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Rechargeable Fuels Cells Looming in the Future, but are They Safe?

batteryBetween all the posts about fluorescent light bulbs, nuclear energy, and decreasing green house gases, I thought it was only appropriate to add to the conglomeration of environmentally-friendly technology.  Just like CFLs, a major problem with conventional batteries used in laptops, ipods, cell phones, etc. is that they are difficult to recycle.  As a matter of fact, of the 3 billion batteries Americans purchase each year, 179,000 tons of those end up in landfills contributing to the toxic metal waste build-up in this country and around the world.

There may be a light at the end of the tunnel though!  Researchers at the technology company Lilliputian have just revealed that they are in the final stages of making portable fuel cell batteries available to the public.  These batteries allow a small amount of fuel such as methanol, butane, or formic acid into the system’s chip which produces electricity without any combustion, thus negating the release of any greenhouse gases.  Although the product Lilliputian is planning on releasing in the next year or two uses butane and can only be used on devices that charge via USB port such as digital cameras or cell phones, this would open the door for bigger, and more efficient fuel cells in the future.  However, there is an economic concern; the company is projecting a $100-150 price tag for their cigarette lighter sized fuel cell system.

Although I’m all about saving the environment by trying my best to recycle paper and soda cans, I’m a little concerned about the presence of butane, methanol, and formic acid present in fuel cells.  Because methanol and butane are flammable and formic acid is corrosive, it took research companies a while to convince the U.S. Department of Transportation and the International Civil Aviation Organization to allow the transport and use of the fuel cells on board aircraft.  I completely agree that fuel cells should eventually replace conventional batteries so our electronics not only last longer but drastically decrease the magnitude of battery waste, but is it worth the risk of people carrying around flammable and corrosive materials from day to day?

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Appetite Supression Using Hormones

An article I saw recently on Yahoo! News, discusses the discovery of a new appetite supressing hormone found in mice.  The study focuses on a molecule known as N-acylphosphatidylethanolamine or NAPE for short.  The compound was found by examining the blood of mice using LCMS after the ingestion of large amounts of lipids.  It was found that the levels of NAPE increased dramatically and the physiological effects of NAPE had never previously been studied.  The hormone is released by the small intestine after the ingestion of fat.

It was found that the food intake of mice could be controlled though injections of NAPE.  In large doses (1000 mg/kg body weight), the mice would almost completely stop eating.  The effects of the NAPE injection was found to last for 12 hrs for this high dose of NAPE.  It was found that the NAPE acumulates in the hypothalamus, and it is believed that this direct interaction with the central nervous system is how the NAPE reduces appetite.  It was determined that NAPE treatment supresses the neurotransmitter neuropeptide y, which is involved in stimulating the desire to eat.  It was also found that a high fat diet reduced the ability of the mice’s body to produce NAPE.

This research could lead to a new insight into reasons for obesity in humans.  It also may lead to a novel treatment for obesity using injections of NAPE and related compounds.  However, the research is still years away from human application.

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Cells with Baggage


A lymphocyte cell with its magnetic nanoparticle "baggage"

It’s nice to know that those smart cookies up at MIT are getting something pretty sweet accomplished.  Reported on bbc.com but originally published in Nano Letters, researchers have found a way to attach a polymer rucksack filled with magnetic nanoparticles to cells which allows the cell to be manipulated by a simple magnet.  The “rucksack” was created using polymer multi-layer technology with a three layer system that contains polymers designed to stick to the cell wall, hold the rucksack’s payload, and encase the other two layers which was built on a patterned surface that allows the layers to form only in certain places.  A liquid mixture of live cells is then poured over a batch of rucksacks, which immediately latch onto the cell’s walls.  Upon heating, the rucksacks disconnect from the cell walls, leaving the cells floating around with their new accessories.

This break-through has opened up the doors for tons of research opportunities that would allow scientists to literally dictate the movement of specific cells in order to minimize the amount of medicine a person has to actually take.  Instead of flooding the body with huge amounts of prescription drugs that can sometimes produce nasty side effects, the medication can be sent directly to the source of the problem which, in theory, should also be more effective.

So far, the lymphocyte cells, a type of cell involved in the immune system, have been the only ones tested.  However, the cells were still able to perform their normal functions and were ultimately not harmed in the carrying of the rucksack.  As long as this research continues, I believe the world of drug treatment could be vastly altered if this new technology is able to live up to the hype scientists believe it can.

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MotW09 – Catalytic Decomposition of Water

The molecule of the week comes from ongoing research by Dr. Randolf Thummel at the University of Houston (Zeping Deng, Huan-Wei Tseng, Ruifa Zong, Dong Wang, and Randolph Thummel. Inorg. Chem. 2008, 47, 1835 – 1848).  The article focuses on research done in the catalytic decomposition of water into hydrogen and oxygen using diruthenium complexes.  One of the major hurdles which must be overcome in order for hydrogen is the large scale production of hydrogen in an environmentally friedly way.  Currently, hydrogen is produced from hydrocarbons or through the electrolysis of water.  Using hydrocarbons does not solve the problems of oil dependency and using electrolysis requires large amounts of electricity, which would likely be produed by burning coal.  The ultimate goal of the Thummel group is to produce a photocatalyst which will use UV- light to carry out the redox reaction converting water into hydrogen gas and oxgyen gas. The ability to catalyze the decomposition of water is partly due to the presence of the two ruthenium centers so close to one another.  A molecule of water binds to each metal center and hydrogen is release through an oxidation process.  The oxgyen atoms are then within close enough proximity to react to form diatomic oxygen.  Currently, the diruthenium complex is able to catalyse the decomposition of water only in a highly acidic (pH=1) solution in the presence of Ce(IV).  The role of the Ce(IV) is as a sacrificial oxidant.  Future research by the Thummel group will focus on further understanding the specific mechanism involved in the catalysis reaction with the eventual goal of using UV-light to drive the reaction.

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New Lightbulbs for a Better World, But What about the Mercury Content?

light-bulbfluorescent-bulb1As most of you are probably aware, there is a big push to change lighting from traditional incandescent lighting to fluorescent lighting. 95% of output energy from incandescent lighting is given off as heat as opposed to illumination. The most popular trend in “new light bulbs” are compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), which only require about 20 to 25% of the energy that incandescent light bulbs need to generate light. While CFLs are initially more expensive than traditional incandescent light bulbs, they pay for themselves with a significantly longer life, lasting ten times longer than incandescents.

However, while many people are pushing for the elimination of incandescent light bulbs, CFLs are potentially problematic; they contain mercury and currently 98% of used CFLs are not recycled. Mercury is extremely toxic to humans and especially toxic to unborn and developing children.

Mercury vapors in fluorescent lighting emit ultraviolet light when hit with a beam of electrons. The UV energy excites a phosphor on the inside surface of the glass tube, causing it to fluoresce and produce photons of visible light.”

A study was done that involved quantifying the mercury vapors that were released from broken CLFs. They found that over a 4 day period, a 13 watt bulb released 30% of its total mercury content. A conclusion from this study was that further sorbent-based technologies need to be developed for suppressing mercury vapor release from lamps such as CFLs.

This is a very interesting topic because the current energy and global warming crises have led scientists and engineers to find new paths to save the environment. CFLs, in my opinion, are a very good thing despite their mercury content because they decrease energy usage for lighting that WE ALL use every day. So, next time you are going to buy lightbulbs for the lamps in your residence and/or work place, think about the impact of the bulb you choose on the environment.

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Are you sure you don’t want to supersize your order?

C&EN had an interesting article yesterday about research that was conducted to determine the amount of corn found in fast food products, specifically french fries, chicken, and beef. The research covered McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s and approximately 500 servings of chicken, burgers, and french fries were analyzed. A. Hope Jahren examined the foods’ compositions by looking for different isotopes of corn. At the same time, she also tested for nitrogen content which is linked to the use (and consumption) of fertilizers.

They found that 100% of the chicken and 93% of the beef had been fed exclusively a corn-based diet. And the nitrogen analyses indicate that the livestock had been dining on heavily fertilized feed.

I suppose this probably won’t come as much of a surprise to many people, but I found this article particularly interesting because this research is the first to show scientifically that our nation is becoming heavily dependent on corn.

Corn agriculture in the U.S. has been criticized as being environmentally unsustainable, requiring disproportionate amounts of fertilizer and fossil fuels.

I can’t stand the fast food industry. It’s causing serious health problems in our country. I understand that from an economic standpoint this industry is fantastic for us, raking in about $100 billion a year, but really it’s just disgusting and I don’t understand how anyone can eat this food (especially after seeing Fast Food Nation). Cows and chickens are not supposed to eat corn – they’re supposed to graze and eat grass. We’re changing their diets, causing them to get sick, and in turn we’re eating their illness stricken muscles. I’m appalled by the fact that people continue to eat fast food not knowing what exactly is in it, and that the companies are allowed to continue selling these products without ever having to reveal what they’re actually serving.It’s also important to recognize the fact that these cows and chickens in the fast food industry are also coming from the same source that supplies our grocery stores.

If any of you are fast food fans, please enlighten me.

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…more on the Nobel Prize

Three scientists Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Y. Tsien were award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering and developing a green fluorescent protein (GFP)

Shimomura originally discovered the GFP in a jellyfish, Aquoria victoria, and found that aequorin (the protein) emitted a blue light. So he continued to research because he knew the fluorescence of the jellyfish was green. Eventually he found GFP, which fluoresces green when it absorbs the blue light emitted by aequorin. Chalfie genetically manipulated GFP to create fusion proteins where GFP becomes linked to other proteins. He found that these proteins can be expressed in other organisms such as E. Coli. Tsien showed that the chromophore of GFP only needs oxygen to fluoresce. He then synthesized other GFPs that fluoresce all different colors, shown above, which allows the simultaneous labeling of multiple proteins inside cells.

Collectively, they were awarded the $1.4million prize.

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And the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to…

gfp - jellyfish.jpgOsamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien for their discovery of the green fluorescent protein.

Since 1962, when the protein was first discovered, it has developed into one of the most imperative tools used in present-day bioscience. With the help of GFP, researchers have improved techniques to observe processes that were previously invisible, such as the occurrence of nerve cells in the brain, or how cancer cells spread. [via slashdot ]

One of the more, uh, dubious products of the discovery is Alba, the green fluorescent bunny.

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From Handle Bars to Energy Storage?

I’m all for wind and solar power, but the main obstacle to moving away from fossil fuels and toward these renewable energies is the ability to store the energy when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. There are two ways to store energy: rechargeable batteries and ultracapacitors. Research is being done at the University of Texas at Austin on the possibility of using graphene as an ultracapacitor. Graphene’s high surface area and high number of ions allow a very high level of charge to be stored.

The amount of electrical charge stored per weight of the graphene material has already rivaled the values available in existing ultracapacitors, and modeling suggests the possibility of doubling the capacity.

The pros of using ultracapacitors include longer life, higher energy storage, and lower maintenance. This new technology can be applied to the electrical grid of cities so that renewable technologies can begin to be installed nearby, as well as the powering of electric and hybrid cars.

The question, however, is which should be implemented or invested in first – the technology that will supply the clean power, or the ability of a city to incorporate the new flow of energy through its grid? The problem of energy transmission also arises, as wind farms are usually located far away from cities. It’s interesting how a string of molecules can have so many uses, from harmful gas sensors, to mountain bike handle bars, and now a way to store renewable energy.

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Why you Should Care about Trypanosomes!

The bite of the tsetse fly can cause African Sleeping Sickness through transmission of the parasite called trypanosome. It is currently estimated that there are about 50,000 to 70,000 cases of this disease in Africa. Two unique types of Trypanosoma brucei cause two different types of African Sleeping Sickness isolated in two distinct regions of the continent. One is characterized by a chronic infection and is found in western and central African countries. The other, which has more acute symptoms such as a more rapid development of central nervous system disease, is found in eastern and southern African countries.

African Sleeping Sickness is also called “human African trypanosomiasis” or HAT and it is ultimately fatal if left untreated. Melarsoprol is a drug used in cases of HAT where the central nervous system is under attack. Melarsoprol, created by, Dr. Ernst Friedheim, a Swiss physician and chemist, poses a serious health threat as it contains a toxic trivalent arsenical derivative. Further research on African Sleeping Sickness and trypanosomes is vital to developing safer, more effective drugs.

Think of how many mosquito bites you have received in your life time from just a short walk outside on a summer evening. Even in the age of mosquito born bird flu, it is very scary to think that trypanosoma brucei is transmitted to humans through the tsetse fly vector. A substantial amount of research is being conducted to more fully understand this eukaryotic parasite. Unfortunately, HAT is another one to add to the list of diseases on the African continent that are hard to control. I am hopeful that some day research will eliminate trypanosoma brucei as a threat to living creatures.

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International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge 2008


10 points extra credit if you can guess what this is. No fair peeking! This image won the photography category of the NSF Visualization Challenge for 2008. I also think the Squid Suckers are wickedly cool!

[via gizmodo]

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More BPA stuff… and a bonus!

While it is likely that the studies used were funded by those with a vested interest in the outcome (shock and awe), I’m not sure exactly which study is in question. I’m assuming (a bad habit to pick up) it is the NTP report I posted about previously.

But critics questioned why the FDA based that ruling on three studies funded by the chemical industry, all of which found BPA to be safe at current exposure levels. Hundreds of independent studies in animals and cells suggest the estrogen-like chemical poses serious risks. [via usatoday]

What really chaps me here is symptomatic of the mass media in general, no link or actual reference to the original work. I know that 90+% of their readers wouldn’t do anything with the report, but it would be nice, and responsible, if they linked or made specific reference to the work (or study) being reported. It’s not that difficult! They go on to mention a study in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, connecting BPA to heart disease and diabetes, but again fail to link to the original source. Only by following a link to another story do I find a link to the original work, for which I give them props! Go ahead, see how long it takes you to find it.

Maybe I’m not as patient as I once may have been (possibly) or perhaps I’ve been jaded a bit (highly likely), but I’d really like to see responsible and accurate reporting of significant and insignificant science stories in the mass media rather than the marketing of ‘news’ through fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD). Maybe it’s just too much to ask…

OK, I feel better now…

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Linked and knotted beams of light


From Linked and knotted beams of light

third, we show that approximate knots of light may be generated using tightly focused circularly polarized laser beams. We predict theoretical extensions and potential applications, in fields ranging from fluid dynamics, topological optical solitons and particle trapping to cold atomic gases and plasma confinement.

[via nextbigfuture]

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A little LHC goodness for the weekend


The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is now online and we’re still here, for now… here’s a little to tide you over until then:

And let’s not forget the The Large Hadron Rap! (thanks Rachel!)

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NTP report on bisphenol A


The NTP (National Toxicology Program) has released its report on Bisphenol A. Of the four conclusions presented, one reflects some concern, one minimal concern, and the other two negligible concern. Note that the possible levels of concern, from lowest to highest, are negligible concern, minimal concern, some concern, concern, and serious concern.

The NTP has some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures to bisphenol A.

[via usnews ]

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Study: heavy mental effort leads to much bigger meals

I’m obviously thinking too much!

taxing mental effort appears to cause people to eat significantly more food, even though it doesn’t burn many more calories than sitting around and relaxing

[via ars]

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Researcher sheds light on ghostwriting in medical journals

Obviously, ghostwriting pharmaceutical research studies isn’t new(s)…

“The pharmaceutical industry relies on ghost-written publications in peer-reviewed journals as part of their marketing plans,” said Fugh-Berman. “Physicians rely on information in the medical literature to make treatment decisions, so hidden sponsorship of articles—and lectures at medical conferences—is not only unethical, but can compromise patient care.”

In her commentary, Dr. Fugh-Berman reports that she was approached by a medical education company working for a well-known pharmaceutical manufacturer. The company asked her to lend her name as “author” to a completed manuscript that reviewed herb-warfarin interactions. The pharmaceutical manufacturer was developing a competitor to warfarin and had apparently commissioned the article to highlight problems with warfarin.

[via sciencedaily]


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Ghostwriting of research studies draws into question validity of industry’s published research

More on Merck’s ghostwriting of research reports. Makes me wonder who else is doing it and to what extent.

“It almost calls into question all legitimate research that’s been conducted by the pharmaceutical industry with the academic physician,” Dr. Ross said, whose article, written with colleagues, was published Wednesday in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Assocation.

Merck on Tuesday acknowledged that it sometimes hires outside medical writers to draft research reports before handing them over to the doctors whose names eventually appear on the publication. But the company disputed the article’s conclusion that the authors do little of the actual research or analysis.

And at least one of the doctors whose published research was questioned in Wednesday’s article, Dr. Steven H. Ferris, a New York University psychiatry professor, said the notion that the article bearing his name was ghostwritten was “simply false.” He said it was “egregious” that Dr. Ross and his colleagues had done no research besides mining the Merck documents and reading the published medical journal articles.

[via nytimes]

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