August 2006



Cellulose might be suitable for making the eco-friendly fuel, bioethanol, report scientists in Japan.

Cellulose, a fibre found in all plant material, is the most abundant biomass in the world. But researchers say its resistance against chemical and enzymatic hydrolysis and its insolubility in most solvents has so far limited its use as a source of biofuel.

Shigeru Deguchi of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, Yokosuka, and colleagues have now discovered that cellulose can form a gel, just like starch, which is commonly used in biofuel production.

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A leading analytical chemist has claimed that widespread contamination of food by packaging materials is being ignored by government, scientists, and the food industry.

Koni Grob, scientific head of the Official Food Control Authority of the canton of Zurich, Switzerland, speaking here at the first European Chemistry Congress in Budapest, called for better oversight of chemical leaching from plastic packaging.

European legislation states that no more than 60mg of packaging materials should leach into each kilogram of food, explained Grob. But this limit is routinely breached, according to his team’s extensive research.

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the conference dinner last night was a very pleasant cruise up and down the Danube. A great captive audience for RSC journals commissioning staff. I predict a sharp upturn in articles from conference delegates (many Nobel laureates among them) in RSC journals and books soon.

The competition for best young chemist was held yesterday. It was won by Jonathan Nitschke from the department of organic chemistry in at Geneva University. The runner-up was the very gracious Lee Cronin of Glasgow University.

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A new way of measuring nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) in liquid samples could have implications across spectroscopy and imaging, report US researchers.

Michael Romalis and colleagues at Princeton University, New Jersey, US, have found that polarised laser light can be rotated by an inherent property of atomic nuclei – nuclear spin.

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A chemical logic gate that combines both inorganic and organic molecules is a versatile addition to the suite of molecules that already mimic the core functions of computer chips, Chinese scientists report.

Conventional electronic logic gates are smart switches that produce an ‘on’ or ‘off’ signal depending on their input conditions. For example, an AND gate will only deliver an ‘on’ signal if both its inputs are also ‘on’.

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Here’s a tip for those presenting posters at conferences: put the word ‘exciting’ in your title, as it’s bound to catch someone’s eye. That’s how I came to read about ‘The Chemistry of Exciting Tetraazidomethane’.

One of the exciting things about this molecule is that no-one had ever managed to make it before Young-HyukJoo and Klaus Banert, of the Chemnitz University of Technology, Germany, came along.

The other exciting thing is that the molecule is ‘extremely explosive and dangerous’, they note.

You can work out what the molecule looks like from its name. The ‘methane’ bit means that it’s based around a single carbon atom, and it’s linked to four (that’s the ‘tetra’) azide groups. Azides are made of three nitrogen atoms strung together in a chain, which have a tendency to break up at any opportunity. Stack four of these around a single carbon atom, and you have some pretty concentrated firepower at your disposal.

They made the compound by mixing sodium azide with trichloroacetonitrile (dirt cheap), and managed a yield of 5%. Not great, but enough to find out if it can do anything other than explode. And indeed it can – it reacts with alkynes and alkenes to make some very bizarre nitrogen-rich ring compounds. Probably useless, but certainly bizarre. I must confess, the schoolboy chemist in me can’t help wondering whether they’ve tried throwing a vial of this stuff at a wall yet …

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All the talks on food chemistry seem to be accompanied by free cereal bars. Is this a conspiracy? Are we being reassured that ‘chemicals’ in food are safe? Passclaim is an EU project set up to add scientific weight to any claims made by manufacturere that their food has any life saving effects.

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Oysters and mussels off the coast of America sprung into action in the aftermath of the devastating hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year. As the one year anniversary of the disaster is upon us, scientists involved in Mussel Watch, a project run by the US’s National oceanic and atmospheric administration, have been busily analysing the data from the molluscs closest to the site.

The 20 year programme has been using mussels and oysters to chart levels of trace elements and organic pollutants.

‘After the storm it looks like contaminant levels were actually lower,’ said Gunnar Lauenstein, Mussel Watch programme manager. Levels of trace elements rose – but this could be a consequence of crustal erosion – so the water washed the earth’s surface off into the sea. And at the same time washed out PHAs, DDT, and PCBs among others.

So the consequences of the storm on human health – with respect to pollutants and fertilisers making it into our food chain – seem to be minimal, at least that’s what the mussel watchers say.

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You remember when mother told you to eat up your broccoli because it was good for you? Well, many of the other brassicaceae are just as healthy, according to Renato Iori, who’s proved it by measuring the levels of glucosinolates in the vegetable’s sprouts – the first growth stage of the seed.

Scientists already knew that glucosinolates are good news, because they are metabolised into (supposedly) cancer-busting isothiocyanates in the body. But the precise levels of glucosinolates had only been measured for broccoli. Iori, of the Research Institute for Industrial Crops (ISCI), Bologna, Italy, says that many of broccoli’s cousins, such as daikon and radish sango, are also loaded with the helpful chemicals. Great news – although unfortunately, the last time I looked my local Tesco’s was clean out of radish sango sprouts.

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I caught a neat presentation by Richard Jones of ThalesNano, a company based in Budapest, Hungary. Thales makes the H-cube – not some Borg module, but a small unit about the size of a desktop computer that can do continuous throughput hydrogenation reactions, a crucial step found in many chemical syntheses. The H-cube is computer controlled, so you can just pour in the ingredients, plug in the appropriate catalyst cartridge, and you’re pretty much done. Reaction products start flowing out in minutes, says Jones, and you can reduce anything from alkenes, nitriles, amides, azides …

I promise you this is no product placement. It’s just that once upon a time, I might have spent a day setting up and running one of these reactions. And the ticklish bits involving huge cylinders of hydrogen and high-pressure reaction chambers that might go pop at any time have all been done away with in the H-cube – I wish I’d had one back then. Jones says they’ve now made an ‘X-cube’, which can run a wider range of different reactions, and you can even link the units together to run several sequential reactions. Apparently, the H-cube won the ‘2005 R+D 100 Award’, as one of the most technically sophisticated products brought to market that year.

Coincidentally, Steve Ley from Cambridge University mentioned in his talk this morning that they’ve been using the H-cube, with plenty of success. Anyone else out there got good experiences to report with this device?

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