July 2010



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I have just seen an interesting story on the BBC website about fossilised remains of life found on early Mars. Could it be possible that Mars was inhabited in the past, and could we inhabit it in the future?

So what has actually been done? Well researchers from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (Seti) in California, have been using Crism – an instrument aboard Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter – to study rocks by infrared spectroscopy. The researchers have targeted a trench on Mars known as Nili Fossae, that contains rocks up to 4 billion years old, which seems very similar in structure to a region in Australia, where some of the earliest evidence of life on Earth has been found, preserved in mineral form.

The team then studied the rocks in an area of northwest Australia called the Pilbara – part of the Earth that has managed to stay at the surface for 3.5 billion years – using the same technique, and showed that the rocks at Nili Fossae are very similar in terms of mineral content.

So what does this mean? Well this similarity in rock make-up provides a direct link between rocks on Earth and on Mars. In fact, scientists believe that microbes formed distinct features called stromatolites in the Pilbara rocks, billions of years ago. The similarities between these rocks and the ones on Mars suggest that similar processes could have occurred with microbes (life) on Mars.

Further investigation of Nili Fossae could therefore uncover more evidence of ancient life on Mars to back up these findings.

We may be closer to finding out if Mars was once habitable, but it still remains to be seen whether Mars could be habitable in the future – let me know what you think?

Mike Brown

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While times are hard for BP as mentioned in the last edition of the Commercial Chemist, one of its biggest competitors, Shell, seems to be reaping the benefits.

Shell reports a 15 per cent increase in second quarter net profits to $4.39 billion (£2.82 billion) compared to $3.82 billion in the same quarter a year ago, which is a huge contrast to BP’s fortunes.

‘This is a good performance from Shell despite today’s challenging macro economic conditions. We are on track for growth,’ said Shell chief executive Peter Voser, who whilst offering his sympathy for all those affected by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill insisted that deep-water oil production was still vital.

Shell’s net profit, that takes into account the value of inventories of oil and gas, has soared to $4.21 billion in the last three months, whilst their cost saving programmes have led to $3.5 billion in annualised savings.

Shell investments have secured a 5 per cent increase – to 3.1 million barrels – in oil and gas production for the quarter and chemical product sales have increased by 18 per cent compared to the second quarter of 2009. (more…)

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Times are changing for BP, and due to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico the company has just reported a record quarterly loss for a British company, prompting the board to decide it was time for a new chief executive and that it needed to sell off more of its assets to pay for the spill.

Despite the bad publicity the company has been receiving, its underlying performance was very positive with second quarter sales reaching $73.7 billion (£47.2 billion), a 34 per cent increase compared to its sales during the same period in 2009. But a $32.2 billion charge relating to the Gulf of Mexico spill more than wiped out its operating profits and caused the company to record a net loss for the quarter of $17.2 billion.

This has led the company to increase the scale of its asset sale programme from $10 billion to $30 billion over the next 18 months which ‘will leave the company with a smaller but higher quality exploration and production business’.

As of the start of October, Tony Hayward, the incumbent chief executive, is to be replaced by Robert Dudley an executive director at the company and former president of its TNK-BP joint venture in Russia.

‘The tragedy of the Macondo well explosion and subsequent environmental damage has been a watershed incident,’ said BP’s chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg.

‘BP remains a strong business with fine assets, excellent people and a vital role to play in meeting the world’s energy needs. But it will be a different company going forward, requiring fresh leadership supported by robust governance and a very engaged board.’ (more…)

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4_uuq

In this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast, Brian Clegg explains why scientists who search for new elements could be described as chemistry’s train spotters

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26 July 2010: Have something to say about an article you’ve read on Chemistry World this week? Leave your comments below…

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It’s financials season again, and while the majority of pharamceutical and chemical companies seem to be relatively optimistic about the future, some doubt remains about the strength of the recovery. Earlier today, the UK’s Office for National Statistics announced that the UK’s economy grew by 1.1 per cent between April and June 2010 – the fastest quarterly expansion by the UK since 2006. (more…)

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In this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast, David Read from the University of Southampton tells us about the two faced chemistry of sodium

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Clean technology and life science companies in the US have been reaping the rewards of increasing investment from venture capitalists (VCs) in the first half of 2010, according to the MoneyTree report from consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital association (NVCA). More than $11.4 billion (£7.5 billion) was invested in the first 6 months of the year – a 49 per cent increase compared to the first half of 2009 when only $7.7 billion was invested.

Investment in clean technologies doubled in the second quarter of 2010 compared to the first 3 months of the year – breaking the quarterly record for the sector and reaching $1.5 billion. Life sciences companies saw VC investment increase 52 per cent to $2.1 billion compared to the first quarter of the year.

‘As the exit market begins to show signs of life, VCs are now able to look increasingly at new investments outside their existing portfolio. This dynamic translates into momentum in the seed and early stage sectors where valuations remain reasonable and opportunities are great,’ says Mark Heesen, president of NVCA.

‘Investment in the clean technology and life sciences sectors, which are generally longer term and more capital intensive in nature, are balanced by smaller deals within the information technology sectors creating a diversity of opportunities for success for entrepreneurs, VCs and limited partners alike.’ (more…)

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ideas

Last week saw 11 Members of Parliament (MPs) appointed to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. With all the hoohah recently over the amount of scientific expertise in the UK parliament, surely these would be the cream of the scientific crop.

We conducted an admittedly very brief (and unscientific) internet trawl to see if we could find out what kind of scientific interests/credentials these new committee members have, and get an idea of what kind of experience they’ll bring to bear when scrutinising governmental departments’ activities in relation to science and technology.

The highlights of our quick search are below – please do leave a comment at the bottom if you think we’ve missed anything significant. You can also find out how MPs voted on various issues on the They Work for You website. (more…)

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19 July 2010: Have something to say about an article you’ve read on Chemistry World this week? Leave your comments below…

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