October 2009



euro-globe

When it comes to ways to deal with our ever-warming planet, it all eventually boils down to cold, hard cash.

Whether it’s ploughing funds into R&D for new technologies or the potential financial impact on developing economies, lurking behind the melting ice caps, heat waves, floods and droughts are £££ (or whatever currency you covet). (more…)

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This week has seen the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and its ‘plastics make it possible’ campaign link up with US arts and entertainment organisation Gen Art to celebrate the future of fashion – which they believe is plastic.

PLASTICS MAKE IT POSSIBLE KALEY CUOCO

‘Plastics and couture might not seem like an obvious fit, but the fact is that plastics have played a very large role in fashion for decades,’ said Steve Russell, vice president of the plastics division of the ACC. ‘Without plastic, we wouldn’t have faux fur, and skinny jeans wouldn’t have their stretch. We’re thrilled to partner with Gen Art to highlight how plastics inspire designers’ imaginations and allow artists to create pieces that are cutting-edge, on trend, chic, affordable, and even eco-friendly.’

Actress Kaley Cuocu (right), star of the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory, will be hosting the Gen Art  ‘Fresh Faces in Fashion’ show and announcing a fashion design competition challenging designers, both established and new, to create womenswear using plastic-based fibres. The winner of the contest will receive a $10,000 (£6,000) prize and a runway show at Gen Art’s Fresh Faces event at the Winter 2010 New York Fashion Week.

PHARMACEUTICALS

EMEA reviews Tysabri on fresh brain infection fears

The European Medicines Agency (EMEA) has begun a review of the benefits and risks of taking Biogen Idec and Elan’s multiple sclerosis drug Tysabri, following reports of more cases of the potentially deadly brain infection progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML). The number of PML infections in Tysabri users has increased to 23 since the drug was reintroduced in July 2006 and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently in talks with the companies to discuss changing the label on Tysabri and whether there is a link between the risk of PML and the length of treatment.

Meanwhile, Genentech (now wholly owned by Roche) and Biogen Idec have said that a third arthritis patient taking Rituxan has developed the disorder, scuppering their plans of getting the drug approved by the FDA for use in arthritis patients ‘in light of the number of effective [rheumatoid arthritis] treatments currently available to patients in earlier stages of the disease’.

GSK taps Supergen to develop epigenetic therapeutics

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has signed up Supergen to discover and develop cancer therapies based on epigenetic targets that regulate gene function without altering the underlying DNA sequence. According to the companies, epigenetic processes are believed to play a central role in the development of almost all cancers.

The deal will see Supergen receive an upfront payment of $5 million, which includes a $3 million equity investment, to help it progress candidate compounds through to early clinical proof of concept trials. GSK will then have an option to further develop any successful candidates and could end up paying over $375 million in milestone payments if any of the programmes are successful.

INDUSTRY

Things ‘heating up’ the CSB

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has sent investigative teams to two different fires this week.

The first fire happened at the Tesoro refinery in Salt Lake City, Utah. According to refinery officials, liquid hydrocarbons were released from a flare stack during an effort to restart the refinery’s crude unit after a power outage earlier in the day. The hydrocarbons were ignited in a pool fire that extended from the base of the stack and damaged a trailer and other equipment that was positioned nearby. No injuries were reported in the fire and firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze within an hour.

caribbeanpetroleum

‘Nearly four years after the disaster in Texas City, there continues to be a disturbing number of fires, explosions, and releases at the nation’s refineries. These events endanger workers and the public and can disrupt the supply of needed transportation fuels,’ said John Bresland, chairman of the CSB. ‘A sudden release of flammable liquid from a flare or blowdown stack poses a potential risk to people, equipment, and the environment and warrants a close look.’

The second occurred at a Caribbean Petroleum Corporation petroleum storage facility near San Juan, Puerto Rico. Reports indicate that an explosion at the facility (see right) caused a large number of the storage tanks to catch fire.

Dow fails to stop UK rubber cartel case rolling on

Dow Chemical has lost a request for a claim brought against it in the UK over its involvement in an alleged European rubber cartel to be dismissed. Justice Nigel Teare at the High Court in London ruled that Cooper Tire & Rubber and 25 other companies can sue Dow in the UK for compensation for losses they claim resulted from antitrust violations.

cooper_tire

The cartel is alleged to involve as many as 20 other companies, including Unipetrol, units form Royal Dutch Shell and Bayer AG and to have operated between 1996 and 2002.

Unipetrol, units of Shell, Dow, Eni and Trade Stomil were fined €519 million (£464 million) in a 2006 European Union antitrust case, Bayer was granted immunity ‘because it was the “whistleblower”‘.

Sabic and Albemarle catalyse Arabian Gulf growth

Albemarle and the Ibn Hayyan Plastics Products Company (TAYF) subsidiary of the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic) are to form a 50:50 joint venture company to build a ‘world scale organometallics production facility’ in the Arabian Gulf industrial city of Al-Jubail. The companies estimate they will invest Riyal 300 million (£48 million) in the Saudi Organometallic Chemicals Company which will have the capacity to produce 6,000 tonnes of tri-ethyl aluminium a year.

Tri-ethyl aluminium is used primarily as a co-catalyst in Ziegler-Natta type systems in olefin polymerisation reactions.

‘We are excited to bring this enabling technology to the Middle East and we are equally pleased to be doing so in partnership with SABIC, one of the world’s leading chemical companies,’ said Mark Rohr, chief executive officer of Albemarle. ‘This new world-scale production unit will help us safely and efficiently serve our customers while also providing a foundation for Albemarle to capitalise on other opportunities emerging in the region.’

AkzoNobel sales fall 10 per cent

Hans Wijers, chief executive of  AkzoNobel, has said the Dutch chemicals giant has ‘seen some signs of improvement in [sales to] emerging markets, but overall we don’t foresee a quick recovery.’ Despite sales during the quarter falling 10 per cent €3.6 billion, the company’s operating profits increased 4 per cent to €391 million compared to the same period last year. This led to a 30 per cent increase in net profits, which rose to €197 million, helped by the company’s continuing restructuring and integration efforts.

BASF sees business ‘stabilise at a low level’

German chemical giant BASF has seen its quarterly sales rise 2 per cent compared to the second quarter of the year, but its revenues of €12.8 billion were still 19 per cent down compared with the same period last year. But despite the company’s operating income for the quarter slipping 20 per cent to €1.2 billion compared to the third quarter of 2008, it still managed to reduce its overall debt position.

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‘In the past three months our business has stabilised at a low level. Positive impulses are coming from Asia, especially from China, and from parts of South America. Europe and North America remain weak,’ said BASF’s chairman Jurgen Hambrecht. ‘Overall, there is much to suggest that the worst is behind us. After a steep plunge, we are now climbing gradually out of the trough. The recovery will be slow and uneven.’

He also cautioned that while the integration of Ciba was proceeding faster than planned, the increased speed of the integration will result in a ‘negative impact on earnings’ of more than €800 million in 2009. The integration will see 33 of the planned 58 closures of Ciba sites occur before the end of 2009, with the total headcount loss estimated to be around 3,800 positions.

AGROCHEMICALS

Terra aids Agrium to save itself from CF bid

The war of the fertilisers has taken another interesting twist, with Terra Industries agreeing to buy Agrium‘s half of a nitrogen fertiliser facility for $250 million in cash. The deal should ease regulatory concerns over Agrium’s proposed bid for CF Industries. If successful, Agrium’s takeover of CF Industries would halt CF’s bid to buy out Terra.

The deal is subject to Agrium completing the takeover of CF and relies on Terra being able to raise $600 million in debt capital.

Matt Wilkinson

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pumpkin_carved

We’ve all been told that the thousands of carved pumpkins (also known as Jack-o’-lanterns) that will be displayed around the world tomorrow night will keep away the ghosts and ghouls that come out each year at Halloween. But did you know that the same pumpkins might also be able to scare away fungal infections?

A Korean team have found that pumpkin skin contains an antifungal protein that has not been found elsewhere before. Publishing in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, the team led by Kyung-Soo Hahm and Yoonkyung Park at Chosun University, also report that this protein inhibits the growth of 10 species of harmful pathogenic fungi including Candida albicans that causes human skin infections. These tests have only been carried out on a petri dish so far, but the team is predicting the protein could be developed as a natural antifungal agent. Something else to think about when you are carving your pumpkin tomorrow!

Happy Halloween!

Nina Notman

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

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As I’m sure you all know, the winners of this year’s Nobel prize for chemistry were Venki Ramakrishnan from the LMB in Cambridge, UK, Tom Steitz from Yale, US, and Ada Yonath from the Weizmann Institute in Israel. You can find the full story in this month’s issue, which should be winging it’s way to RSC members right now (unless it’s stuck in a Royal Mail sorting office while the posties are on strike). You can also read it online here, even if you’re not a member!

But as they say, a picture’s worth a thousand words, so what’s a video worth? Here’s one from Ramakrishnan’s group that shows the wonders of the ribosome in action:

Enjoy the issue!

Phillip Broadwith

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Drum roll please……….our weekly Chemistry in its element podcasts have a new webpage with a flashy interactive periodic table (as you may be able to tell we’re quite chuffed with this!).

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Just click on the element images with headphones to hear the podcasts that have been released so far, and then come back each week to hear the latest release.
(The podcasts are also all available on iTunes, if that is more your cup of tea)

This week’s release: Science writer Brian Clegg tells us about the element with the sexiest name – iridium

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Well, it seems I’ve taken my eye off the ball on this one – the more clued-in members of the blogosphere noticed quite some time ago that the proposed symbol for the newly-ratified element 112 (dubbed copernicium) has been changed from Cp to Cn.

Given all the hoo-ha about the symbol Cp (see CW blog posts here, here and here for the full story), it’s not entirely surprising, but it does appear that the decision came much earlier in the process than any of us thought – this report from a meeting of the Iupac/Iupap joint working party in August doesn’t even mention Cp as a proposed symbol.

Sigurd Hofmann, who has the honour of naming element 112, will be recording a podcast for our Chemistry in its Element series sometime on the next few weeks, so tune in to hear the full story about the latest super-heavyweight to hit the periodic table. (more…)

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The Nanomonster team behind the ‘prize winning’ Nano song have launched a new musical video – The safety song. I’m pleased to report it features the same great puppets, another catchy song, and has definitely brightened up my Monday!

Nina Notman

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hammering_tubes

Sometimes the simplest answers are the best. If you needed to bung the end of a tube, what would you do? One of the first things you might try would be to bash a blob of some softish material into the open end. But what if that tube was only a few nanometres across?

Well, that didn’t put off Sang Bok Lee and Sang Jun Son from South Korea. They took silica nanotubes (made by coating the internal pores of an alumina template), filled them up with fluorescent dye, deposited some gold on the surface and then just hammered it in.

In this case, the ‘hammer’ was actually millions of alumina microbeads in a vortex shaker – pummelling the deposited gold with the microbeads forces it into the necks of the tubes, sealing them off. The tubes could then be removed from the alumina template could maintain their seal even after being incubated in water for 6 weeks!

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The group is really interested in using these tubes to develop molecular delivery systems – they experimented with using polymers instead of gold to seal the tubes and found that polylactic-co-glycolic acid (PLGA) also worked well to seal the tubes – the idea being to use a biodegradeable polymer that will allow the cap to break down and release its cargo at an opportune moment.

So, when it comes to nanotube delivery systems, as MC Hammer would say – you can’t touch this.

Phillip Broadwith

Reference: J Yu et al, J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2009, DOI: 10.1021/ja905485s

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While most of Europe appears to be making its way out of recession, the UK has seen another quarter of decline – with gross domestic product (GDP) once again falling. Even though the fall in GDP has stabilised to 0.4 per cent, the fact that the UK economy has been in recession for six consecutive quarters is unlikely to boost public confidence in the crucial build-up to Christmas. And that could spell yet more misery for a

winston

chemical industry that has seen some signs of stabilisation of late.

With the banks starting to make money again, credit should hopefully start flowing more freely again, and even if not, the £6 billion of bonuses that UK bank staff are set to receive should at least help grease the wheels of recovery. But while many in the financial sector were still celebrating the news that they are set to receive a bumper bonus this year, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has launched a stinging attack on the behaviour of the banking system, even paraphrasing Sir Winston Churchill: ‘never in the field of financial endeavour has so much money been owed by so few to so many. And, one might add, so far with little real reform.’

PHARMACEUTICAL

Cervical cancer vaccine war heats up

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GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has been given the green light by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to market its cervical cancer vaccine Cervarix in the US and compete against Merck & Co.’s Gardasil. GSK has said the vaccine will be available in the US by the end of the year and initial indications are that it plans to charge less for Cervarix than Merck does for Gardasil – which has just been approved by the FDA for the prevention of penile warts in young men. While some analysts predict that this could open up a market worth some $300 million (£183.5 million) for Merck, a recent study in the British Medical Journal suggests that vaccinating pre-adolescent boys in a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination programme would not be cost effective.

Meanwhile, Merck has received approval from the European Commission for its merger with Schering-Plough.

HGS shares soar as lupus drug wows again

Human Genome Sciences (HGS) has seen its share price soar more than 500 per cent since July when it released unexpectedly positive data from a Phase III trial of its lupus drug Benlysta (blimumab). A full analysis of the data has confirmed the positive analysis and sent the share price up a further 5 per cent to $22 a share. Speculation has been mounting that GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which is developing the drug with HGS, is lining up a bid for the company.

The company will publish data from a second Phase III trial at the beginning of November and if the data is as positive, it expects to file for approval in the US early in 2010. If approved, Benlysta will become the first new lupus drug in 50 years to hit the market and will cost patients in the region of $20,000 a year.

But the company’s good news doesn’t stop there, it has also said it has received a $75 million milestone payment from Novartis as it has successfully completed development of its hepatitis C treatment Zalbin (albinterferon alfa-2b) and the two companies will be imminently submitting the drug for marketing approval.

Lonza switches targets

Lonza has withdrawn its $700 million bid to acquire contract manufacturing and development services firm Patheon and instead has made an investment agreement with German biotech firm Cilian.

‘We believe that Cilian’s production platform for enzymes, antibodies and other proteins has the potential to provide attractive innovations in the nutrition and biopharmaceutical area,’ says Thomas Kiy, global head of strategic business development of Lonza Life Science Ingredients.

INDUSTRY

Ineos to produce more acetonitrile

acetonitrile

Ineos’s nitriles division has rolled out a modification to their acrylonitrile production plants that allows it to tweak the amount of acetonitrile produced as a by-product. The idea is that this will allow the company to maintain supply of the useful solvent in times when demand for acrylonitrile is low – avoiding the situation that occurred last year when decreased acrylonitrile production caused a world shortage of acetonitrile. While the situation is no longer so acute, the price of acetonitrile is still relatively high – and given the state of the economy and the automotive industry it’s likely to stay that way for a while. Ineos says that implementing the technology at its three sites in the UK and US will stabilise future supplies.

SABIC’s sales and profits still down

The Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic) is still struggling due to the recession with third quarter revenues down 45 per cent at Riyal8.6 billion (£1.4 billion) compared to the same quarter the previous year. Operating profits were down 48 per cent at Riyal6.4 billion during the quarter compared to last year, although the results were slightly more favourable than during the previous quarter.

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‘In spite of repercussions arising from the global economic crisis, SABIC has maintained the same operational levels. SABIC’s total production during the first nine months of 2009 reached 44 million tons, an increase of four per cent, while quantities sold were 34.5 million tons, an increase of three per cent over the same period last year,’ said Mohamed Al-Mady, chief executive of Sabic.

Despite Rohm & Haas buy Dow still down

Dow’s third quarter sales of $12 billion were down 22 per cent from reported sales in the same period last year and 32 per cent lower if Rohm & Haas’s sales are taken into account. However, operating profits soared to just over $1 billion compared to $620 million in the same time period last year – primarily due to asset sales needed to pay for its acquisition of Rohm & Haas.

DuPont starts to bounce back

Despite DuPont’s third quarter revenues and operating profits being 18 per cent lower than during the same period last year ($6 billion and $491 million respectively) the company’s net income rose 11 per cent to $409 million due to lower costs.

‘We delivered on our commitment to shareholders, while navigating through some very difficult business conditions,’ said DuPont’s chief executive Ellen Kullman. ‘We see overall sequential improvement in our industrial businesses as market conditions begin to firm. With a more streamlined organisation, permanent fixed cost reductions, and increased productivity, DuPont is well-positioned to capitalize as markets improve.’

AGROCHEMICALS

Syngenta positive on future growth

Syngenta, the world’s largest agrochemical maker, was positive about growth in 2010 despite seeing revenues for the third quarter fall 12 per cent to $2 billion. Crop Protection sales were down 14 per cent compared to the same period last year, falling to $1.6 billion.

The company saw growth in Latin America boosted by increasing amounts of land being used for growing soy beans, while sales in Asia Pacific were driven by increased usaged of fungicides. Sales in Europe were hindered by continued credit pressures.

Matt Wilkinson and Phillip Broadwith

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Oxford University have launched an online countdown to when the trillionth tonne of carbon dioxide will be emitted into our atmosphere – which is approaching worryingly quickly.

egg-timer-200

A trillion tonnes is the widely accepted limit that carbon emissions should be kept below, in order to limit the associated global warming to less than 2°C. And when I checked, unless we change our behaviour, we will emit our trillionth tonne on the morning of 15 March 2045.

More positively there is also a counter of how

Kohlendioxod

much we would need to reduce our emissions by per year, provided we started right now, in order to never reach this figure. And when I looked, this counter was at just 2.14 per cent. Sounds possible doesn’t it?! Fingers crossed the guys at the Copenhagen meeting in December agree, and finally decide a global plan on how we can achieve this.

Nina Notman

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