Trips



Today, (8th September 2013) was the first day of formal science events at ACS Fall, the American Chemical Society’s annual autumnal conference. This year the host city is Indianapolis, and Emma Stoye and I have come along to cover the action. From now until the 12th, I should expect to see more chemistry in the news than is normal, as the press team here are working hard to get stories from the conference into the headlines.

So it may sound a little odd that I decided to board a shuttle bus away from the conference centre, away from the press room with its free coffee and bagels, and away from room after room of scientific discussions where researchers share ideas and chew over the new results that will go on to generate headlines that we’ll publish in Chemistry World. It may almost sound like dereliction of duty when I tell you that the bus was headed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indy 500. But while the conference centre and nearby downtown hotels were hosting the scientific programme, the speedway was taken over by Celebrate Science Indiana, an annual event that ‘demonstrates the importance of studying science and the joy of discovery, the economic value of science, and its significance to society’. (more…)

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At the weekend I was off on a country jaunt to visit family. We went out to a delightful little pile in Wiltshire called Bowood House. However, despite all the science documentaries I’ve watched over the years that covered, among other things, the history of the elements I was taken by complete surprise when I walked into one of the rooms in the house: this was where oxygen was discovered.
Bowood House, Wiltshire

Bowood House, as it turned out, was where Joseph Priestley spent some of the most productive years of his scientific life in a tiny room-cum-lab only a little larger than a child’s bedroom. While working there in 1774, Priestley used a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays on mercury(II) oxide and liberated oxygen from it, naming the gas ‘dephlogisticated air’. This was because the prevailing theory of the time – phlogiston theory – held that substances that could be burned contained the mysterious substance phlogiston, while those that had been burned were dephlogisticated. Priestley was a life-long advocate for phlogiston theory and continued to defend it long after other scientists had concluded it was a dead end. Perhaps giving oxygen a name linking it with phlogiston meant that the theory still held some romantic associations for him. (more…)

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Last week a new science festival came to town. For 3 days, 15 different pubs in London, Oxford and Cambridge invited local scientists to share their work with the punters for a Pint of Science. Each city hosted talks on the brain, the body and biotechnology and I attended two of the biotechnology evenings held in Cambridge.

pint of science

On Wednesday, Colin Davidson and Chris Lowe asked ‘Can you live without your mobile?

With the UN predicting that there will be more phones than people in the world by the end of 2014, and the majority of the growth in mobile phone use now in the developing world, both Colin and Chris are interested in exploiting the concept of mobile healthcare for the benefit of society.

Their talks reminded me of some of the research we’ve covered in Chemistry World, including this app for detecting food allergens.  Mobile phone based technologies are (obviously) more portable and often easier to use, so ideal for improving or monitoring health in traditionally poorly served hard-to-reach areas.

Apparently Android is ahead of Apple when it comes to the development of mobile technology for science – good to know; I’m in the market for a new smartphone…

The overriding conclusion of the evening was that the role smartphones play in helping to alleviate modern healthcare problems is only going to increase, so for mobile healthcare at least, the future really is bright.

(more…)

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A couple of days ago I travelled to Duisburg in Germany to attend the grand opening of Shimadzu‘s Laboratory World. This refurbishment project, which involved the remodelling of their existing facilities into state-of-the art labs and seminar space, has taken several months to complete and marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of Shimadzu Europe.

Shimadzu representatives at opening of Laboratory World

The event was attended among others by Akira Nakamoto, President of Shimadzu Corporation, and Kiyoshi Koinuma, Japanese Consul General. Besides the usual formalities (ie speeches, cutting the ribbon, tour of the facilities, etc) we were treated to a cask-breaking Japanese ceremony (pictured) called kagamiwari.

During kagamiwari, our hosts - wearing brightly coloured Happi jackets – broke open a beautiful sealed barrel filled with sake. They then shared it with all guests after serving in square wooden cups known as masu. [Drinking from a square cup is not easy so here's a tip: take sips from the corner of the cup]

To coincide with the opening there were a couple of European product launches (Tracera and Nexera), and I was very interested to hear the latest about LABNIRS, a project in the growing field of brain science. This technology measures brain function using near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) rather than recording electrical activity. More specifically, NIRS measures the changes in concentration between oxidised and deoxidised haemoglobin in the brain. Therefore, when brain activity occurs, this causes a temporal increase in blood pressure, which in turn increases blood circulation resulting in a higher consumption of oxygen and affecting the oxidised/deoxidised haemoglobin ratios.

Shimadzu have been working with the makers of ASIMO, the robot developed by Honda, in informatics research and brain-machine interfacing. Because LABNIRS permits real time NIRS and electroencephalogram measurements and data transfer it is now possible to characterise the brain function of a human while visualising manual actions and then translate these into appropriate signals for robot movement, thus allowing control of the robot’s actions using human thought. The future is here.

 

 Bibiana Campos-Seijo

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The other day I got out of the office and went to poke around the London Centre for Nanotechnology‘s labs at Imperial College London. It’s always great to meet people and put faces to names, but it’s also sometimes really helpful to actually see the equipment that’s used. It’s all very well to read about pulsed laser deposition, for example, but it’s another thing entirely to nose around the HUGE piece of kit that is actually used to do it. Sometimes it seems like you need even bigger equipment as you start working at smaller scales. (more…)

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Organic chemistry may have progressed beyond the public’s understanding of science here in China. At the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, one researcher’s successful total synthesis of an active anti-cancer compound resulted in his being stalked out of work for a month by people wanting to get their hands on the product.

When his paper was published, a reporter from a local newspaper came to visit him to ask about the work. The subsequent article reported that the scientist, Biao Yu, had successfully made an important cancer drug.

‘The following day I got a phone call from a woman who told me that her husband was sick and asked if I would please send her some of my new drug,’ he said. Yu tried to explain that he was not able to dispense his compound in drug form but the woman was insistent.

‘Then more phone calls started. I couldn’t be in my office without being bombarded by people whose relatives needed treatment.’

The final straw came for Yu when people began to visit the campus to find him and his cancer cure. ‘I went away for a month and the institute had a staff member deal with the phone calls.’

Since then, Yu has refused to speak to reporters – although he did make an exception for Chemistry World.

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pipe-rack-and-bike-in-scip.jpgShanghai Chemical Industry Park (SCIP) is something of an anomaly here in China. It has been built with efficiency and environmentally friendly principles in mind – rather than simply out of the necessity to supply chemicals or materials to this vast country’s developing economy. 

SCIP is only the third integrated site of its kind and has been developed largely through foreign investment, initially from Bayer, who has contributed 3.1 billion of the 8.97 billion US dollars total investment in the site so far.

The site, in HangZhou Bay, 50 km south of downtown Shanghai has been largely reclaimed from the coastline. Reclaiming land from the sea means that farmers have not been displaced although many fishermen have had to be compensated for the loss of their livelihood.chemical-worker-busesrevise.jpg

Residential areas have been kept a ‘safe’ distance from the park and even the prevailing winds taken into account. (South Westerly winds carry emissions away from local residents.)

Chemical giants like Bayer and BASF have even provided transport for their workforce – many of whom have to travel from residences in downtown Shanghai – in the form of specially commissioned buses, which, according to SCIP’s administration company, transport workers ‘from their homes to the park every day.’

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I’m in Shanghai, finding out about the budding Chinese chemical industry and helping prepare for the launch of Chemistry World China.

The pace of change is palpable. As foreign investors have begun to recognise, the rapid development of education here means access to a growing number of well well-trained scientists, as well as to a vast potential workforce for the manufacturing that many companies have already moved to China.

Shu-Guang Wang, a theoretical chemist and vice dean of Jiaotong University in Shanghai told me that, on his return to China in 2000, following ten years as a researcher in Germany, the university’s skeletal chemistry department conducted almost no pure chemistry research. He proudly compared the then dismal publication record to current figures. ‘Before 2000, the no one in the department had ever published in a journal with an impact factor higher than three,’ he said. ‘In 2006, we published 44 articles in many high profile journals.’

Impact factors are important to researchers here, who need a calculable basis on which to build a reputation for their relatively new research institutes.

There is no bitterness during talk of the cultural revolution, which deprived many of Wang’s generation of a university education. Things have moved on and he and many others went back to school to complete their masters and PhD degrees.

He told me that only one per cent of staff in his department has a bachelor’s degree. Attending university as an undergraduate simply wasn’t an option before the 1980s.

‘Many of China’s most famous scientists do not have an undergraduate degree,’ he laughed.

Jiaotong now has a new campus and an extensive chemistry department conducting both applied and pure research. Increasing investment in R&D by the Chinese central government (which provides 50 per cent of research funding to the university) and industrial partnerships are nourishing what feels like a whole new revolution.

 

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A snippet of interest from the front page of today’s China Daily - China has plans to plant trees (from which they can make biofuels) on 13m hectares of land by 2010. That’s about the size of England, adding to 130m hectares that is claimed is already given over to green use. The yield will make nearly 6m tonnes of biofuels, reports the paper, and will account for about one third of China’s renewable energy once in production. The tree in question is known as Jatropha, also known as physic nut.

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As this, my first trip to Beijing for CW, draws to a close, I am bracing myself for the barrage of questions from my children, “What did you do in China?” The truthful answer is going to sound dull: I sat in lots of taxis, which sat in lots of traffic jams, and stared at lots of construction cranes. Though it had been mentioned to me by others who had been before, the scale of building work is mesmerising to the first-time visitor. Concrete is about as environmentally unfriendly a building product as you can get, and there is a lot of it about here, as people beat a dusty path to the city. So many people, so much demand for energy, and so many opportunities for the entrepreunerial environmentalist here in China. In February, Chemistry World reported on solar cells. Just think – the first company that persuades the Chinese authorities to incorporate – soon – solar energy panels into the many new apartments will surely make a fortune. Similarly, from the back of my latest taxi, I am left musing on the financial rewards out here for the motor industry, if only it made serious efforts to build the infrastructure for, and market the sale of, electric cars. Being first to green could put someone very nicely in the black, thank you very much.

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