October 2007



An oil refinery in Coryton, Essex, is ablaze following a reported explosion. 100ft flames lick a central column from a ground floor fire at the site 30 miles from London. Firefighters were called at 11:30am today, and have surrounded the site with foam lines while deliberating on their next move to tackle the fire.

All staff are safe and accounted for, but one casualty is the share price for Petroplus, which is falling as the fire burns.

According to many who live near the area, a large explosion shook buildings as far as 14 miles away. The police are not evacuating any nearby residents for the moment.

The Coryton refinery delivers 22% of the UK’s petrol demand, report the BBC.

—UPDATE—

At 15:00 the fire was ‘under control’ and the refinery manager said there will be no petrol shortages.

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The Institute of Physics released news titled “Using nanotech to make Robocops”, promising carbon nanotube (CNT)-based body armour to completely alleviate the problems associated with conventional Kevlar – notably blunt force trauma. Chemistry World has reported previously on new materials for body armour, so I excitedly downloaded the paper to find out more. I was a little disappointed.

After the initial come-down (“oh, it’s theory… still might be interesting”) I was slightly thrown by the diagrams – which appear to show nanoscale bullets hitting a single tube. After actually reading it I understand why that’s appropriate for the initial experiments, but still the word ‘assume’ comes into this an awful lot, with the big “assume” coming in here:

‘if we can assume that the above nanoscale property can be extended simply to a macroscopic case’

Hmm. They make a decent case that this is a reasonable thing to do – the regularity of CNTs along their length makes them an interesting case for crossing the nano/macro barrier, and they have been grown to be millimeters and even centimeters long. I must also point out that the authors make certain the reader knows this is a big assumption. I’m not convinced, though, as so many ‘nanotech’ misconceptions are based on this very fact – that nanoscale properties are not necessarily reproduced on the macroscale, or vice versa.

I’m not ranting about the paper – it’s an interesting study in itself and may well provide good insights into new body armour – but more at the continued misrepresentation of nanotechnology being the solution to all our woes. No wonder nanotech regulation projects are so annoyed at the lack of interest by governments.

Check out http://www.nanotechproject.org/ for more on how we should combat bad nanoscience.

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The Dynamic Duo used a bewildering arsenal of clever innovations to save the day; Gil Grissom and his CSI team love their magic sprays, which TV land is more than happy to provide. Here’s one that actually exists though: a new chemical which detects urea nitrate, a cheap home-made explosive commonly used by terrorists.Urea nitrate detector on cotton

Joseph Almog works in the Forensic Chemistry department of the Hebrew University, Israel, and has wealth of counter-terrorism inventions, rather like the Caped Crusader, under his utility belt. This latest addition, p-dimethylaminocinnamaldehyde, is far easier to make and use than it is to say. It forms a strong red dye when it reacts with urea nitrate, making minute traces of the explosive detectable on almost any surface.

Almog’s wide array of crime-fighting inventions also includes a fingerprint-developing fluorescent agent, Genipin, and Ferrotrace, another spray which turns purple when it reacts with left-over iron on someone’s hands, indicating they’ve held a gun or grenade recently.

As forensics is so well (or is that badly?) presented in the media, it’s refreshing to see some actual science – some real basic chemistry – plugging the holes between TV and real life.

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T-Cell activationNewcastle University researchers have developed a new targeted cancer therapy using killer T-cells to attack and destroy tumours. The T-cells are only activated by antibodies, which are “cloaked” by an oil coating. UV light removes the cloak and activates the antibodies, releasing the T-cells.

Team leader Colin Self described the drug as “the equivalent of ultra-specific magic bullets”.

The last T-cell treatment to hit the news had pretty dire consequences. This new technique has refined the process of T-cell activation by localising it, and trials in mice seem to have gone well – out of six ovarian tumours, five were destroyed and one greatly diminished.

Further animal and human trials are expected to start next year, but Self says getting a treatment on the market may be 10 years away.

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In a slightly bizarre poll, Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman (creator of LSD) has come top of a list of ‘greatest living thinkers’.

You can see the poll and read a story about it at the Daily Telegraph website (you may need to register) here.

The poll was conducted by Creators Synectics, a global consultants firm, by emailing 4,000 Britons asking each for 10 living ‘geniuses’. A panel of six experts in creativity and innovation then assigned them scores in categories like achievement, popular acclaim and intellectual power.

I’m pleased to see Fred Sanger is equal 5th with Nelson Mandela, but a little concerned to see that Simpson’s creator Matt Groening just pipped the two of them to 4th spot!

The list looks pretty crazy to me, but it’s fun seeing people like Mr Kalashnikov (Small arms manufacturer) rubbing shoulders with JK Rowling (author of the Harry Potter books), film-maker Ken Russell and neurobiologist Erich Jarvis in joint 83rd!

You can read more about Hoffmann and LSD here.

Does anyone have any better ideas who the ‘greatest living genius’ is?

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It’s not just the Americans having who are having problems coordinating their defence research, it seems . After a memo from the US Department of Defense’s chief technologist warned that spending on some basic research priorities was ‘inadequate’, a report published on the UK Ministry of Defence’s website earlier this month says R&D in the ministry ‘is not presently considered or managed as a coherent whole; as a consequence there is no unifying vision or clear strategic direction’.

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Marijuana leafCalifornia governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stoutly denies claims he’s ever taken drugs. In a recent interview for GQ magazine, however, Piers Morgan put it to Schwarzenegger that he’d admitted smoking marijuana – indeed he’d been filmed doing so in the 1977 film Pumping Iron. He made no denial of smoking Mary J.

“That is not a drug,” Arnie informed him. “It’s a leaf.” But of course.

“I’m not into politics, I’m into survival.” – Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), The Running Man (1987)

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An expensive resolution for BP has concluded a nightmarish chapter in the company’s history. Settlements were announced yesterday for the three cases that have cast their huge shadow over the organisation – the fatal explosion at the Texas City refinery, US in March 2005, the 2006 oil spills caused by corroded pipes at Prudhoe Bay oil field in Alaska, and allegations of illegal propane trading.

BP will pay a $50 million (£25 million) fine and face three years probation for the failure to properly maintain the Texas City site. The company has also announced that the refinery will be operational again by the end of this year following a $1 billion renewal programme.

The Prudoe Bay spill has resulted in a $12 million fine and 3 years probation. Thanks to a $4 million settlement, the State of Alaska itself has agreed not to prosecute the company. BP will also make a $4 million payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for Arctic environmental research.

The company has also admitted manipulating the price of propane in 2004 and has agreed to pay ‘fines, penalties and restitution’ of just over $303.5 million. This includes $53.5 million to a victim restitution fund, a criminal penalty of $100 million, a civil penalty of $125 million and a $25 million payment to the US Postal Inspection Service Consumer Fraud Fund.

Third quarter results, announced this month were as ‘dreadful’ as Tony Hayward predicted. The hope for the company now is that it can finally get back to business having wiped the slate clean.

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Having halted phase II clinical trials in Africa of its HIV vaccine V520, Merck will now investigate whether vaccination may actually increase the chance of infection. The Data and Safety Monitoring Board – the same independent body that recommended cessation of the trial – has now recommended that volunteers be told whether they received vaccination or placebo and be counselled about the possibility that those who received the vaccine might have an increased susceptibility to HIV infections’.

The vaccine itself, an attenuated adenovirus containing only snippets of the HIV virus, cannot directly cause infection, but we recently reported questions raised about the immunological value of all HIV vaccines engineered in the same way as V520, and this could now be further bad news from a trial that initially raised so much hope.

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The fourth recall in as many months for lead-painted toys has been put out by Mattel. This time the ‘Go Diego Go Animal Rescue Boat’, of which around 12,000 have been sold in the UK, is said to have excessive and dangerous amounts of lead and should be returned immediately.

EU stats show that 48 per cent of all scares regarding goods safety are about Chinese products – 25 per cent of which are toys.

Read Chemistry World’s story from August for a Q&A on lead paints and Mattel.

Mattel’s recalled boat

The Go Diego Go Animal Rescue Boat – not suitable for children, or anyone for that matter.

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