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I’ve been performing some internet searches that could cause red flags in the office, but on the other hand it’s a story of citizen science and lab safety. There is a growing trend for people to perform solvent extractions at home, but what they’re extracting is tetrahydocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana, and they’re using highly flammable butane or isopropyl alcohol for the extraction.

Illustration of cannabis plants. Hermann Adolf Köhler (1834 – 1879)

Now there’s a bit of me that’s quite admiring of these home grown chemists, methodologies are available online and improvements are shared. However, in my experience, the venn diagram of people who are strongly pro-pot and people who are anti ‘scary chemicals’ has a pretty large central cross over. That leads to a lot of discussion about how smoking ‘hash oil’, the resinous product of these home extractions, is ‘more pure’. I’m not sure I agree, it’s still a mixture of compounds rather than pure THC, and despite claims of the oil being 90% THC by these home extractors, my survey of the literature suggests something topping out at 65%. And what about the additives in the solvent itself? But I’m not here to niggle over how good these extractions are, rather to make a point about how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

(more…)

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Archaeologists and chemists have combined their skills to determine that wine production in France may have started as early as 425 BC, inspired by wine imported from Italy.

Ancient pressing platform from Lattara, seen from above. Note the spout for drawing off a liquid. Image courtesy of Michel Py, © l'Unité de Fouilles et de Recherches Archéologiques de Lattes.

Ancient pressing platform from Lattara, seen from above. Note the spout for drawing off a liquid. Image courtesy of Michel Py, © l’Unité de Fouilles et de Recherches Archéologiques de Lattes.

When most people think of France, they think of good cheese and fine wine (and sometimes a terrible smell), but little is known about when and how winemaking arrived in France.  Now, using a range of chemical analysis techniques as well as traditional archaeological methods, Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, and colleagues have found evidence of wine manufacture in the coastal town of Lattara dating from around 400 BC.

Several clues pointed to this date. Archaeological evidence shows wine being imported in Etruscan amphora, a special type of container, since the 7th century BC, but there seems to be a dramatic decline in imports after around 500 BC – was home production killing the wine import market? (more…)

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This week, I’ve spotted another clever use for existing scientific technology…

A system for automatically detecting, locating and tracking forest fires makes use of spectrometry, seeking out the distinctive spectral signature of burning organic material.  Deployed in Portugal, the system helps to protect 700 km2 of national park.

Forest fires are a significant problem, responsible for a number of fatalities as well as severe economic impact from loss of property and livestock. In 2012, the US National Interagency Fire Centre recorded 67,744 wild fires, affecting over 9 million acres, and massive bushfires are a common occurrence in Australia. Early detection can dramatically reduce the damage done by a wildfire, and as such, fire detection has often adopted scientific developments.

In the early 20th Century, fires were spotted by human lookouts stationed on towers, who would report back by any means available; carrier pigeon, heliograph, telephones and radio communications all featured. As technology developed, instant aerial photographs and infrared scanning improved detection and satellite communications improved reporting of incidents.

Automated and integrated systems followed soon after, including wireless sensor networks and satellite surveys such as Envisat and the European Remote Sensing Satellite, both capable of identifying hotspots of infrared radiation.

Modern remote fire detectors should be fast, cheap, reliable and able to pinpoint the location of a newly started fire. To try to meet these aims, the Forest Fire Finder, developed by Portuguese company NGNS, incorporates detection, analysis and communication tools into one potentially solar-powered unit. (more…)

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The potential applications of scientific processes are not always obvious at the time of their development…

Microfluidics, the precise control of fluids used in lab-on-a-chip applications, could wick away sweat to help keep you fresh and dry, according to engineers at the University of California, Davis.

Lab-on-a-chip devices rely on being able to move, mix or separate extremely small volumes of fluid to perform combinations of laboratory tasks in a very compact space, often no larger than a few square centimetres. Developing new devices requires a good understanding of how fluids will move through defined channels, and how to manipulate this flow to maintain the required reactions.

Inspired by this, graduate students Siyuan Xing and Jia Jiang in the Micro-Nano Innovations lab (cleverly abbreviated to MiNI) developed a new textile that incorporates hydrophilic threads into a highly-water repelling fabric. The threads attract and channel water, or sweat, allowing it to be moved from its source (in this case, perhaps your armpits) to another location on the outside of the garment. From there, it can simply run off or evaporate, meaning the fabric can remain dry, comfortable and breathable.

(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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Camouflage has been used by military forces since the ancient Roman Empire. It seems obvious that matching the colour of your vehicle to the environment will make you a far less visible target. But using modern scientific techniques, camouflage can be far more than simply painting a vehicle to blend into the background.

Foxhound light patrol vehicle in Army Brown. Courtesy of AkzoNobel.

Foxhound light patrol vehicle in Army Brown. Courtesy of AkzoNobel.

AkzoNobel, a paints and coatings company based in the Netherlands, has announced a new paint for British Army vehicles that not only works as camouflage, but can help to protect soldiers against chemical attacks.

British army vehicles have been painted with sand coloured camouflage since before the Second World War. Warfare has changed a lot since then, so it’s about time they were redecorated. To devise a new colour scheme, the Ministry of Defence collected samples of soil and rocks from Afghanistan, along with high resolution imagery. The new hue was given the, perhaps uninspiring, name of Army Brown.

Army Brown is similar to the tan colour used by the US and Australian militaries, and designed to work well both in arid environments and amongst vegetation.

Tasked with developing the paint, AkzoNobel decided to build in more functionality, and designed a water-based solution that would protect the vehicles from corrosion and is capable of absorbing chemical warfare agents. Thanks to the inclusion of a specific resin, the paint can also be peeled off and disposed of when contaminated or if a quick change of colour is required.

(more…)

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What more can you say about solar photovoltaics (PV)? They basically tick all the boxes – completely clean, cheap, limitless, there’s enough to power the world and, most importantly, they’re bendy – and we are now so close to seeing it do its thing in a big way. In some ways, you could compare it to a promising young athlete (Gareth Bale, perhaps, for the football-minded) – you’re not sure just how good they can become, but they’re already exciting to watch.

Despite this, some feel that the technology is still not getting the support it needs from business to reach its potential. ‘For some reason, [solar energy] is never a big mix in the predicted 2020 or 2050 calculations,’ says Henry Snaith at the University of Oxford, UK. ‘I don’t think people who do the calculations really figure in the potential for technological evolution and development advancement.’

The best is yet to come

Snaith’s recent work certainly demonstrates this kind of evolution. Whilst working on a class of dye-sensitised solar cells (DSSCs) modified with perovskites, he made a crucial discovery. He found that some perovskites, which were being used as the sensitiser component, could themselves transport charge, making one of the key components of DSSCs redundant, greatly reducing energy loss.

(more…)

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Kids’ chemistry sets seem to be making a comeback (check out our great feature on chemistry sets), complete with the old gender stereotypes. Tesco is the latest retailer to come under fire for sexism, after it placed a toy chemistry set in the ‘boys’ category in its online shop. (more…)

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I’ve recently heard of a competition called I’m a scientist – Get me out of here and I must say that I love the concept. Basically, it is a free online event a little bit like an X Factor-style (yes, I know, shameful but I do watch it) competition for scientists, where students are the judges. 

How does it work? Scientists put up a profile on the I’m a Scientist website where students then ask questions and challenge them over fast-paced online live chats.  Overall, over a two week-period (17–28 June), there will be around an hour of live text chats  and an hour answering questions each day so it is a fun way of developing communication skills, gaining a fresh perspective on your research, and finding out what young people think about science and the role of scientists.

The objective is to get school students to meet and interact with scientists and it works very well. Plus everything happens on the web, so participants can join in without leaving their desk. In addition, students have the option to vote and the winning scientist gets £500 to spend on science communication. Not bad!

 A number of Societies and professional bodies are supporting the competition and the Royal Society of Chemistry, for example, is sponsoring the Energy Zone, which will cover the science of and issues relating to maintaining a supply of affordable, secure energy. 

Scientists who want to take part need to apply before 6 May 2013.

Students who want to take part need to get their teacher to sign up asap.

Good luck and happy chatting to all!

Bibiana Campos Seijo

 

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Mosquito nets have been instrumental in cutting cases of malaria

A person dies from malaria every minute. Seven people are infected with this debilitating disease every second. These are the figures that World Malaria Day – which is today – is seeking to highlight.

World Malaria Day has been going since 2007. It was established by the World Health Assembly, part of the World Health Organization, to get people to sit up and take note of this often underreported disease. While the headline figures look bad, great steps have already been made in tackling the disease.

The good news is that the global mortality rate for malaria has fallen by 25% since 2000. At the same time, 50 out of the 99 countries where malaria is endemic are set to meet targets to cut infection rates by three-quarters by 2015. However, new problems have emerged. As the UN and projects like the Medicines for Malaria Venture, with the help of philanthropic organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have stepped up the fight against the disease, criminals have taken advantage. It’s now estimated that a third of malaria drugs sold around the world are counterfeit. (more…)

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