces filled with air. Active root respiration is essential while at the same time water is needed as the carrier for nutrient ions.
Seedlings encountering beneficial environments delivering suitable temperatures will germinate into healthy and productive plants.
Some plants such as lettuce require cool conditions for germination (<10 oC), a condition known as thermo-dormancy. This reflects the evolution of the wild parent species in cooler environments and growth cycles limited by higher summer temperatures.
Careful husbandry under protection such as in greenhouses provides plants which can be successfully transplanted into the garden. The soil receiving these should be carefully cultivated, providing an open crumb structure which permits swift and easy rooting into the new environment. It is essential that in the establishment phase plants are free from water stress. Measures which avoid predation from birds such as pigeons may also be required.
Netting or the placing of cotton threads above plants helps as a protection measure. Weeds must be removed otherwise competition will reduce crop growth and encourage pests and diseases, particularly slug browsing. Finally, the gardener will be rewarded for his/her work with a fruitful and enjoyable crop!
As the COVID-19 outbreak increases pressure on the UK’s NHS services and frontline staff, leading scientists and businesses are taking on new initiatives to tackle the outbreak. As there is currently no treatment or vaccine for this virus, researchers are working at unprecedented speed to accelerate the development of a treatment. Businesses are putting in more effort to help those on the frontline of this global crisis.
INEOS has managed to built a hand sanitzer plant in the UK and will soon open the facility in Germany, aiming to produce 1m bottles per month each to address a supply shortage across the UK and Europe.
BASF will soon be producing hand sanitizers at its petrochemicals hub in Germany to address the shortage in the region.
Ramping up the supply of PPE, AstraZeneca is donating nine million face masks to support healthcare workers around the world. Alongside this, AstraZeneca is accelerating the development of its diagnostic testing capabilities to scale-up screening and is also partnering with governments on existing screening programmes.
Pharmaceutical company Novartis UK, along with several others, is making available a set of compounds from its library that it considers are suitable for in vitro antiviral testing.
GSK has announced that is donating $10 million to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The Fund was created by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to help WHO and its partners to prevent, detect and manage the pandemic
Alongside the efforts and initiatives from industries, to continue to aid those on the frontline of this global crisis, social distancing interventions must remain to flatten the curve.
Research and data modelling has shown that policy strategies, such as social distancing and isolation interventions which aim to suppress the rate of transmission, might reduce death and peak healthcare demand by two-thirds.
Stopping non-essential contact can flatten the curve. Suppressing the curve means we may still experience the same number of people becoming infected but over a longer period of time and at a slower rate, reducing the stress on our healthcare system.
In this round-up we will be looking at some of the developments and challenges surrounding artificial intelligence.
Development and Collaborations
The Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) has launched its Artificial Intelligence (AI) Observatory, which aims to help countries encourage, nurture and monitor the responsible development of trustworthy AI systems for the benefit of society.
The Observatory works with policy communities across and beyond the OECD - from the digital economy and science and technology policy, to employment, health, consumer protection, education and transport policy – considering the opportunities and challenges posed by current and future AI developments in a coherent, holistic manner.
The AI Observatory is being built on evidence-based analysis and provides a centre for the collection and sharing of information on AI, leveraging the OECD’s reputation for measurement methodologies. The Observatory will also engage a wide spectrum of stakeholders from the technical community, the private sector, academia, civil society and other international organisations, providing a hub for dialogue and collaboration.
According to a report produced by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Health and The McKinsey Centre for Government (MCG), AI can increase productivity and the efficiency of care delivery, allowing healthcare systems to provide better outcomes for patients.
The WHO estimates that by 2030 the world will be short of 9.9 million doctors, nurses and midwives, which adds to the challenges faced by an already overburdened healthcare system. Supporting the widespread adoption and scaling of AI could help alleviate this shortfall, the report says, by streamlining or even eliminating administrative tasks, which can occupy up to 70% of a healthcare professional’s time.
The issues highlighted, among others, means that ‘AI is now ‘top-of-mind’ for healthcare decision makers, governments, investors and innovators and the EU itself,’ the report states.₁
To fully unlock the potential and capabilities of AI, there is an urgent need to attract and up-skill a generation of data-literate healthcare professionals.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is influencing larger trends in global sustainability. Many communities in developing nations do not have access to clean water, which impacts health and has economic and environmental implications.
AI has the capacity and ability to adapt and process large amounts of data in real time. This makes it an ideal tool for managing water resource, whereby utility managers can maximise current revenue, effectively forecasting and planning for the years ahead.
Currently, the development of AI is accelerating, but legal and ethical guidelines are yet to be implemented. In order to prepare the future generations of business leaders and national and international policy makers, the academic community will be playing a large role in this.
For more information, click here.
Batteries have an important role as energy sources with environmental advantages. They offset the negative environmental impacts of fossil fuels or nuclear-based power; they are also recyclable. These attributes have led to increasing research with the aim of improving battery design and environmental impact, particularly regarding their end of life. In addition, there is a desire to improve battery safety as well as design batteries from more sustainable and less toxic materials.
New research shows that aluminium battery could offer several advantages:
Aluminium metal anode batteries could hold promise as an environmentally friendly and sustainable replacement for the current lithium battery technology. Among aluminium’s benefits are its abundance, it is the third most plentiful element the Earth’s crust.
To date aluminium anode batteries have not moved into commercial use, mainly because using graphite as a cathode leads to a battery with an energy content which is too low to be useful.
This is promising for future research and development of aluminium as well as other metal-organic batteries.
New UK battery project is said to be vital for balancing the country’s electricity demand
Work has begun on what is said to be Europe’s biggest battery. The 100MW Minety power storage project, which is being built in southwest England, UK, will comprise two 50MW battery storage systems. The project is backed by China Huaneng Group and Chinese sovereign wealth fund CNIC.
Shell Energy Europe Limited (SEEL) has agreed a multi-year power offtake agreement which will enable the oil and gas major, along with its recently acquired subsidiary Limejump, to optimise the use of renewable power in the area.
In a statement David Wells, Vice President of SEEL said ‘Projects like this will be vital for balancing the UK’s electricity demand and supply as wind and solar power play bigger roles in powering our lives.
The major hurdles for battery design, states the EU’s document, include finding suitable materials for electrodes and electrolytes that will work well together, not compromise battery design, and meet the sustainability criteria now required. The process is trial and error, but progress is being made.
For more information, click here.
Who is Dmitri Mendeleev?
Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev was born in 1834 in a Siberian village. His early life has been described as tumultuous; his father lost his sight and died when Dmitri was thirteen, leaving his family in financial difficulties.
His mother prioritised Dmitiri’s academic potential, taking him and his sister to St Petersburg, where he studied at the Main Pedagogical Institute. When his mother died, he carried out his doctoral research in St Petersburg where he explored the interactions of alcohols with water.
Between 1859 and 1861 he went to Paris to study the densities of gases, and he travelled to Germany where he studied capillarity and surface tension that subsequently led to his theory of ‘absolute boiling point.’ In 1861 he returned to Russia to publish everything he knew on organic chemistry in a 500-page textbook, and by 1864 he became a professor at the Saint Petersburg Technological Institute and Saint Petersburg State University.
As he continued his research, he tried to classify the elements according to the chemical properties. He became aware of a repeating pattern – elements with similar properties appeared at regular intervals. He arranged the elements in order of increasing relative atomic mass and noticed the chemical properties of these elements revealed a trend, which led to the formation of the periodic table.
Beyond his work in chemistry, during the 1870s, he devoted time to help the Russian industry, particularly in strengthening the productivity in agriculture. He became very active in exploring the Russian petroleum industry and developed projects in the coal industry in the Donets Basin. Additionally, he was responsible for creating and introducing the metric system to Russia.
Growing in just about the most challenging of locations in the SCIence Garden are a small group of Helleborus niger. They are planted in a very dry and shady location underneath a large tree sized Escallonia and although they struggled to establish when they were first planted (in May 2017) they are now flowering and growing well.
This plant was first featured as a Horticulture Group Medicinal Plant of the Month in December 2011 and as it is now in the SCIence garden I thought a reprise was in order.
Helleborus is a genus of 15 species of evergreen perennials in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. In common with most members of the family, the flowers are radially symmetric, bisexual and have numerous stamen.
Helleborus is the Latin name for the lent hellebore, and niger means black – referring in this species to the roots.
This species is native to the Alps and Appenines. Helleborus niger has pure white flowers, with the showy white parts being sepals (the calyx) and the petals (corolla) reduced to nectaries. As with other hellebores, the sepals persist long after the nectaries (petals) have dropped.
All members of the Ranunculaceae contain ranunculin, an unstable glucoside, which when the plant is wounded is enzymatically broken down into glucose and protoanemonin. This unsaturated lactone is toxic to both humans and animals, causing skin irritation and nausea, vomiting, dizziness and worse if ingested.
Protoanemonin dimerises to form anemonin when it comes into contact with air and this is then hydrolysed, with a concomitant ring-opening to give a non-toxic dicarboxylic acid.
Many hellebores have been found to contain hellebrin, a cardiac glycoside. The early chemical literature suggests that this species also contains the substance but later studies did not find it suggesting that either mis-identified or adulterated material was used in the early studies.
It is reported to contain many other specialized metabolites including steroidal saponins.
This plant has long been used in traditional medicine – in European, Ayurvedic and Unani systems and recent research has been aimed at elucidating what constituents are responsible for the medicinal benefit.
Extract of black hellebore is used sometimes in Germany as an adjuvant treatment for some types of tumour.
A recent paper* reports the results of a safety and efficacy investigation. The Helleborus niger extract tested was shown to exhibit neither genotoxic nor haemolytic effects but it was shown to have anti-angiogenetic effects on human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC), anti-proliferative effects and migration-inhibiting properties on tumour cells thus supporting its use in cancer treatment.
* Felenda, J.E., Turek, C., Mörbt, N. et al. Preclinical evaluation of safety and potential of black hellebore extracts for cancer treatment. BMC Complement Altern Med 19, 105 (2019) doi:10.1186/s12906-019-2517-5
In this second article in our ‘How to…’ series, we reflect on what we learned from Mugdha Joshi, IP & Licensing expert at Kings College London, in her training session on Intellectual Property.
What is Intellectual Property?
Intellectual Property (IP) is a term that refers to the ‘creations of the mind’ such as inventions, works of art and symbols, names and images used in commerce.
Types of IP
Patents - Works to prevent another person from being able to use the same invention. They cover how inventions work, how they do it, what they are made of and how they are made. A patent lasts for 20 years and it must be renewed on its fourth anniversary. It then must be renewed every year. After 20 years the patent is given to the public. To qualify for a patent, the invention needs to meet the following criteria:
- The invention needs to be undisclosed and not in the public domain before the date of filing. However, any disclosure under a non-disclosure agreement is fine.
- Your idea needs an inventive step that is not obvious to someone with knowledge of the subject.
- It must be a solution to a problem.
- It must be something that can be made and not just speculative.
Copyrights – Protects work created by their author. It must be the author’s own intellectual creation and not have been copied from somewhere else.
Designs – This refers to the aesthetic aspects of an article. It protects 3D objects, or the designs applied to them.
Trademarks – A distinctive sign that identifies certain goods or properties provided by an individual or a company.
Commercialisation of IP
The commercialisation process involves:
- Market analysis - What does your product solve? Why is it better than your competition? Who wants it and why? What are its limitations? What is the development time? (Click here for more on marketing).
- Due Diligence - In-depth research of your company and invention and will include schedules of patents, copyrights and trademarks
- IP protection - Prior art search and patent attorney. You must ensure there is no evidence of your idea already being known.
- Proof of concept fund
- Marketing - Reaching out to companies and sending non-confidential flyers
- Licensing - What’s down the pipeline? Exclusive or non-exclusive licence? What obligations are there, e.g. development milestones?
- Spit-out creation - What do venture capitalists look for? They will want to see all your documentation that demonstrates that you meet various requirements. They will want to see your granted patents. It is a good idea to have a portfolio with multiple aspects of the product covered. They want to see that your product and company is professionally managed and that there are no issues of contested ownership or opposition.
The Bright SCIdea Challenge 2020 Final
SCI are unable to protect any intellectual property submitted as part of the competition. It is in your best interest to not disclose any information that could give away key aspects of your innovation for others to reproduce.
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!
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on Beryllium.
Beryllium copper alloys account for a huge percentage of the beryllium used in the United States. As these alloys are good conductors of electricity and heat, they are used in making connectors, switches and other electrical devices for use in many sectors including aerospace, automobile, computer, defense and medical.
Beryllium metal is very light and stiff and maintains its shape in both high and low temperatures. This makes it the ideal material for use as mirrors of the Spitzer Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), due to be launched in the next few years. The key mirror of the JWST comprises 18 hexagonal segments- each must maintain its shape even at - 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Automobile and Aircraft
Additionally, Beryllium alloy connectors are used in the electrical systems of automobiles, as they are reliable and improve vehicle fuel efficiency.
In commercial aircraft, the strength of beryllium copper provides many advantages, as it can handle wear forces and exposure to corrosive atmospheres and temperatures. Beryllium copper also allows bearings to be made lighter and smaller, which also improves fuel efficiency.
Beryllium copper’s strength and stability makes it ideal for medical technologies and x-ray equipment.
As imaging technology progresses, beryllium copper will continue to play an important role in x-ray tube windows.
Other medical uses of beryllium:
•Springs and membranes for surgical instruments
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on Nickel.
Nickel, a silvery-white lustrous metal with a slight golden tinge may be commonly known as a US five cent coin, however, today nickel is one of the most widely used metals. According to the Nickel Institute, the metal is used in over 300,000 various products. It is also commonly used as a catalyst for hydrogeneration, cathodes for batteries and metal surface treatments.
Nickel in batteries:
Historically, nickel has been widely used in batteries; nickel cadmium (NiCd) and in nickel metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries. These batteries were used in power tools and early digital cameras. Their success as batteries in portable devices became a stepping stone that led to the significant use of NiMH batteries in car vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius.
The demand for nickel will increase even further as we move away from fossil fuel energy. More energy wll need to be stored in the cathode part of lithium-ion batteries as a result.
Socio-economic data on nickel demonstrates the importance the nickel value chain has on industries, which includes mining through end use to recycling.
The data reflects that globally, the nickel value chain supports a large number of jobs, primarily ones in manufacturing and chemical engineering. The output generated by nickel related industries is approximately €130bn, providing around 750,000 jobs.
Nickel is fully recyclable without its qualities being downgraded, making it very sustainable. It is difficult to destroy and its qualities – corrosion resistance, high-temperature stability, strength, recyclability, and catalytic and electromagnetic properties are enabling qualities required for sustainability.
Congratulations to Hallam Wheatley, voted Young Ambassador of 2019/2020!
Can you tell us about your early involvement in the chemical industry?
My career in the chemical industry began at the age of 18 as an advanced apprentice. I spent two years completing my laboratory-based apprenticeship with Lotte Chemical on Teesside, where my passion for chemistry really materialised. Applying chemical principles into the world of work gave me a great appreciation for just how big a role chemistry plays in our everyday lives. After finishing my apprenticeship, I began studying part-time, for my degree in Chemistry.
Can you tell about your work as a research chemist?
In 2017, I began working in SABIC’s research department, this really put me on the front line of the innovative technology that is being developed in the world today. As a research chemist, my main responsibilities revolve around supporting SABIC’s assets, and any chemistry related issues they may have. During my time, that’s mainly revolved around catalyst research. When I’m not helping with plant support, I work on sustainability issues, that will help answer some of the world’s toughest questions, relating to the chemical recycling of plastic waste, or helping to implement a hydrogen economy, to help reduce carbon emissions.
How do you feel to be named Young Ambassador of the year?
I was in shock when my name was called! The standard of applicants was really high, so to be named the Young Ambassador this year was a real honour.
I do feel that the award won’t mean a thing if I don’t make the most of my time as the Young Ambassador. It’s important to carry on the great work from last year and try and help the Future Forum continue to grow.
I know that task won’t be easy, but it’s really great that a lot of the short-listed finalists, have agreed to join the Leadership team this year, so I’m really excited to work with them, and I’m excited for the year ahead!
What are your plans for the year ahead as Young Ambassador and with the Future Forum?
As Young Ambassador, I’m really hoping to continue the great work that Jennifer did last year. I want to build up a resource to help Future Forum members old and new alike.
I think it’s important that as a network we communicate effectively with each other to not only get an understanding of how young people are feeling in the industry, but also to identify some of the challenges their facing, as well as offering support from within the network.
I want to make the Future Forum something that people want to join, not because it looks good on a CV, but because it will offer people real opportunities to develop and network. This won’t be easy, but through help from Jennifer and this year’s Leadership Team, I think we’ll be able to lay strong foundations, so that moving forward, to Future Forum can be more than just a young professional networking platform.
What advice would you give someone starting out their career as a research chemist?
Look around!! Whilst I knew that I had a passion for Chemistry, I wasn’t so sold on the idea of university at 18 and after college. I decided to see what my best route into the industry that was on my doorstep was, and I was fortunate enough to find an apprenticeship that suited me. The apprenticeship gave me the grounding knowledge and understanding to progress, and two years later, I felt ready to tackle the challenge of a degree.
I do know, that whilst the apprenticeship route worked for me, it won’t work for everyone, but I think it’s important that students of all ages understand that there’s multiple choices that they may not have heard. Over the coming year, I’m hoping to use the Future Forum as a tool to best showcase some of the options to get a career within the Chemical Industry.
One thing I would recommend for all students though, is email local chemical companies, ask HR departments for advice about careers, and ask about the opportunities to come in and shadow, even if it’s only for a day! You’ll learn a lot, but you never know what it might lead to!
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on tungsten.
Over three centuries ago, this metal was first used by porcelain makers in China. They used a tungsten pigment to incorporate a peach colour into their art work. In 1781, Wilhelm Scheele examined a metal containing tungsten and successfully isolated an acidic white oxide, deducing the oxide of the new metal. In 1783, Wilhelm’s brothers produced the same acidic metal oxide, and upon heating it with carbon, they successfully reduced it to tungsten.
Tungsten raises concerns regarding the health effects associated with its levels of toxicity. Initially, tungsten was perceived to be immobile in the environment and therefore used as a viable replacement for lead and uranium in military applications. However, reports showed traces of tungsten detected in soil and potable water sources, increasing the risk to human exposure. According to public health reports, it is unlikely that tungsten present in consumer products poses a hazard or causes any long-term health effects. Therefore, further assessment on the potential long-term health effects of tungsten exposure is still required.
Tungsten is a refractory metal and as it has the highest melting temperature of all metals, it is used across a range of applications. Tungsten is alloyed with other metals to strengthen them. This makes them useful to many high-temperature applications, including arc-welding electrodes.
Tungsten is a refractory metal and as it has the highest melting temperature of all metals, it is used across a range of applications. Tungsten is alloyed with other metals to strengthen them. This makes them useful to many high-temperature applications, including arc-welding electrodes.
It is used as a novel material for glass parts due to its superior thermochemical stability. As it is a good electric conductor, it is also used in solar energy devices. Tungsten compounds act as catalysts for energy converting reactions, leading many manufacturers to investigate further uses of tungsten.
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.
Discovery of this noble gas:
In 1894 argon was discovered by chemists Sir William Ramsay and Lord Rayleigh. Ramsay believed the presence of a heavy impurity in the ‘atmospheric’ nitrogen could be responsible for giving nitrogen a higher density when isolated from the air. Both scientists worked to discover this unrecognised new element hiding in the air, winning a Nobel Prize in 1904, primarily for their role in the discovery of argon.
Argon makes up 1% of the earth’s atmosphere and it is the most plentiful of the rare gases. Argon can be both used in its gaseous state and its liquid form. In its liquid state, argon can be stored and transported more easily, affording a cost-effective way to deliver product supply.
Argon as a narcotic agent
One of the most well-known biological effects of argon gas is in its narcotic capabilities. Sea divers normally develop narcotic symptoms under high pressure with normal respiratory air. These symptoms include slowed mental cognition and psychological instability. Argon exerts this narcotic effect in a physical way rather than in a chemical way, as argon, an inert gas, does not undergo chemical reactions in the body.
During the heating and cooling of printing materials, argon provides several benefits to this process. The gas reduces oxidation of the metal preventing reactions and keeping out impurities. This creates a stable printing environment as a constant pressure is maintained.
Future of argon
Argon as a clinical utility tool has received maximum attention. Although the potential benefits are still in the experimental stages, argon could be the ideal neuroprotective agent. Studies have shown that argon could improve cell survival, brain structural integrity and neurological recovery. These protective effects are also efficient when delivered up to 72 hours after brain injury.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on zinc and its contribution towards a sustainable future.
Foods high in zinc: Evan Lorne
Zinc is a naturally occurring element, considered a ‘life saving commodity’ by the United Nations. As well as playing a fundamental role in the natural development of biological processes, it is also highly recyclable which means that once it has reached the end of its life cycle, it can be recycled, and returned to the cycle as a new source of raw material. Statistically, around 45% of zinc in Europe and in the United States is recovered and recycled once it has reached the end of its life cycle.
Circular and linear economy showing product life cycle: Petovarga
Circular economy is an economic model that focuses on waste reduction and ensuring a product that has reached its end cycle is not considered for disposal, but instead becomes used as a new source of raw material. Zinc fits this model; its lifecycle begins from mining and goes through a refining process to enable its use in society. Finally, it is recycled at the end of this process.
The production of zinc-coated steel mill: gyn9037
Zinc contributes to the planet in various ways:
1. Due to its recyclable nature, it lowers the demand for new raw material
2. As zinc provides a protective coating for steel, it extends the lifecycle of steel products
3. Coating steel reduces carbon dioxide emissions
As reported by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, zinc uses the lowest energy on a per unit weight and per unit volume basis, (with the exception of iron). Only a small amount of zinc is needed to conserve the energy of steel, and during electrolytic zinc production, only 7% of energy is used for mining and mineral processing.
Green technology: Petrmalinak
According to a new report published by The World Bank, ‘The Growing Role of Minerals and Metals for a Low-Carbon Future,’ a low carbon future and a rise in the use of green energy technologies will lead to an increased demand in a selected range of minerals and metals. These metals include aluminium, copper, lead, lithium, manganese, nickel, silver, steel, zinc and rare earth minerals. Hence, zinc will be one of the main metals to fill this demand.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on titanium and its various uses in industries.
What is titanium?
Titanium is a silver- coloured transition metal, exhibiting low density, high strength and a strong resistance to corrosion from water and chlorine. Suitably, titanium delivers many uses to various industries with approximately 6.6 million tonnes produced annually.
Titanium Dioxide is the most popular usage of titanium, composed of approximately of 90%. It is a white powder with high opacity; its properties have been made for a broad range of applications in paints, plastic good, inks and papers. Titanium dioxide is manufactured through the chloride process or the sulphate process. The sulphate process is the more popular process making up 70% of the production within the EU.
Titanium’s characteristics - lightweight, strong and versatile, make titanium a valuable metal in the aerospace industry. In order for aircrafts to be safely airborne, the aerospace industry need parts which are both light and strong, and at the same time safe. Thus, titanium is seen as the most ideal match for these specifications.
Titanium implants have been used with success, becoming a promising material in dentistry. As a result of its features, including its physiological inertia, resistance to corrosion, and biocompatibility, titanium plays an important role in the dental market.
However, despite this, the technologies and systems used in the machining, casting and welding of titanium is slow and expensive. Despite the wide availability of these technologies and systems used in the process of creating dental prosthesis from titanium, it does depend on the technological advancements and the availability of resources, to create a more profitable and efficient manufacturing process.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on sodium and its role in the next series of innovative nuclear energy systems.
Sodium; the sixth most abundant element on the planet is being considered as a crucial part of nuclear reactors. Implementing new safety levels in reactors is crucial as governments are looking for environmentally friendly, risk-free and financially viable reactors. Therefore, ensuring new safety levels is a main challenge that is being tackled by many industries and projects.
In the wake of Fukushima, several European nations and a number of U.S plants have shut down and switched off their ageing reactors in order to eliminate risk and safety hazards.
The sodium- cooled fast reactor (SFR), a concept pioneered in the 1950s in the U.S, is one of the nuclear reactors developed to operate at higher temperatures than today’s reactors and seems to be the viable nuclear reactor model. The SFR’s main advantage is that it can burn unwanted byproducts including uranium, reducing the need for storage. In the long run, this is deemed cost-competitive as it can produce power without having to use new natural uranium.
Nuclear reactor. Source: Hallowhalls
However, using sodium also presents challenges. When sodium comes into contact with air, it burns and when it is mixed with water, it is explosive. To prevent sodium from mixing with water, nitrogen - driven turbines are in the process of being designed as a solution to this problem.
A European Horizon 2020 Project, ESFR-SMART project (European Sodium Fast Reactor Safety Measures Assessment and Research Tools), launched in September 2017, aims to improve the safety of Generation-IV Sodium Fast Reactors (SFR). This project hopes to prove the safety of new reactors and secure its future role in Europe. The new reactor is designed to be able to reprocess its own waste, act more reliably in operation, more environmentally friendly and more affordable. It is hoped that this reactor will be considered as one of the SFR options by Generation IV International Forum (GIF), who are focused on finding new reactors with safety, reliability and sustainability as just some of their main priorities.
European Horizon. Source: artjazz
Globally, the SFR is deemed an attractive energy source, and developments are ongoing, endeavouring to meet the future energy demands in a cost-competitive way.
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
Scottish chemist and past SCI President, Sir William Ramsay (1852–1916) came from a long line of scientists on both sides of his family and was described as ‘the greatest chemical discoverer of his time’.
Born in Glasgow, he showed a strong interest in science from a young age and, in his teenage years, he experimented with making fireworks, using materials acquired by his father.
He completed his doctorate in organic chemistry and later, in 1887, was appointed as the Chair of Chemistry at University College London, where he made his most renowned discoveries.
Working with British physicist John William Strutt (better known as Lord Rayleigh), the two men discovered an unknown gas. Owing to its apparent lack of chemical activity, they named the gas argon, meaning “the lazy one”.
After the co-identification of argon, Sir William Ramsay suggested that it be placed into the periodic table between chlorine and potassium in a group with helium. Due to the zero valency of the elements this was named the “zero” group.
From 1895 Ramsay spent three years trying to prove the theory of this new group of gasses, leading to the isolation of helium, neon, krypton and xenon. Eventually, a new column was added to the periodic table.
Ramsay was an outstanding experimentalist. He rolled his own cigarettes, claiming that machine-made ones were unworthy of an experimentalist such as himself.
In 1904, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air, and his determination of their place in the Periodic system”. As a result, Ramsay became a considerable celebrity in London and was cartooned both by Spy for Vanity Fair and by Henry Tonks, Head of UCL’s Slade School of Art.
Ramsay ascribed his success in isolating the rare gases to his large flat thumb which could close the end of eudiometer tubes (graduated glass tube used to mix gases) full of mercury.
The group of elements that he discovered is now known commonly as the noble gases and is comprised of helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon. Generally, they are chemically inert (they do not react with other elements) this is because they have the desired amount of total s and p electrons in their outermost energy orbital. However, only helium and neon are truly inert. Under very specific conditions, the other noble gases will react on a limited scale.
Today, the noble gasses are in wide use in the real world.
Argon is particularly important for the metal industry, due to the fact that it does not react with the metal at high temperatures. It is used in arc welding (a welding process that is used to join metal to metal by using electricity to create enough heat to melt metal) and is also used in light bulbs to prevent oxygen from corroding the hot filament.
Helium, one of the most common and lightest elements in the universe, is used for diluting the pure oxygen in deep-sea diving tanks. It’s also used to inflate the tires of large aircraft, weather balloons, blimps and party balloons.
Neon, which means ‘New one’ in Greek, is commonly used in colourful glass tube neon signs, it glows bright red when an electric current is sent through the gas, as it enters a plasma state. Other uses of Neon include in vacuum tubes, television tubes, and helium-neon lasers.
Krypton and xenon, valued for their total inertness, are used in photographic flash units, in lightbulbs and in lighthouses, as these elements generate a bright light when an electric current is run through them.
The original glass tubes that Ramsay used to isolate and collect his samples at UCL still exist today, they continue to glow red, yellow, purple and green, more than a century later.
Not only did Ramsay’s successes complete gaps in the periodic table, but he also paved the way for a deeper understanding of how the elements are connected, shaping our understanding today, a huge achievement that can be attributed in no small part to his experimental nature and his large flat thumb!
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on cobalt and its current and potential uses.
In 1739, Georg Brandt, whilst studying minerals that gave gave glass a deep blue colour he discovered a new metal, namely cobalt.Today cobalt’s uses vary from health and nutrition to industry. Cobalt is an essential metal, used in the production of alloys to make rechargeable batteries and catalysts. Cobalt is an essential trace element for the human body, an important component of vitamin B12 and plays an essential role in forming amino acids, proteins in nerve cells and in creating neurotransmitters.
Cobalt is an important component of B12. Image source: flickr: Healthnutrition
Cobalt and medicine
The salts found in cobalt can be used as a form of treatment for anaemia, as well as having an important role for athletes acting as an alternative to traditional blood doping. This metal enhances synthesis of erythropoietin, increasing the erythrocyte quantity in blood, and subsequently, improving aerobic performance.
Cobalt can enter the body via various ways: one way is by the skin. This organ is susceptible to environmental pollution, especially in workers who are employed in heavy industry.
When cobalt ions from different metal objects repeatedly come into contact with skin, these cobalt ions then diffuse through the skin, causing allergic and irritant reactions.
Important raw material for electric transport
Cobalt is also a critical raw material for electric transport. It is used in the production of the most common types of lithum-ion batteries, thus, powering the current boom in electric vehicles.
The electric vehicle industry has the potential to grow from 3.2 million in 2017 to around 130 million in 2030, seeing the demand for cobalt increase almost threefold within the next decade.
As the EU continues to develop the battery industry, it is becoming a priority for manufacturing industries to secure adequate cobalt supplies. The electric vehicle boom means cobalt will increase in demand in the EU as well as globally; further projects to monitoring the supply-and-demand situation will be announced.
Many aid organisations have recognised that to change the growing population rate, investing in women is pivotal. Today (Wednesday 11 July) is World Population Day and we will briefly discuss why changing the living conditions for women and girls is essential to preventing overpopulation.
Today, there are 1.2 bn Africans and, according to figures released by the UN, by 2021 there will be more than 4 bn, stressing the urgency to prioritise the population crisis. Making contraception easily available and improving comprehensive sexual education are key to reducing Africa’s population growth.
Family photo of five sisters from Africa. Image: Sylvie Bouchard
Over 225 m women in developing countries have stressed their desire to delay or stop childbearing, but due to the lack of contraception, this has not been the result.
Family planning would prevent unsafe abortions, unintended pregnancies, which would, in turn, also prevent infant and maternal mortality. If there was a decrease in infant mortality as a result of better medical care, parents would be able to make more informed decisions about having more children.
It is therefore pivotal that governments and organisations invest more money into projects that will strengthen the health services in these regions, and in women’s health and reproductive rights.
Lessons on family planning.
In Niger, there are an estimated 205 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 16 and 19 – a rate that hasn’t changed since 1960. The number of births in Somalia, have increased from around 55 to 105 births per 1,000 women within the same age range in the same time period.
In Rwanda, figures from Rwanda Demographic and Health Survey illustrate an increase in the use of modern contraceptive methods among married women, but the unmet need for family planning remains a large issue, stagnating at 19% between 2010 and 2015.
Rwanda’s leadership in creating platforms and programmes of action to progress sexual and reproductive health rights has resulted in a decrease in fertility rate, dropping from 6.1 children per women in 2005 to 4.2 in 2015.
World map of the population growth rate. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
‘Every year, roughly 74 m women and girls in developing countries experience an unwanted pregnancy primarily because there is a lack of sex education and a lack of contraception. It’s also because women and girls aren’t given equal rights’" said Renate Bähr, Head of the German World Population Foundation (DSW).
With opportunities and access to education, women and girls would be able to understand their rights to voluntary family planning. If women’s access to reproductive education and healthcare services were prioritised, public health and population issues would improve.
Nowhere on earth has the power to inspire awe and wonder in the endless outcomes of evolution than a natural history museum. It’s a bold claim, but where else can you find over 500m years of biodiversity?
In a good museum, visitors can literally walk around open mouthed in astonishment at seeing the biggest animals that ever lived – whales and dinosaurs – and specimens showing extraordinary biological processes, like how a two-metre tall kangaroo is born the size of a jelly bean.
But lurking within these wondrous collections are chemical legacies of the ways they were prepared and preserved that can make museums a risky place to work. Here are four of them…
One of the main challenges of caring for a biological collection is that everything is edible, and we have to work hard to ensure that insect pests like clothes moths, carpet beetles and silverfish don’t nibble our specimens out of existence. Unchecked, they can turn invaluable objects into dust. When it comes to taxidermy and skins, the practice until recently was to coat the inside of the skins with arsenic soap or other poisons such as heavy metals or even strychnine and cyanide.
A taxidermy ocelot at the University Museum of Zoology. Image: University of Cambridge/Chris Green
While these are extremely effective at killing pests, they have the potential to make us very ill. If a specimen is old but looks in good condition, it’s likely to have been treated in this way. Short story: don’t stroke a museum skin unless you know for sure it’s poison-free.
Another mainstay of museum collections is animals preserved in jars of fluid. The first step in preparing these specimens is called ‘fixation’, which keeps the animal in suspended animation by halting the decomposition process at a cellular level, causing cross-links between molecules (including DNA). Formalin is a solution of the toxic and carcinogenic gas formaldehyde.
Preserved fish collected by Charles Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle at the University Museum of Zoology. Image: University of Cambridge/Chris Green
3. Alcohol preservative
The second step in preparing fluid specimens is to store them permanently in a preservative, and the most common is a solution of ethanol. Vodka, gin, rum, brandy etc. are all solutions of alcohol, and indeed sailors on historic voyages of discovery would find that the naturalist on board had commandeered their booze rations to preserve an important specimen.
Today, we tend to use stronger solutions of ethanol – at 70% – as it is more effective. Ethanol is obviously consumable, so why is this in a list of dangers? The ethanol museums use is called industrial methylated spirits, or denatured alcohol: it has a tiny bit of methanol added.
The toxic methanol has no beneficial properties for preservation – it’s there simply to stop museum workers from drinking it (and means that it isn’t subject to the high tax rates of alcoholic drinks).
Geological collections come with a whole different suite of hazards. Many minerals are inherently poisonous, or can break down in museum conditions to release toxic gasses. Others are naturally radioactive. If you’ve got a lump of uranium ore in your collection, that’s a pretty obvious risk, but there are also certain locations that a lot of fossils come from that have relatively high levels of radiation.
Museums have to be careful about how these are stored as once we lock these fossils up in a museum drawer or cabinet, the concentration of radioactivity in that sealed environment builds up over time, releasing a dangerous cloud once the drawer is eventually opened.
I should say that museums are pretty clued up on managing these risks, and there is no danger to the visiting public. Just don’t lick anything.
Today, most rockets are fueled by hydrazine, a toxic and hazardous chemical comprised of nitrogen and hydrogen. Those who work with it must be kitted up in protective clothing. Even so, around 12,000t of hydrazine is released into the atmosphere every year by the aerospace industry
Now, researchers are in the process of developing a greener, safer rocket fuel based on metal organic frameworks (MOFs), a porous solid material made up of clusters of metal ions joined by an organic linker molecule. Hundreds of millions of connections join in a modular structure.
Robin Rogers, formerly at McGill University, US, has worked with the US Air Force on hypergolic liquids that will burn when placed in contact with oxidisers, to try get rid of hydrazine. He teamed up with Tomislav Friščić at McGill who has developed ways to react chemicals ‘mechanochemically’ – without the use of toxic solvents.
The pair were interested in a common class of MOFs called zeolitic imidazole frameworks, or ZIFs, which show high thermal stability and are usually not thought of as energetic materials.
They discussed the potential of using ZIFs with the imidazolate linkers containing trigger groups. These trigger groups allowed them to take advantage of the usually not accessible energetic content of these MOFs.
The resulting ZIF is safe and does not explode, and it does not ignite unless placed in contact with certain oxidising materials, such as nitric acid, in this case.
Authorities continue to use hydrazine because it could cost millions of dollars to requalify new rocket fuels, says Rogers. MOF fuel would not work in current rocket engines, so he and Friščić would like to get funding or collaborate with another company to build a small prototype engine that can use it.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is about the importance of potassium in human health.
Potassium plays an essential role to health, being the third most important mineral in the body. The human body requires at least 1000mg of potassium a day in order to support key bodily processes.
Potassium regulates fluid balance in the body, controls the electrical activity of the heart, muscles, and helps in activating nerve impulses throughout the nervous system.
According to an article from Medical News Today Knowledge Center, the possible health benefits to a regular diet intake of potassium include maintaining the balance of acids and bases in the body, supporting blood pressure, improving cardiovascular health, and helping with bone and muscle strength.
These powerful health benefits are linked to a potassium rich diet. Potassium is present in all fruits, vegetables, meat and fish.
Receptors on a cell membrane.
Can it go wrong?
The body maintains the potassium level in the blood. If the potassium level is too high in the body (hyperkalemia) or if it is too low (hypokalemia) then this can cause serious health consequences, including an abnormal heart rhythm or even a cardiac arrest.
Fortunately, cells in the body store a large reservoir of potassium which can be released to maintain a constant level of potassium in blood.
What is hyperkalemia? Video: Osmosis
Potassium deficiency leads to fatigue, weakness and constipation. Within muscle cells, potassium would normally send signals from the brain that stimulate contractions. However, if potassium levels steep too low, the brain is not able to relay these signals from the brain to the muscles, the results end in more prolonged contractions which includes muscle cramping.
As potassium is an essential mineral carrying out wide ranging roles in the body, the low intakes can lead to an increase in illness. The FDA has made a health claim, stating that ‘diets containing foods that are a good source of potassium and that are low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.’
This suggests that consuming more potassium might reduce the risks of high blood pressure and the possibility of strokes. However, more research on dietary and supplemental potassium is required before drawing towards a set conclusion.
This is only the latest in a litany of exotics to ravage American forests. Sixty-two high-impact insect species and a dozen pathogens have arrived since the 1600′s. Only two were detected before 1860.
The emerald ash borer. Image; Wikimedia Commons
Increased global trade and travel, along with climate change and warmer winters, are all fueling the problem. And the devastation has pushed scientists and foresters to look towards biotechnology for a remedy.
‘Almost every day there appears to be a new forest pest and some of these are quite devastating,’ says tree geneticist Jeanne Romero-Severson at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, US.
‘Biotech approaches such as transgenic technology and CRISPR gene editing could be valuable tools in saving specific species.’
These biotech solutions look sexier to funders, and policymakers, and that is where the resources go. But in many ways, it is a dead end if you don’t have a foundational breeding programme to feed into,’ warns DiFazio, a plant geneticist at West Virginia University, US.
A technology like CRISPR for gene editing is fast and powerful, but mostly it is used in lab organisms where much is known about their genetics. Without deep knowledge of a tree’s genome, CRISPR will be far less useful.
CRISPR is a gene editing tool that first came to prominence in the 1990′s and is considered one of the most disruptive technologies in modern medicine.
Powell, a plant scientist at the State University of New York (SUNY), US acknowledges that ‘the biggest thing is to the get the public onboard; a lot of people are afraid of genetic engineering.
Surveys suggest that knowledge about genetic engineering technology, as well as about threats to forest health, is fairly low amongst the general public. Given these deficits, ‘public opinion might be vulnerable to changes,’ notes Delborne.
The David Miller Travel Bursary Award aims to give early career plant scientists or horticulturists the opportunity of overseas travel in connection with their horticultural careers.
Juan Carlos De la Concepcion was awarded one of the 2018 David Miller Travel Bursaries to attend the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy, which was held in Boston, US. Here, he details his experience attending the international conference and the opportunities it provided.
I’m currently completing the third-year of my rotation PhD in Plant and Microbial Science at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. My work addresses how plant pathogens cause devastating diseases that affect food security worldwide, and how plants can recognise them and organise an immune response to keep themselves healthy.
Because of the tremendous damage that plant diseases cause in agricultural and horticulturally relevant species, this topic has become central to achieving the UN Zero Hunger challenge.
Thanks to the David Miller Award, I was able to participate in the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy held in Boston, US. This event is the major international conference in the plant pathology field and only occurs once every five years.
This year, the conference gathered together over 2,700 attendees, representing the broad international community of plant pathologist across the globe. In this conference, the leading experts in the different aspects of the field presented the latest advances and innovations.
Juan’s current research looks at the rice plant’s immune response to pathogens.
These experts are setting a vision and future directions for tackling some of the most damaging plant diseases in the agriculture and horticulture industries, ensuring enough food productivity in a global economy.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today, we investigate the uses of platinum.
Around 1200BC, archaeologists discovered traces of platinum in gold in ancient Egyptian burials.
However, the extent of Egyptians’ knowledge of the metal remains unknown, which suggests that Egyptians might have been unaware that platinum existed in the gold.
The Ancient Egyptians made elaborate masks for royals to wear once they were mummified.
Platinum was also used by South Americans with dates going back 2000 years. Burial goods show that in the pacific coast of South America, people were able to work platinum, producing artifacts of a white gold-platinum alloy.
Archaeologists link the South American tradition of platinum-working with the La Tolita Culture. Archaeological sites show the highly artistic nature of this culture, with the artifacts characterised by gold and platinum jewellery, and anthropomorphic masks symbolising the hierarchical and ritualistic society.
What are its properties?
Platinum is a silvery white metal, also known as ‘white gold’. It is extremely resistant to tarnishing and corrosion and it is one of the least reactive metals, unaffected by water and air, which means it will not oxidise with air.
It is also very soft and malleable, and therefore can be shaped easily and due to its ductility, it can be easily stretched into wire.
Platinum is a member of group 10 of the periodic table. The group 10 metals have several uses including decorative purposes, electrical components, catalysts in a variety of chemical reactions and play an important role in biochemistry, particularly platinum compounds which have widely been used as anticancer drugs.
Additionally, platinum’s tarnish resistance characteristics makes it one the most well-suited elements for making jewelry.
Platinum bonds are often used as a form of medicine in treatments for cancer. However, the health effects of platinum are dependent on the kinds of bonds that are formed, levels of exposure, and the immunity of the individual.
In 1844, Michele Peyrone, an Italian chemist, discovered the anti-neo plastic properties (apparently prohibiting the development of tumours) and later in 1971, the first human cancer patient was treated with drugs containing platinum.
Today, approximately 50% of patient are treated using medicine which includes the rare metal. Scientists will look further into all the ways platinum drugs affect biology, and how to design better platinum drugs in the future.
In an era of glass and steel construction, wood may seem old-school. But researchers are currently saying its time to give timber a makeover and bring to use a material that is able to store and release heat.
Transparent wood could be the construction material of choice for eco-friendly houses of the future, after researchers have now created an even more energy efficient version that not only transmits light but also absorbs and releases heat, potentially saving on energy bills.
Researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm reported in 2019 that they would add polymer polyethylene glycol (PEG) to the formulation to stabilise the wood.
PEG can go really deep into the wood cells and store and release heat. Known as a phase change material, PEG is a solid that melts at 80°F – storing energy in the process. This process reverses at night when the PEG re-solidifies, turning the window glass opaque and releasing heat to maintain a constant temperature in the house.
Transparent wood for windows and green architecture. Video: Wise Wanderer
In principle, a whole house could be made from the wooden window glass, which is due to the property of PEG. The windows could be adapted for different climates by simply tailoring the molecular weight of the PEG, to raise or lower its melting temperature depending on the location.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today we look at copper and some of its popular uses.
A brief history
Copper was one of the first metals ever extracted and used by humans. According to the US Geological Survey, copper ranks as the third most consumed industrial metal in the world, dating back to around 5000BC.
Around 5500BC, early ancestors discovered the malleable properties of copper, and discovered they could be fashioned into tools and weapons – a discovery that allowed humans to emerge out of the stone age and drift into the age of metals.
Volcanic rocks in Tenerife, Spain.
Approximately two-thirds of the Earth’s copper is found in volcanic rocks, while approximately one-quarter occurs in sedimentary rocks.
Th metal is malleable, meaning it can conduct heat and electricity, making copper an extremely useful industrial metal and is used to make electronics, cables and wiring.
What is it used for?
Since 4500BC humans have made and manufactured items from copper. Copper is used mostly as a pure metal, but its strength and hardness can be adjusted by adding tin to create a copper alloy known as bronze.
In the 1700s, pennies were made from pure copper; in the 1800s they were made from bronze; and today, pennies consist of approximately 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper.
Copper is utilised for a variety of industrial purposes. In addition to copper’s good thermal and electric conductivity, copper now plays an important role in renewable energy systems.
As copper is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, power systems use copper to generate and transmit energy with high efficiency and minimal environmental impacts.
E. Coli cultures on a Petri dish.
Copper plays an important role as an anti-bacterial material. Copper alloy surfaces have properties which are set out to destroy a wide range of microorganisms.
Recent studies have shown that copper alloy surfaces kill over 99.9% of E.coli microbes within two hours. In the interest of public health, especially in healthcare environments, studies led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have listed 274 different copper alloys as certified antimicrobial materials, making copper the first solid surfaced material to have been registered by the EPA.
Copper has always maintained an important role in modern society with a vast list of extensive uses. With further development of renewable energy systems and electric vehicles, we will likely see an ongoing increase in demand for copper.
Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease can be expensive to produce, but by using novel cultivation of daffodils, one small Welsh company has managed to find a cost-effective production method of one pharmaceutical drug, galanthamine.
The disease has been identified as a protein misfolding disease which leads to the break down, or death, of neurons and synapses in the brain. The pathology of the disease is complicated and involves many processes and enzymes.
Alzheimer’s disease is the cause of 60-70% of dementia cases.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease with a range of symptoms, including language problems, memory loss, disorientation and mood swings. Despite this, the cause of Alzheimer’s is very understood. The Alzheimer’s disease drug market is currently worth an estimated US$8bn.
The main current form of treatment is acetylcholinesterase inhibitors(AChEIs). Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that is mainly involved in motor function, particularly in muscles, and its production has been found to decrease in Alzheimer’s patients as they age. AChEIs inhibit the breakdown of acetylcholine, strengthening the brain’s responses.
Agroceutical Products: on the road to sustainable Alzheimer’s medication. Video: Innovate UK
Galanthamine is a natural product that is also an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. It has been used in medicine since the 1950s and is commonly used for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. The drug can be isolated in small quantities from flowers such as Caucasian snowdrop, daffodils and red spider lilies, or produced synthetically at a high cost.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today we look at arsenic and some of its effects.
What is arsenic?
Arsenic is a chemical element found in nature – low levels of arsenic are found in water, air and soil – in man-made products. As arsenic is distributed throughout the environment, people have high exposure to elevated levels of inorganic arsenic through contaminated drinking water, as well as exposure to arsenic through oceans, food and insecticides.
Is arsenic harmful?
Arsenic can occur in an organic and inorganic form. Organic arsenic compounds are less harmful to our health, whereas, inorganic arsenic compounds (e.g those found in water) are carcinogens, which are highly toxic and dangerous. Arsenic contamination of groundwater has led to arsenic poisoning which affects the skin, liver, lungs and kidneys.
Prominently, arsenic has attracted much attention in Bangladesh, as 21.4% of all the deaths in a highly affected area were caused by levels of arsenic surpassing WHO’s provisional guideline value of 10 μg/L.
Long-term exposure to low doses of arsenic can cause a negative interference in the way cells communicate, which may minimise their ability to function, subsequently playing a role in the development of disease and causing an increase in health risks.
For example, cells use phosphate to communicate with other cells, but arsenate, which is one form of arsenic, can replace and imitate phosphate in the cell. This damages cells so they can not generate energy and impairs the ability of cells to communicate.
The health risks of arsenic in drinking water. Video: EnviroHealthBerkeley
Symptoms of arsenic poisoning can be acute, severe or chronic depending on the period of exposure and method of exposure. Symptoms may include vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea, and long-term exposure can lead to cancers of the bladder and lungs.
Certain industries may face exposure to arsenic’s toxicity, but the maximum exposure to arsenic allowed is limited to 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air for every 8-hour shift. These industries include glass production, smelting, wood treatment, and the use of pesticides. Traces of arsenic can also be found in tobacco, posing a risk to people who smoke cigarettes and other tobacco products.
A global threat
Arsenic is naturally found in the Earth’s crust and can easily contaminate water and food.
WHO has ranked arsenic as one of the top 10 chemicals posing a huge threat to public health. WHO is working to reduce arsenic exposure, however, assessing the dangers on health from arsenic is not straightforward.
As symptoms and signs caused by long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic varies across population groups, geographical regions, as well as between individuals, there is no universal definition of the disease caused by this element. However, continuous efforts and measures are being made to keep concentrations as low as possible.
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.
Organised by the National Human Genome Research Institute each year, National DNA Day in the US on 25 April celebrates the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953 and the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. Here, we explore the history of DNA and its discovery’s unparalleled effect on science, medicine and the way we now understand the human body.
Discovering DNA’s structure
Using the pictures that she had taken, Franklin was able to calculate the dimensions of the strands and found the phosphates were on the outside of the DNA helix.
Rosalind Franklin working in her lab. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, at the University of Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick deduced the double-helix structure of DNA, describing it as ‘two helical chains each coiled round the same axis’ following a right-handed helix containing phosphate diester groups joining β-D-deoxyribofuranose residues with 3’,5’ linkages.
The discoveries made by these scientists would propel the study of genetics into the modern science we know today. Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine alongside Maurice Wilkins, who worked with Rosalind Franklin, in 1962. You can read their original paper here.
Dolly the sheep
Dolly on display at the National Museum of Scotland, UK.
Dolly is arguably the most famous sheep in the world, having been the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. Born in 1996, Dolly was part of a series of experiments at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh to create GM livestock that could be used in scientific experiments.
She was cloned using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, where a cell nucleus from one adult is transferred into an unfertilised developing egg cell of another that has had its nucleus removed, which is then implanted into a surrogate mother.
The scientific legacy of Dolly the sheep. Video: Al Jazeera English
Dolly lived until 2003 when she was euthanised after contracting a form of lung cancer. Many speculated that Dolly’s early death was related to the cloning experiment but extensive health screening throughout Dolly’s life by the Roslin Institute suggest otherwise.
Her creation has led to further cloning projects and could be used in the future to preserve the populations of endangered or extinct species, and has led to significant developments in stem cell research.
In 2009, Spanish researchers announced the cloning of a Pyrenean ibex, which has been extinct since 2000, and was the first cloning of an extinct animal. Unfortunately, the ibex died shortly after birth but there have been a few successful stories since then.
The Human Genome Project
Beginning in 1990 and finishing in 2003, the Human Genome Project was an international research initiative that aimed to write the entire sequence of nucleotide base pairs that make up the human genome, including the mapping of all its genes that determine our physical and functional attributes.
The publicly funded $3bn project was able to map 99% of the human genome with 99.99% accuracy, which included its 3.2bn Mega-base pairs, 20,000 genes and 23 chromosome pairs, and has led to advancements in bioinformatics, personalised medicine and a deeper understanding of human evolution.
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.
Improvements in robots and robotic technologies has fuelled huge advancements across many industries in recent years. The UK Industrial Strategy has several Sector Deals in which robotic innovations play a role, particularly in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Life Sciences and Nuclear.
Innovative robotics have a place in all industries to improve efficiency and processes, however, in industries where radioactive materials are commonly used, using robots can help to manage risk. This could be by limiting exposure of employees to radioactive substances or preventing potential accidents.
In the UK, legislation exists as to how much exposure to ionising radiation employees may have each year – an adult employee is classified, and therefore must be monitored, if they receive an effective dose of greater than 6mSv per year. The average adult in the UK receives 2.7 mSv of radiation per year.
Snake-like robot is used to dismantle nuclear facilities. Video: Tech Insider
Through using robots, very few professionals in the chemical industry come close to this limit, and are subsequently safe from long-term health effects, such as skin burns, radiation sickness and cancer.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today we look at mercury and some of its reactions.
Mercury is a silver, heavy, liquid metal. Though mercury is a liquid at room temperature, as a solid it is very soft. Mercury has a variety of uses, mainly in thermometers or as an alloy for tooth fillings.
Mercury & Aluminium
Mercury is added directly to aluminium after the oxide layer is removed. Source: NileRed
The reaction between mercury and aluminium forms an amalgam (alloy of mercury). The aluminium’s oxide layer is disturbed When the amalgam forms, in the following reaction:
Al+ Hg → Al.Hg
Some of the Al.Mg get’s dissolved in the mercury. The aluminium from the amalgam then reacts with the air to form white aluminium oxide fibres, which grow out of the solid metal.
Mercury & Bromine
Mercury and bromine are the only two elements that are liquid at room temperature on the periodic table. Source: Gooferking Science
When mercury and bromine are added together they form mercury(I) bromide in the following reaction:
Hg2 + Br2 → Hg2Br2
This reaction is unique as mercury can form a metal-metal covalent bond, giving mercury(I) bromide a structure of Br-Hg-Hg-Br
Making the Pharaoh's Serpent by igniting mercury (II) thiocyanate. Source: NileRed
The first step of this reaction is to generate water-soluble mercury (II) nitrate by combining mercury and concentrate nitric acid. The reaction goes as follows:
Hg + 4NO3 → Hg(NO3)2 + 2H2O + 2NO2
Next, the reaction is boiled to remove excess NO2 and convert mercury(I) nitrate by-product to mercury (II) nitrate. The mixture is them washed with water and potassium thiocyanate added to the mercury (II) nitrate:
Hg(NO3)2 + 2KSCN→ Hg(SCN)2 + 2KNO3
The mercury (II) thiocyanate appears as a white solid. After this is dried, it can be ignited to produce the Pharaoh’s serpent, as it is converted to mercury sulfide in the following reaction:
Hg(SCN)2 → 2HgS + CS2 + + C3N4
The result is the formation of a snake-like structure. Many of the final products of this process are highly toxic, so although this used to be used as a form of firework, it is no longer commercially available.
Though many reactions of mercury look like a lot of fun, mercury and many of it’s products is highly toxic - so don’t try these at home!
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!
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.’
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.
For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. First, we are delving into genetics and molecular biology – from Darwin’s legacy, to the structure of DNA and now modern molecular techniques.
The theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most famous scientific theories in biology to come from Britain. Before Charles Darwin famously published this theory, several classical philosophers considered how some traits may have occurred and survived, including works where Aristotle pondered the shape of teeth.
These ideas were forgotten until the 18th century, when they were re-introduced by philosophers and scientists including Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.
Darwin used birds, particularly pigeons and finches to demonstrate his theories. Image: Pixabay
In 1859, Darwin first set out his theory of evolution by natural selection to explain adaptation and speciation. He was inspired by observations made on his second voyage of HM Beagle, along with the work of political economist Thomas Robert Malthus on population.
Darwin coined the term ‘natural selection’, thinking of it as like the artificial selection imposed by farmers and breeders. After publishing a series of papers with Alfred Russel Wallace, followed by On the Origin of Species, the concept of evolution was widely accepted.
Although many initially contested the idea of natural selection, Darwin was ahead of his time, and further evidence was yet to come in the form of genetics.
Gregor Mendel first discovered genetics whilst working on peas and inheritance in the late 19th century. The unraveling of the molecular processes that were involved in this inheritance, however, allowed scientists to study inheritance and genetics in a high level of detail, ultimately advancing the field dramatically.
A major discovery in the history of genetics was the determination of the structure of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA).
DNA was first isolated by Swiss scientists, and it’s general structure – four bases, a sugar and a phosphate chain – was elucidated by researchers from the United States. It was a British team that managed to make the leap to the three-dimensional (3D)structure of DNA.
Using x-ray diffraction techniques, Rosalind Franklin, a British chemist, discovered that the bases of DNA were paired. This lead to the first accurate model of DNA’s molecular structure by James Watson and Francis Crick. The work was initially published in Nature in 1953, and would later win them a Nobel Prize.
The age of genetic wonder. Source: TED
By understanding the structure of DNA, further advances in the field were made. This has lead to a wide range of innovations, from Crispr/CAS9 gene editing to targeted gene therapies. The British-born science has been utilised by British pharmaceutical companies – pharma-giants GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and AstraZeneca use this science today in driving new innovations.
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.
Our SCI journal, Polymer International is celebrating it’s 50th publication year in 2019. Volume 1, Issue 1 of Polymer International was first published in January 1969 under the original name British Polymer Journal. The journal, published by Wiley, continues to publish high quality peer reviewed demonstrating innovation in the polymer field.
Today, we look at the five highest-cited Polymer International papers and their significance.
Article: A review of biodegradable polymers: uses, current developments in the synthesis and characterization of biodegradable polyesters, blends of biodegradable polymers and recent advances in biodegradation studies – Wendy Amass, Allan Amass and Brian Tighe. 47:2 (1998)
In the last few years, much of environmentalists’ focus has been on our plastic waste issue, particularly the issue of plastic build up in the oceans, and searching for alternatives. This review, published in 1998, was ahead of its time, describing biodegradable polymers and how they could help to solve our growing plastics problem. Research in this area continues to this day.
Here’s how much plastic trash Is littering the Earth. Video: National Geographic
The life of RAFT
Article: Living free radical polymerization with reversible addition – fragmentation chain transfer (the life of RAFT) – Graeme Moad, John Chiefari, (Bill) Y K Chong, Julia Krstina, Roshan T A Mayadunne, Almar Postma, Ezio Rizzardo and San H Thang. 49:9 (2000)
This research article by Moad et al., published in 2000, looks to answer questions about free radical polymerization with reversible addition-fragmentation chain transfer (RAFT polymerization). RAFT polymerization is a type of polymerization that can be used to design polymers with complex architectures including comb-like, star, brush polymers and cross-linked networks. These complex polymers have application in smart materials and biological applications.
Article: Main properties and current applications of some polysaccharides as biomaterials – Marguerite Rinaudo. 57:3 (2008)
Biomaterials made from sugar polymers have huge potential in the field of regenerative medicine
The review by Marguerite Rinaudo looks at polysaccharides – polymers made from sugars – and evaluates their potential in biomedical and pharmaceutical applications. They concluded that alginates, along with a few other named examples, were promising. Alginate-based biomaterials have since been used in the field of regenerative medicine, including would healing, bone regeneration and drug delivery, and have a potential application in tissue regeneration.
Article: Supramolecular polymer chemistry—scope and perspectives – Jean-Marie Lehn. 51:10 (2002)
This 2002 paper reviews advances in supramolecular polymers – uniquely complex structured polymers. They have a wide range of complex applications. Molecular self-assembly – the ability of these polymers to assemble into the correct structure without input – can be used to develop new materials. Supramolecular chemistry has also been applied in the fields of catalysis, drug delivery and data storage. Jean-Marie Lehn won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in supramolecular chemistry.
Article: Organic light‐emitting diode (OLED) technology: materials, devices and display technologies – Bernard Geffroy, Philippe le Roy and Christophe Prat. 55:6 (2006)
Organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology could be used to make flexible screens and displays
This review looks at organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology, which can be made from a variety of materials. When structured in a specific way, these materials can result in a device that combined in a specific red, green, blue colour combination, like standard LED builds, can form screens or displays. Because of the different structure of the material, these displays may have different properties to a standard LED display including flexibility.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is about iodine and some of the exciting reactions it can do!
Iodine & Aluminium
Reaction between iodine and aluminum. These two components were mixed together, followed by a few drops of hot water. Source: FaceOfChemistry
Reactions between iodine and group 2 metals generally produce a metal iodide. The reaction that occurs is:
2Al(s) + 3I2(s) → Al2I6(s)
Freshly prepared aluminium iodide reacts vigorously with water, particularly if its hot, releasing fumes of hydrogen iodide. The purple colour is given by residual iodine vapours.
Iodine & Zinc
Zinc and iodine react similarly to aluminium and iodine. Source: koen2all
Zinc is another metal, and when it reacts with iodine it too forms a salt – zinc iodide. The reaction is as follows:
Zn + I2→ ZnI2
The reaction is highly exothermic, so we see sublimation of some of the iodide and purple vapours, as with the aluminium reaction. Zinc iodide has uses in industrial radiography and electron microscopy.
Iodine & Sodium
Iodine reacting with molten sodium gives an explosive reaction that resembles fireworks. Source: Bunsen Burns
As with the other two metals, sodium reacts violently with iodine, producing clouds of purple sublimated iodine vapour and sodium iodide. The reaction proceeds as follows:
Na + I2→ 2NaI
Sodium iodide is used as a food supplement and reactant in organic chemistry.
Iodine Clock reaction
The iodine clock reaction – a classic chemical clock used to study kinetics. Source: koen2all
The reaction starts by adding a solution of potassium iodide, sodium thiosuphate and starch to a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and sulphuric acid. A set of two reactions then occur.
First, in a slow reaction, iodine is produced:
H2O2 + 2I− + 2H+ → I2 + 2H2O
This is followed by a second fast reaction, where iodine is converted to iodide by the thiosulphate ion:
2S2O32− + I2 → S4O62− + 2I−
The reaction changes colour to a dark blue or black.
The elephant’s toothpaste reaction is a favourite for chemistry outreach events. Source: koen2all
In this fun reaction, hydrogen peroxide is decomposed into hydrogen and oxygen, and catalysed by potassium iodide. When this reaction is mixed with washing-up liquid, the oxygen and hydrogen gas that is produced creates bubbles and the ‘elephant’s toothpaste’ effect.
There are lot’s of fun reactions to be done with iodine and the other halogens (fluorine, bromine, chlorine).
Iodine’s sublimation to a bright purple vapour makes it’s reactions visually pleasing, and great fun for outreach events and science classes.
The predicted mass of the global e-waste mountain by 2021 is > 52m t/year, according to the UN.
Smartphones represent a fraction of global electronic waste. Discarded electronics are one of the fastest growing waste streams, with the UN predicting that the global e-waste mountain will reach over 52m t/year by 2021. Meantime, we are gradually running out of valuable minerals, such as neodymium, terbium and iridium, that are crucial in manufacturing electronics.
More than 60% of smartphones end up in landfills. Even if recycled, some 30% of material will still be lost. Image: Pixabay
As the scale of the problem is becoming clear, there has recently been a surge in efforts to understand what goes into electronic products, and how it can be recovered, says Susanne Baker from techUK, the association for companies in the digital economy. ‘We are seeing a lot of academic proposals looking at better understanding the flow of products and waste within the economy,’ says Baker, who heads the trade body’s environment and compliance programme.
Recycling e-waste into art. Source: Great Big Story
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is about sulphur, specifically sulphites and their significance to the wine industry.
Sulphites and wine - what is all the fuss about? Image: Pixabay
What is a sulphite?
Sulphites are compounds that contain the sulphite ion (sulphate (IV) or SO32- ). There a wide-range of compounds of this type, but common ones include sodium sulphite, potassium bisulphite and sulphur dioxide.
Sulphites are often added as preservatives to a variety of products, and help maintain shelf-life, freshness and taste of the food or drink. They can be found in wines, dried fruits, cold meats and other processed food. Some are produced naturally during wine-making however, they are mainly added in the fermentation process, protecting the wine from bacteria and oxidation.
Sneezing and wine
Sulphites have a bad reputation for causing adverse reactions, such as sneezing and other allergic symptoms. But are sulphites really allergens, or just another urban myth?
Despite it being one of the top nine listed food allergens, many experts believe that the reaction to sulphites in wine can be considered not a ‘true allergy’, rather a sensitivity. Symptoms only usually occur in wine-drinkers with underlying medical issues, such as respiratory problems and asthma, and do not include headaches.
Some people report sneezing and similar symptoms when drinking wine.
Sulphites are considered to be generally safe to eat, unless you test positive in a skin allergy test –some individuals, particularly those who are hyperallergic or aspirin-allergic, may have a true allergy to sulphites. Sufferers of a true allergy would not suffer very mild symptoms if they consumed sulphites, instead they would have to avoid all food with traces of sulphite.
Some scientists believe adverse reactions to red wine could be caused by increased levels of histamine. Fermented products, such as wine and aged cheese, have histamine present, and red wine has significantly more histamine than white wine. They suggest taking an anti-histamine around one hour before drinking to help reduce symptoms.
Despite it not being considered a true allergen, wine-makers must still label wine as containing sulphites. In 1987, a law was passed in the US requiring labels to be placed on wine containing a large amount of added sulphites. Similarly, in 2005, a European law was brought in to regulate European wine labelling. Sulphites are now often listed as a common allergen on bottle labels in wines that have over 10mg/l.
You can often find the words ‘contains sulphites’ on a wine bottle. Image: Pixabay
Many food and drink industries are producing products suitable for allergy sufferers, and winemakers have followed this trend by beginning to make sulphite-free wine. These are mainly dry red wines that contain high levels of tannins, which act as a natural preservative. Wines without added sulphites are generally labelled as organic or natural wines and have grown in popularity over the last few years, but unfortunately, many wine critics believe that these naturally preserved wines sacrifice on flavour and shelf life.
In summary, sulphites are a common preservative, not only found in wine, but a range of food, and do not generally cause allergic reactions. If you are an individual with a true sulphite allergy, you may want to try sulphite free wine – but you will have to compromise on shelf life!
3D printing technology is becoming increasingly common in research and industry, but its use is limited due to lack of availability of specialist inks that can be used to generate novel structures. In this study, scientists first made an ink from silicone microbeads, bound in liquid silicone and water. This mixture has a paste-like consistency, similar to household toothpaste, where it can be easily manipulated, but retains its shape and does not drip.
What is 3D Printing and how does it work? Video: Funk-e Studios
The ink was then fed into a 3D printer and used to create mesh patterns. The final structures are cured in an oven and contain embedded iron carbonyl particles, which allow the researchers to use magnetic fields to manipulate it.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is about the highly reactive gas, fluorine.
Fluorine wasn’t discovered until the 19th century, and even now very few chemists have seen elemental fluorine. Fluorite – fluorine’s source mineral – was used industrially as far back as the 16th century, but elemental fluorine wasn’t made until much later.
Fluorite is the mineral form of calcium fluoride (CaF2) and can be found in a wide variety of colours – from pastel free, to burgundy, and even purple or golden yellow. Many samples of fluorite can also be seen fluorescing under UV light. Fluorite’s main industrial use is as a source of hydrogen fluoride (HF), a highly reactive acid. It can also be used to lower the melting point of raw materials, such as steel.
Fluorite has been used in industry for hundreds of years and is fluorescent under UV light. Image: Pixabay
In 1886, French chemist Henri Moissan first made elemental fluorine by electrolysing a mixture of potassium fluoride and hydrogen fluoride. He later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work.
Large-scale production of fluorine first began during World War II, where it was used to separate uranium for the Manhattan Project – the United States’ nuclear weapons development project.
Fluorine is known for its high reactivity. It is the most electronegative element, which means it can react with almost every other element in the periodic table. Despite being difficult to handle, fluorine and fluorine containing compounds have many real-world applications.
Due to its reactivity, elemental fluorine must be handled with great care. Fluorine reacts with water to produce hydrogen fluoride, which is such a powerful acid it can eat through glassware.
Fluorine’s reactivity isn’t all bad – in fact, it has hundreds of applications. One of the most common uses of fluorine is the fluorides in toothpaste.
These fluorides exist usually as tin or sodium fluoride, and when you brush your teeth they react with calcium in the enamel to make it less soluble to acids. This gives some protection to your teeth from acidic foods such as fizzy drinks or juices.
The fluorochemical industry began in the 1930′s and 40′s with DuPont, who commercialised organofluorine compounds on a large scale. They developed Freon-12 (dichlorodifluoromethane) after General Motors showed chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs) could be used as refrigerants. The two companies joined together to market Freon-12, which quickly replaced previously used toxic kitchen refrigerants.
CFCs were found to be creating holes in the ozone layer, contributing to global warming. Image: Pixabay
CFCs were later banned by a number of countries due to the damage they caused to the ozone layer. More environmentally friendly fluorine-based alternatives are now used in refrigeration, including hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
DuPont continued to pioneer the industry, when recently hired chemist Roy J Plunkett accidentally discovered polytetrafluoroethylene, also known as the polymer Teflon. Tests of the mysterious white polymer he had generated showed its’ high temperature stability and resistance against corrosion were significantly higher than any other plastic. It only took three years for large-scale production to begin.
Fluorine – Professor Martyn Poliakoff. Video: Periodic Videos
The development of Teflon lead to many other similar fluorine-containing polymers appearing on the market, including PTFE, which is used in breathable rainwear by the Gore-Tex business and was developed by Robert Gore, the son of ex-DuPont employee Bill Gore.
The fluorochemicals industry continues to grow to this day; in 2017 the global market was estimated at $17.6 billion.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is about the exciting group one element, lithium!
Lithium has a wide range of uses – it can even power batteries!
Lithium was first discovered in mines in Australia and Chile, and was initially used to treat gout, an arthritic inflammatory condition. Its use as a psychiatric medication wasn’t established until 1949, when an Australian psychiatrist discovered the positive effect that lithium salts had on treating mania. Since then, scientists have discovered that lithium works as a mood stabiliser by targeting neurotransmitters in the brain.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that are released by one neuron to send a message to the next neuron. There are several types found in humans including dopamine, serotonin and glutamate. Each has a different role, and different levels of each neurotransmitter can be linked to a variety of mental illnesses. However, it is an increase in glutamate – an excitatory neurotransmitter that plays a role in learning and memory – and has been linked to the manic phase of bipolar disorder.
Lithium salts have been used as a medication for mania effectively since 1949. Image: Pixabay
Lithium is thought to stabilise levels of glutamate, keeping it at a healthy and stable level. Though it isn’t a fully comprehensive treatment for bipolar disorder, lithium has an important role in treating the manic phase and helping researchers to understand the condition.
One of the most common types of battery you will find in modern electronics is the lithium ion battery. This battery type was first invented in the 1970s, using titanium (IV) sulphide and lithium metal. Although this battery had great potential, scientists struggled to make a rechargeable version.
Initial rechargeable batteries were dangerous, mainly due to the instability of the lithium metal. This resulted in them failing safety tests and led to the use of lithium ions instead.
Lithium-ion batteries are widely used and developments in the technology continue today.
Developments in lithium ion technology continue to this day, in which the recently-founded Faraday Institute plays a large role. As part of the Faraday Battery Challenge, they are bringing together expertise from universities and industry, supporting projects that develop lithium-based batteries, along with new battery technologies.
Nuclear fusion happens in a hollow steel donut surrounded by magnets. The large magnetic fields contain a charged gas known as plasma, which is heated to 100m Kelvin and leads to nuclear fusion of the deuterium and tritium in the plasma. Keeping the plasma stable and preventing it from cooling is one of the largest industrial problems to overcome. This is where lithium comes in.
Results from studies in which lithium is delivered in a liquid form to the edge of the plasma, show that lithium is stable and maintains its temperature and could potentially be used in controlling the plasma. It can also increase the plasma temperature if injected under certain conditions, improving the overall conditions for fusion.
Lithium has uses in plasma stabilisation in nuclear fusion. Video: Tedx Talks
Aside from its uses in nuclear fusion, lithium has other uses in the nuclear industry. For example, it is used as an additive in coolant systems. Lithium fluoride and other similar salts have a low vapour pressure, meaning they can carry more heat than the same amount of water.
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.
Scientists have discovered new microbes in the deep-sea which can use greenhouse gases, such as methane and butane, as energy sources. These new microbes could help reduce the concentration of these gases in our atmosphere and have the potential to be used to clean up oil spills in the future.
The deep-sea is one of the Earth’s most unexplored areas. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute have published findings from an extensive documentation of microbial communities living in the hot, deep-sea sediments of the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California, US.
They found new microbes, vastly different genetically from any found before, that possess the same ability to ‘eat’ pollutant-chemicals as previously identified microbes.
A view of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill from the International Space Station. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The scientists analysed sediment from 2000m below the surface for genomic data. At this depth, volcanic activity causes high temperatures – around 200°C – and the water contains many hydrocarbons such as methane and butane, which can be used as energy sources for bacteria.
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.
Plant breeders are increasingly using techniques to produce new varieties they say are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods. New genome editing technologies can introduce new traits more quickly and precisely.
However, in July, 2018, the European Court of Justice decreed they alter the genetic material of an organism in a way that does not occur naturally, so they should fall under the GMO Directive. This went against the opinion of the Advocate General.
In October 2018, leading scientists representing 85 European research institutions endorsed a position paper warning that the ruling could lead to a de facto ban of innovative crop breeding.
The paper argues for an urgent review of European legislation, and, in the short term, for crops with small DNA adaptations obtained through genome editing to fall under the regulations for classically bred varieties.
‘As European leaders in the field of plant sciences […] we are hindered by an outdated regulatory framework that is not in line with recent scientific evidence,’ says one of the signatories, Dirk Inzé, Scientific Director at Life Sciences Institute VIB in Belgium.
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.
Microscopic membranous vesicles floating outside of cells were first discovered 50 years ago; 30 years later, a subset of these was coined exosomes. At the time, these membrane bubbles were believed to be nothing more than a cellular waste disposal mechanism. But within the past decade, extracellular vesicles – and exosomes in particular – have piqued scientists’ interests, resulting in a research boom.
In 2006, there were just 115 publications referencing exosomes; by 2015, this number had mushroomed to 1010. Today, a PubMed search brings up more than 7500 publications. Consulting firm Grand View Research estimates that the global exosome market could reach $2.28bn by 2030.
Advancements in exosome research could lead to breakthroughs in prostate cancer treatment.
The interest in exosomes has been driven by the new finding that exosomes are more than just a waste disposal system – they are also a means of communication between cells and have the ability to carry cargos such as proteins and mRNA, suggesting there could be potential medical applications.
‘Currently, research into exosomes and other extracellular vesicles is very strong,’ says Jason Webber, Prostate Cancer UK research fellow in the Division of Cancer and Genetics at Cardiff University. ‘I think this field of research will continue to grow and I believe we’ll also see greater clinical application of exosomes and a drive towards research exploring the therapeutic potential of exosomes.’
Exosomes in Cancer Research. Video: Thermo Fisher Scientific
Exosomes are best described as extracellular vescles – essentially membrane sacs – formed by the inward budding of the membrane of intracellular compartments known as multivesicular bodies (MVBs) or multivesicular endosomes (MVEs). They are released from cells when MVBs fuse with the cell’s plasma membrane, releasing its contents outside the cell. These vesicles, made of a phospholipid bilayer and ranging between 40nm and 150nm in diameter, are found in all biological fluids including blood, urine, saliva, bile, semen and breast milk.
Biopharmaceuticals are sourced from living organisms.
Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, have developed a portable drug manufacturing system that can make several different biopharmaceuticals to be used in precision medicine or to treat outbreaks in developing countries.
Biopharmaceuticals are drugs made up of proteins such as antibodies and hormones, and are produced in bioreactors using bacteria, yeast or mammalian cells. They must be purified before use, so the process has dozens of steps and it can therefore take weeks or months to produce a batch.
The Challenges in Manufacturing Biologics. Video: Amgen
Due to the complex nature of the process and its time restrictions, biopharmaceuticals are usually produced at large factories dedicated to a single drug – often one that can treat a wide range of patients.
To help supply smaller, more specific groups of patients with drugs, a group of researchers at MIT have developed a system that can be easily configured to produce three different pharmaceuticals – human growth factor, interferon alpha 2b and granulocyte colony-stimulating factor – all of a comparable quality to commercially available counterparts.
Biopharmaceuticals can treat autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis. Image: Pixabay
‘Traditional biomanufacturing relies on unique processes for each new molecule that is produced,’ said J Christopher Love, a Chemical Engineering Professor at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. ‘We’ve demonstrated a single hardware configuration that can produce different recombinant proteins in a fully automated, hands-free manner.’
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in July 2018 that onerous EU regulations for GMOs should also be applied to gene edited crops. The ECJ noted that older technologies to generate mutants, such as chemicals or radiation, were exempt from the 2001 GMO directive, but all other mutated crops should be regarded as GMOs. Since gene editing does not involve foreign DNA, most plant scientists had expected it to escape GMO regulations.
‘We didn’t expect the ruling to be so black and white and prescriptive,’ says Johnathan Napier, a crop scientist at Rothamsted Research. ‘If you introduce a mutant plant using chemical mutagenesis, you will likely introduce thousands if not millions of mutations. That is not a GMO. But if you introduce one mutation by gene editing, then that is a GMO.’
What is genetic modification? Video: The Royal Society
The ECJ ruling will have strong reverberations in academe and industry. The European Seed Association described the ruling as a watershed moment. ‘It is now likely that much of the potential benefits of these innovative methods will be lost for Europe – with significant economic and environmental consequences,’ said secretary general Garlich von Essen.
In 2012, BASF moved its plant research operations to North Carolina, US, because of European regulations. ‘If I was a company developing gene editing technologies, I’d think of moving out of Europe,’ says Napier.
‘The EU is shooting itself in the foot. Its ag economy has been declining since 2005 and it has moved from net self-sufficiency to requiring imports of major staples,’ says Maurice Moloney, CEO of the Global Institute for Food Security in Saskatchewan, Canada. ‘Paradoxically, it still imports massive quantities of GM soya beans and other crops to feed livestock.’
2D materials have a thickness of just one molecule, which makes them especially promising for use in quantum computing, as electrons are restricted by movement across two dimensions, as the wavelength of the electron is longer than the thickness of the material.
The most well known of these new materials is graphene – a single layer or carbon – which since its Nobel prize-winning synthesis in 2004 has been posited as a game-changer in applications ranging from tissue engineering and water filtration to energy generation and organic electronics.
Now, an international team at DTU led by Assistant Professor Kasper Steen Pedersen has synthesised a novel nanomaterial with electrical and magnetic properties that the researchers claim make it suitable for future quantum computers and other applications in electronics.
Since graphene’s discovery, hundreds of new 2D materials have been synthesised, but the new material, published in Nature Chemistry, is based on a different concept. While the other 2D material candidates are all inorganic, chromium-chloride-pyrazine (chemical formula CrCl2(pyrazine)2) is an organic-inorganic hybrid material.
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.
A catalyst is a substance that reduces the energy input required for a reaction – many industrial processes use a catalyst to make them feasible and economic.
There are many types of catalysts for different applications, and zeolite catalysts are used commercially to reduce the negative effects of exhaust fumes from diesel engines and produce fuels more efficiently. Catalysts can be studied with light, in a process called spectroscopy, to help understand how they work.
My PhD research has greatly benefitted from the use of synchrotron radiation. It helped me to gain detailed mechanistic insight into how the zeolite catalyst works. To date, I have completed four scientific visits at the Diamond Light Source, which is the UK’s national synchrotron facility, located in Oxfordshire.
Diamond Light Source is the UK’s national synchrotron science facility, located in Oxfordshire. It was opened in June 2014 to support industrial and academic research.
What is a synchrotron?
Diamond Light Source. Image credit: Diamond Light Source
A synchrotron generates very bright beams of light by accelerating electrons close to the speed of light and bending them through multiple magnets. The broad spectrum of light produced, ranging from X-rays to infrared (IR) light, is selectively filtered at the experimental laboratories (beamlines), where a specific region of the electromagnetic spectrum is utilised. My work uses the IR part of the electromagnetic spectrum. IR light has the right energy to probe bond stretches and deformations, allowing molecular observations and determination.
A highlight from last year has been attending a joint beamtime session with Prof Russell Howe and Prof Paul Wright at Diamond’s IR beamline (MIRIAM, B22). The MIRIAM beamline is managed by Dr Gianfelice Cinque and Dr Mark Frogley.
The synchrotron enables us to capture the catalyst in action during the methanol to hydrocarbons reaction. The changes in the zeolite hydroxyl stretches we observe correlate with the detection of the first hydrocarbon species downstream.
A cartoon illustration of the evolution of the zeolite hydroxyl stretch band during the methanol to hydrocarbons process. Image credit: Ivalina Minova
What is it like researching at Diamond?
My access to Diamond is typically spread over six-month intervals. To secure beamtime, we have to submit a two-page research proposal. This is assessed by a scientific peer review panel and allocated three or four days to complete the proposed experiments.
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.’
Dr Helen Sharman always knew that she wanted to study science at university, and considered biology, medicine, and physics before deciding on chemistry.
‘After – well, in fact, during – my degree, I always knew I wanted to go into industry,’ Dr Sharman said, as she began her fully booked evening lecture at SCI’s London headquarters. ‘I just thought chemistry was going to be a fabulous way of keeping my options open.’
How right she was – Dr Helen Sharman’s CV reads like an especially far-fetched answer to the question, ‘What would you like to be when you grow up?’
Before taking the job for which she became best known, Helen Sharman worked for General Electric, developing screens and coatings for electronics; and then as a chemist for the confectioner Mars, where she was part of the team that developed the innovative Mars Ice Cream – a canny solution to the seasonal dip in chocolate bar sales over summer.
‘I then moved on in my job to the next department – the chocolate department,’ she continued, a smattering of oohs and aahs returning from the audience.
‘One of the tasks I had to do every day was to trundle down to the production line and take samples of chocolate and’ – she whispered – ‘taste it’.
‘There I was, using my chemistry, in industry, in a production environment, tasting chocolate. I loved it.
‘What better job could anybody have?’
There can’t be many. But one day, while driving home, Helen Sharman heard five words on a radio advert that could tempt her away even from her dream job at a chocolate factory.
‘Astronaut wanted: no experience necessary’.
No experience necessary
The advert was for Project Juno, the private British space programme to select the country’s first ever astronaut, who would join three Russian astronauts on the Mir Space Station for eight days.
‘They were looking for people who were qualified in something like science, engineering, medicine – something technical – and someone who did a practical job with their hands, because the ultimate astronaut was going to need to do experiments in space,’ Dr Sharman explained.
The astronaut would also need learn Russian in preparation for 18 months of training in Star City, near Moscow, before embarking on an eight-day mission orbiting Earth on the Mir Space Station with three Russian astronauts.
Finally, Dr Sharman explained, the successful applicant had to be reasonably physically fit, or more specifically, healthy – ‘You can train a certain fitness if you’ve got an internal health’, she said.
Of the 13,000 initial applicants, Helen Sharman made it to the final two. She and RAF Major Timothy Mace would not find out until three months before departure who was first choice and who was backup.
Meanwhile, the two prospective astronauts underwent rigorous training and tests, flight simulations, and experienced the illusion of weightlessness (achieved through parabolic flight in an aeroplane) – ‘This is the part of the training that every astronaut agrees, by far, is the best bit’, Dr Sharman said.
Experiments in space
Of course, it was Helen Sharman who was selected, and on 18 May 1991, she boarded the Soyuz TM-12 mission to the Mir Space Station with Soviet cosmonauts Anatoly Artsebarsky and Sergei Krikalyov, experiencing 3G of acceleration on launch and in 530 seconds – less than nine minutes – was 400km away from the earth’s surface. The Soyuz capsule orbited the planet for two days before manually docking with Mir.
With no time to waste, she began work on the experiments she was there to do for the next eight days…
The IHNV virus has spread worldwide and is fatal to salmon and rainbow trout – costing millions in sales of lost farmed fish. The current vaccination approach requires needle injection of fish, one by one. Now, however, Seattle-based Lumen Bioscience has come up with a new technology to make recombinant vaccines in a type of blue-green algae called Spirulina that costs pennies to produce and can be fed to fish in their feed.
To be effective, oral vaccines have not only to survive the gut environment intact but must also target the appropriate gut-associated immune cells. The approach developed by Lumen overcomes many of the problems with complex and expensive encapsulation strategies attempted in the past, according to CEO Brian Finrow.
‘[It] focuses on a new oral-vaccine platform [using] engineered Spirulina to express high amounts of target antigen in a form that is both provocative to the immune system – ie generates a desirable immune response that protects against future infection – and can be ingested orally without purification, in an organism that has been used as a safe food source for both humans and fish for decades.’
To produce the new oral vaccine, the Lumen researchers first developed a strain of Spirulina that manufactures recombinant proteins in its cell walls that the salmon immune system recognises as IHNV viruses. They then rapidly grew the strain in a large-scale indoor production system – requiring only light, water, salt and trace nutrients – and harvested and dried all the raw Spirulina biomass. This dried powder can then be fed to the fish.
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.
A 3D battery made using self-assembling polymers could allow devices like laptops and mobile phones to be charged much more rapidly.
Usually in an electronic device, the anode and cathode are on either side of a non-conducting separator. But a new battery design by Cornell University researchers in the US intertwines the components in a 3D spiral structure, with thousands of nanoscale pores filled with the elements necessary for energy storage and delivery.
This type of ‘bottom-up’ self-assembly is attractive because it overcomes many of the existing limitations in 3D nanofabrication, enabling the rapid production of nanostructures at large scales.
In the Cornell design, the battery’s anode is made of gyroidal (spiral) thin films of carbon, generated by block copolymer self-assembly. They feature thousands of periodic pores around 40nm wide. The pores are coated with a 10 nm-thick separator layer, which is electronically insulating but ion-conducting. Some pores are filled with sulfur, which acts as the cathode and accepts electrons but doesn’t conduct electricity.
Adaptive battery can charge in seconds. Video: News Direct
‘This is potentially ground-breaking, if the process can be scaled up and the quality of the electrodes can be ensured,’ comments Yury Gogotsi, director of A.J. Drexel Nanomaterials Institute, Philadelphia, US. ‘But this is still an early-stage development, proof of concept. The main challenge is to ensure that no short-circuits occur in the structure.
Figures on global data availability and growth are staggering. Data are expected to grow by an astounding factor of 300 between 2005 and 2020, and are predicted to reach 40 trillion bytes by 2020. This creates significant opportunities for data-based decision-making in industries such as agriculture.
Indeed, ongoing developments in precision agriculture and web-based apps can help the farmer to greatly enhance their efficiency, productivity and sustainability, and to prepare themselves for potentially catastrophic climatic events in real time.
On the other hand, farmers have traditionally relied on a more conventional approach for monitoring and improving their performance, namely, benchmarking. In a nutshell, benchmarking is about comparing one’s performance to that of their peers in terms of one or more performance indicators, typically expressed as ratios – i.e. output over input.
For instance, a dairy farmer may want to know how far their milk production per cow is from the top 10% of farms, or whether farms with a different management strategy than theirs (e.g. pasture-based farm vs. all-year housed system) could deliver higher milk yields. Farm benchmarking reports are standard practice in agricultural extension and consultancy.
However, these reports can be overly simplistic, because partial performance ratios cannot capture the multifaceted nature of agricultural sustainability, encompassing environmental (e.g. carbon footprints), social (e.g. labour use) and other indicators (e.g. animal health and welfare), in addition to economic and technical ones.