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Diamonds from Pelé’s hair

11 April, 2014 - 17:29

We had an unusual request to the Chemistry World office this week. A producer from Simon Mayo’s BBC Radio 2 drivetime programme wanted to know if it’s possible to make a diamond from human hair.

Pelé before the final game of his career, Giants Stadium, New Jersey, 1 October 1977. From on a CC-BY-3.0 licence

The query was prompted by the news that Brazilian football legend Pelé had announced a range of diamonds, each made from a strand of his hair, to commemorate each of the 1283 goals he scored in his professional football career.

It seemed a fairly straightforward request – there’s plenty of carbon in hair and it’s certainly possible to make diamond industrially from a carbon source – so I volunteered to take the call. You can listen to the interview here:

I read around first, to find some extra facts and figures about diamonds. Most of these come from ‘the internet’, as I didn’t have much time before broadcast, so please forgive any inaccuracies.

Pele’s hair caught on a radio antenna in Hawaiʻi

My search took an immediate, albeit interesting, diversion when I discovered that Pele’s hair is already a known geological phenomenon. Rather than gemstones derived from a footballer’s foliage, Pele’s hair is an extraordinary type of volcanic glass, formed when molten rock is thrown into the air and extruded by the wind into hair-like golden fibres. These fibres travel downwind of the volcano, cool and solidify where they land. These unusual glass structures are named after the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes rather than the Brazilian godfather of football.

After this brief foray into volcanology, a reworded search confirmed that Pelé really is turning his hair into diamonds, using one of the established techniques for manufacturing synthetic diamond – the high temperature, high pressure, or HTHP method. This is the method that most closely mimics a diamond‘s natural geological formation. As its name suggests, pressures in the vicinity of 7GPa at more than 1700°C are used to grow fairly large stones using a diamond grit seed and carbon dissolved in a molten metal solvent. The exact conditions do vary – one company that makes diamonds from cremains (‘dead dog diamonds’, according to Simon Mayo) uses 5-6GPa at 1600-2000°C. The size of the resulting diamond depends on a number of factors, not least the time for which the conditions are maintained: De Beers once made a 25 carat (5g) stone by holding these conditions for six weeks.

Just in case Simon asked me live on air, I thought I should figure out how big a diamond made from a strand of hair could be, which means estimating how much carbon a single strand of the ex-Santos striker’s hair might contain. Hair is made of a number of different proteins, predominantly keratin, but also contains oils, water and a wide variety of other compounds (hair is routinely used for toxicological or narcotic testing, due to its tendency to accumulate drug metabolites, heavy metals and other toxins). We don’t know what Pelé has been exposed to (if he’s a fan of seafood there may be above average mercury concentration, for example) so I took average values for everything.

An average 12cm human hair (at least in one study) weighs 0.62mg. Making the sweeping assumption that hair contains a nice round 50% carbon by weight, that gives us 0.31mg of carbon from a single strand. If we make another assumption and convert all of that into diamond, we get an unimpressive 0.00155 carat gem. Apparently, each of the Pelé hair diamonds on sale (yours for just £4500) weighs 1 carat. If these gems are pure footballer fuzz, and don’t contain any generic carbon, they would need to be made from around 650 12cm hairs. There are around 100,000 hairs on an average human scalp, so to make the full run of 1283 diamonds, Pelé would need to shave his head completely 8.3 times.

If you’re a committed football fan, these diamonds could be a good investment, and at £4500 are a snip compared to one made from a clip of Beethoven’s barnet, which sold on ebay in 2007 for £121,000.

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Categories: Education

Another poster prize up for grabs – this time at ISACS13

10 April, 2014 - 16:54

The 13th conference in the highly successful International Symposia on Advancing the Chemical Sciences (ISACS) series is taking place in Dublin, Ireland, this July and there’s still time to submit a poster abstract. Extensive poster sessions will form a key part of the symposium and Chemistry World is delighted to be sponsoring a prize for the best poster at the event. The winner will receive £250.

Challenges in Inorganic and Materials Chemistry (ISACS13) will bring together leading experts from several disciplines and encourage the cross fertilisation of ideas. Keynote speakers include David Parker from Durham University and Matt Rosseinsky from the University of Liverpool.

To take advantage of this excellent opportunity to showcase your latest research alongside leading scientists from across the globe submit your poster abstract before 21 April

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Categories: Education

Spend your summer with Chemistry World

4 April, 2014 - 16:16

What makes a news story ‘news’? How do journalists construct an article? What sort of cake do they have in the Royal Society of Chemistry restaurant? If any of these questions have occurred to you, then you might be the person we’re looking for.

Cheese scones. Released by Philippe Giabbanelli under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license (

Chemistry World has a paid internship available for eight weeks in the summer of 2014. In those two months, you’ll pitch and write news stories, interview scientists and public figures, edit and lay out our magazine and get involved with our podcasts. It’s ideal for someone with an enthusiasm for science writing and a background in the chemical sciences.

To make the most of your time with us, we’ll also pay for membership of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), and take you to the UK conference of science journalists at the Royal Society.

It’s a great opportunity, but don’t just take my word for it. I asked a couple of our previous interns about their experiences:

Akshat Rathi: ‘My time with Chemistry World and Education in Chemistry was a lot of fun and learning. The staff is kind, friendly and helpful. The experience convinced me that science writing is something I enjoyed very much and I could perhaps pursue it as a career. Jumping from grad school to a career outside research can be tough, and this internship really helped me with that.

Since I finished this internship at the end of the 2nd year of my PhD, I have completed another internship at The Economist, worked with the Royal Society of Chemistry’s communications team on RSC News and currently I work as science editor at The Conversation, a new publication that launched in 2013.’

Josh Howgego followed his Chemistry World internship with work experience at Times Higher Education before being awarded a scholarship to study science communication, enjoying a placement at Nature and ultimately landing his current job at He fondly recalls the extra-curricular benefits to joining the team:

‘Looking back on it now, one of the best moments of my internship with Chemistry World was the cheese scone incident. Allow me to explain. Early each day the magazine’s editorial team would have a news meeting to pore over papers and ideas and decide which of them to commission stories on. My only experience of science writing up to that point had been writing a small-time blog, so this quickly became one of my favourite times: it taught me a lot about what makes something “news” and hanging out with people who did the job I wanted to do one day was an opportunity to learn by diffusion. But added to that, these meetings took place in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s canteen and there was always coffee and the option of breakfast. You can imagine how my enjoyment turned to pure joy when one day, about three weeks into my placement, there were cheese scones on offer.

Perhaps it’s worth highlighting two other things I gained from my time at the RSC. The first was practice at professional writing. On the one had I saw how to structure a news story, and how that differs from an informal blog or feature, say.  On the other, I learned the difference between a hyphen and an em-dash, and how helpful the correct use of grammar can be so helpful to clear communication. But perhaps the most important gift I received from Chemistry World was a bit more journalistic confidence. I was given responsibility for calling scientists and MPs and had to quiz them directly about their views and ideas. Looking back, I can see that this dramatically helped me understand how journalists put together a news story. It was probably this new grasp of what reporting really is that convinced me I wanted to be a science journalist — and I’m very grateful to all at Chemistry World for instilling me with it.’

The closing date is 18th May, so if you’re interested in joining us, please visit to apply.

Looking forward to seeing you in the summer!

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Categories: Education

Tasty research at ACS Dallas

31 March, 2014 - 12:21

If you follow us on Twitter you’ll know that I spent 16-20 March in Dallas, Texas for the ACS spring conference, hearing about peptides that attack TB, dissolvable electronics and new drug testing methods.

— Chocolate absorbing volatiles from wine

I was also happy to find that – perhaps fitting for a state known for generous helpings – there was plenty of food and booze research on the scientific agenda.

First up, chocolate. We all love it, and apparently so do the bacteria that live in our guts. Dark chocolate has been linked to various heart and metabolic heath benefits in past studies. Now, a group led by John Finley at Louisiana State University, US, may have come closer to figuring out the reasons behind some these effects. Dark chocolate with a high cocoa content contains polyphenol antioxidants (such as catechins which are also found in tea), but these are poorly digested and absorbed in the gut, so this is unlikely to be the full story. Instead, say the researchers, bacteria living in the gut may play a part, munching on the undigestible parts of chocolate and fermenting polyphenols to produce smaller compounds that are more readily absorbed. The group put different cocoa powders through a model digestive tract, then fed the leftovers to human gut bacteria, and showed that some of the simpler phenolic acids produced had anti-inflammatory effects. They suggest small amounts of dark chocolate could be combined with prebiotic supplements to help healthy internal gut microbes thrive.

Another piece of chocolate-related research I happened to stumble across was a group at Salt Lake Community College’s efforts to make wine flavoured chocolate. Sydney Richards, one of the students involved, told me the inspiration was a lack of tasty wine-chocolate combinations already out there. Most wine chocolates tend to be flavoured with a liquid filling like a liqueur or crunchy crystalline pieces, and neither taste great. But the group have come up with a simpler to get the chocolate to pick up the wine flavour, without the two even having to touch. Chocolate naturally absorbs nearby volatile compounds (Richards told me her supervisor found this out to her cost after storing some chocolate in the same drawer as a bar of soap!). The group have already used this effect to capture mint, coffee and fruit flavours in chocolate, so decided to try a similar approach with wine. The set up is simple – the chocolate is put on a rack above a bowl of wine and left for about two weeks, which allows it to absorb flavour volatiles like 3-methylbutan-1-ol and succinic acid derivatives which make it taste nice and wine-y. I’m assured the results with dark chocolate and red wine are pretty tasty, though the white wine version tends to get bitter over time.

— The Agave plant (c) Shutterstock

On the subject of booze, agave plants (from which tequila is made) were also the focus of some interesting research, but as a source of sweeteners rather than spirits. A group led by Mercedes López at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico are interested in using undigestible parts of the plant as sugar substitutes for diabetic or obese people. Their work focussed on agavins – long chains of fructose sugar that aren’t digested. Agavins (not to be confused with agave syrup, which is rich in fructose monomers) taste much less sweeter than sugar, but López’s group have found some evidence they can help reduce cravings and regulate blood sugar – they found that mice given agavins in their water ate less food and lost weight compared with control groups. Their blood sugar was also lower than those given sugars like glucose and fructose, or the artificial sweetener aspartame. These initial results look promising, but more needs to be done to explore agavins’ potential, and their neutral taste is an obvious limitation.

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Categories: Education

We’re sponsoring a poster prize!

24 March, 2014 - 16:45

On the 24th of June this year, Chemistry World will be presenting a prize for an outstanding poster during the 3rd Royal Society of Chemistry Younger Members Symposium (YMS2014) at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

YMS2014 is a one-day event organised by the RSC Younger Members Network. This interdisciplinary symposium aims to provide young chemists with the opportunity to present at a major national conference, as well as the chance to network with their peers and to find out about the latest advances across the chemical sciences. Professor Lesley Yellowlees (President of the Royal Society of Chemistry) and Professor Alice Roberts (Head of Public Engagement at the University of Birmingham) will be giving keynote lectures at the conference.

Early-career chemists from all disciplines are invited to register and submit abstracts for oral and poster presentations. Posters should have a clear scientific rationale and present the author’s latest work. They will be judged on the quality and originality of the work as well the presentation skills of the author, with special emphasis on their ability to communicate their work to non-experts from other disciplines.

There will be four parallel sessions: Education & Outreach, Organic & Biochemistry, Physical & Analytical and Inorganic & Materials. Chemistry World is proud to be sponsoring the poster prize for the Inorganic & Materials category. I’ll be judging the prize alongside a select committee and the winner will receive £150, with £100 and £50 going to the runners up.

To register for the conference, visit this page: 

We look forward to reviewing your posters.

Jennifer Newton

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Categories: Education

Cambridge Science Festival 2014: A smorgasbord of science

21 March, 2014 - 17:47

Mid-March is one of my favourite times of the year: the days are getting longer, I can start hanging my washing outside and Cambridge is buzzing from its annual science festival.

With over 250 events across the two weeks, it was difficult to decide what to attend but I tried to squeeze in as much as I could. Here are some of my highlights from the first week:

On Monday, Tim Radford chaired a discussion between Patrica Fara, Rosie Bolton and Gerry Gilmore asking ‘What’s new in space?’ The answer? A 1 billion pixel camera aboard the Gaia satellite, which was launched at the end of last year. Back on the ground, there’s the Square Kilometre Array, a project that is set to start building thousands of 15m wide radio dishes across two sites in the southern hemisphere from 2018. So we’ll be obtaining a lot of data – big data – but rather than answering questions, the panel said that scientists first need to figure out the right questions to ask.

Wednesday saw Molly Stevens, of Imperial College London, deliver the annual WiSETI lecture. She combined a fascinating account of her unusual career path, which she described as a series of lucky events and accidents, with an overview of the exciting research going on in her group. Rather than a general call for science to improve the way it approaches women with children, Stevens explained the practicalities of how she actually did it. Her group must be the epitomy of multidisciplinary research, containing engineers, surgeons, chemists and mathematicians. She described some interesting work they published last year where they used nano-analytical electron microscopy techniques to visualise calcific lesions around heart valves, aortae and coronary arteries to better understand the pathophysiological processes underlying cardiovascular disease.

A penguin made from crystals on the Royal Society of Chemistry stand

It was an early start on Saturday to fit in a couple of hours on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s stand in the chemistry department. We had some fantastic experiments this year. One was based on a scenario where a famous painting has been stolen from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The ‘thief’ had left a note at the scene saying that they plan to strike again, so the children were tasked with using chromatography to analyse pens from the top three suspects and match it to the ink in the note. It turns out the culprit was Leonardo da Pinchi (teehee).

 The festival is still running this weekend so do go and check it out.

Jennifer Newton

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Categories: Education

We have a winner!

20 March, 2014 - 15:29

Earlier this month the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition reached its conclusion. Now in its second year, the competition attracted around 100 entries from every corner of the world. The quality of the entries was outstanding and we are delighted that so many chose to take part and share their interpretations of openness in science. Thanks to everyone who submitted an entry.

We whittled the entries down to a shortlist of 10, and these finalists were invited along to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s London office, Burlington House, to attend a prize giving event organised by one of our sponsors (AkzoNobel). They were also asked to pitch their stories to the audience, which included members of the press, representatives of industry and a selection of academics.

I was one of the judges, along with some very illustrious names: Adam Hart Davis, Quentin Cooper, Lesley Yellowlees, Philip Ball, Samantha Tang, David Jakubovic (chair).

After much deliberation the decision was as follows:

In first place was Tessa Fiorini, with ‘Connecting the dots: the birth of modern chemistry through openness’, an article about Antoine Lavoisier. Fiorini argued that Lavoisier is hailed as the father of modern chemistry thanks to his open approach to science and his ability to connect the dots rather than because of his own discoveries.

Out first runner up was Elizabeth Tasker with ‘Tunnelling through barriers to explain the impossible’. Elizabeth is currently an Assistant Professor in the Physics Department at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, and her article is in support of multidisciplinarity.

The second runner up was Debbie White with ‘A day in the office’. Debbie has added an element of mystery to the competition this year as she has requested to remain anonymous and write under a pseudonym. When you read her story you’ll understand why…

Tessa Fiorini receives her prize from Robert Parker

Fiorini is from Malta so her decision to travel for the day paid off when she received a certificate from Robert Parker, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and a cheque for £500. The runners up received cheques for £250 and £100, respectively. In addition, Fiorini be travelling to Sweden to visit AkzoNobel’s surface science laboratory and then to Newcastle to visit the facilities of our second sponsor, Procter & Gamble.

All three entries will be published in the May issue of Chemistry World and we will work with Fiorini once she is back from her trip to write and publish a summary of her experience.

The theme of the panel discussion was ‘Future proofing the UK’s chemistry using industries’, with Clive Cookson, science editor of the Financial Times, moderating the panel of Ian Shott (Technology Strategy Board and Chemistry Growth Partnership), Carol Boyer-Spooner (chief executive, Chemistry Innovation), Andrew Burgess (chief scientist, AkzoNobel), Tony Ryan (pro-vice chancellor, University of Sheffield) and David Jakubovic (open innovation director, Procter & Gamble) taking part. The AkzoNobel event was a day-long affair that continued with a panel discussion and the award ceremony for the UK science award 2014. This year the accolade was awarded to John Goodby from University of York, UK, for his work on liquid crystals. He’s being profiled in the April issue of Chemistry World so keep an eye on our website to read about his career and achievements.

The panel advocated closer working relationships between industry and academia as a way of accelerating innovation and unlocking sustainable technologies. The experts saw this combination of entrepreneurial spirit and academic capability as playing to the UK’s strengths and thus as a means of securing growth and future-proofing chemical companies and the users of chemicals.

A great day was had by all and I’d like to thank AkzoNobel and Procter & Gamble for sponsoring the competition and the ceremony, an event which just keeps getting better and better.

I’d also like to thank the judges for their time, invaluable comments and excellent sense of humour.

And finally, thanks again to all those who took part. It was a pleasure reading your entries and we hope to hear from many of you again next year.

Bibiana Campos Seijo

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Categories: Education

Chronic pain? Pop a petunia seed/snail toxin biopill

19 March, 2014 - 22:32

How childbirth in rural Africa, petunias and deadly marine snails combined to open the door for new types of drug.

In the future, sufferers of chronic pain may simply need to sip petunia tea or pop a petunia seed pill in order to alleviate their symptoms. These petunias would have been genetically modified to produce small, circular peptides very similar to conotoxins, produced in the wild by a family of marine molluscs called cone snails.

Conotoxins have been investigated as potential painkillers for at least a decade. As slow moving animals, cone snails rely on a cocktail of chemicals that rapidly targets the nervous system to paralyse their prey before they can eat them. One drug based on these toxins, ziconotide (Prialt), is already approved for use in humans, but this protein drug is broken down in the digestive tract so it must be administered into the spine. Although effective, this method is intrusive and creates an infection risk, so is understandably undesirable.

David Craik and his team at the University of Queensland realised that they could make an oral version of these peptides by cyclisation – using solid-phase peptide chemistry to link the two end amino acids into a closed loop. Through this process they have manufactured a number of peptides that block chronic pain in rodent models more effectively than morphine and gabapentin, the current gold standard for chronic pain.

At the American Chemical Society meeting in Dallas, Texas, Craik announced the design and development of five new synthetic cyclic peptides based on the cone snail toxins. Importantly, they have also identified examples of plants within five major families that naturally produce cyclic peptides: rubiacae (including coffee), violaceae (violets and pansies), cucurbitaceae (squashes, cucumbers, watermelons and more), solanaceae (such as potato and tomato) and fabaceae (legumes).

Craik now hopes to incorporate genes for their designed peptides into plants, and has identified the petunia as a very good host. ‘When we started to do this work, we originally thought that we would use tobacco as the host plant: it’s a very easy plant to transform and it’s a model plant. When we put the genes for related molecules into tobacco, we did produce some cyclic peptide, but we got mainly linear. That’s where the petunia is the big breakthrough. Petunia already produces cyclotides, and so if we put a foreign modified conotoxin gene into it, the petunia is fantastic at producing the cyclic version with almost no misprocessed linear version.’ This opens the door for new cyclic peptide based drugs that are able to be used for more than just pain control, and as these drugs can be very well targeted, they could reduce the burden of side effects.

The plant-based method also allows drugs to be developed away from the sterile laboratory environment, according to Craik: ‘We started this work thinking that we could actually make medicine for third world countries. Not so much pain drugs, but for other applications. The reason we got on to circular plant proteins in the first place was because women in Africa take a plant, called Oldenlandia affinis, make a tea from it, sip the tea during labour and it accelerates childbirth. It turns out that the active uterotonic agent is a cyclic peptide called kalata-B1. … We were thinking that if we could put high tech protein drugs into plants like that in Africa then people could have these sorts of medicines essentially growing in their back yard.’

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Categories: Education

ChemCYS 2014: Local meeting turned international conference

6 March, 2014 - 17:51

Last week the youth section of the Royal Flemish Chemical Society (Jong-KVCV) held its biennial Chemistry Conference for Young Scientists (ChemCYS) in Blankenberge, Belgium. For many attendees it will have been their first experience of a conference. And it’s a great way to start. Blankenberge was cold and miserable but the warmth of the people inside certainly made up for the weather. Masters students, PhD students and postdocs can present their work in a non-intimidating and supportive environment.

The posters sessions were my favourite time of the conference. It was great to chat to people and share in their enthusiasm for what they were working on.

Originally set-up as an event for Belgian groups to network, the conference has been steadily growing in size over the past few editions. This year it made an impressive leap in the variety of nationalities attending the conference with delegates from 37 different countries (only nine countries were represented in 2012). I met people from Costa Rica, Algeria and Taiwan to name a few of the furthest places delegates had come from. Considering that until 2008 the conference was held in Dutch, before changing to English in 2010, this is a huge achievement. Hanne Damm, the president of Jong-KVCV says the internationalisation of the conferee can chiefly be credited to the President of ChemCYS 2014, Thomas Vranken, securing recognition of the conference from IUPAC, EuCheMS and EYCN.

The increase in delegate numbers has come alongside a commitment to high standards. Presentation abstracts were peer reviewed and were selected on merit rather than the first come, first served selection applied in previous years. Each of the six subject areas (analytical and environmental chemistry, biochemistry and biotechnology, inorganic chemistry, advanced materials, organic and medicinal chemistry, and physical and theoretical chemistry) had a panel of judges from both academia and industry who chaired and presided over the presentations and posters in each area. 

The conference organisers are phd students themselves. 3 of the team explain what they’re working on: Thomas Vranken (left), PhD student at Hasselt University, President ChemCYS 2014: ‘I work in the field of lithium ion battery materials, particularly cathode materials. I try to make existing materials in a nanoarchitectured way and I also investigate novel cathode materials. Many cathode materials are very dependent on how you synthesiae and process them – the particle morphology, size, orientation and coating all has a large influence on their electrochemical properties, like the capacity and cycle life. I want to better correlate the relationship between how you synthesiae and process a cathode material and its functional properties.’
Hanne Damm (centre), PhD student at Hasselt University, President of Jong-KVCV: ‘I work on solution processing of n-type doped ZnO (mainly Al-doped ZnO, but also In, Ga and Cl). Within this project we explore two pathways using either nanoparticles or molecular precusors as well as a combination of the two. Our main goal is to find a cheap and environmentally friendly alternative for ITO (tin-doped indium oxide), the most commercialised transparent conductive oxide.’
Christophe De Bie (right), PhD student at the University of Antwerp, President of KVCV: ‘My PhD involves the modelling of reactions within plasma chemistry. I model the conversion of greenhouse gases into value-added chemicals – syngas, methanol, formaldehyde, etc – with a dielectric barrier discharge to see which pathways are important for this conversion with the objective to increase selectivity towards the desired products as well as the energy efficiency of the process.’

But the conference wasn’t just about posters and presentations. Santiago Gómez Ruiz gave an informative workshop on the art of scientific writing where he explained his top tips for putting a research paper together. His advice included: ‘self-cite only when necessary’, ‘don’t include waste words in your title’ and ‘never include something in your methods section that is crucial for understanding a paper’ – I couldn’t agree more! 

Rather appropriately, as it was just before an evening when delegates may have indulged in a glass or two of beer, Klaus Roth gave a fascinating talk called ‘Beer – from the first glass to a hangover.’ In 50 minutes he covered everything from how beer is made, the compounds behind the classic bitter flavour of beer and why something that can make you feel so good that evening can leave you suffering the morning after.

The conference organisers are a team of 20, who are PhD students and postdocs themselves. They voluntarily organised the conference in their spare time, and will soon start planning for 2016. Holding the conference in winter on the edge of a Belgian seaside resort is instrumental in keeping everyone together and maintaining ChemCYS’ cosy atmosphere but the current venue has now reached capacity: ‘maybe they could build an extra building for us?’ jokes Christophe De Bie, the president of KVCV. I hope they find a way to expand on their success.

Jennifer Newton

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Categories: Education

PittCon 2014: it’s the little things

5 March, 2014 - 04:09

The Pittsburgh Conference, or PittCon as it’s affectionately known, is one of the biggest lab equipment trade fairs on the planet. There are hundreds of exhibitors dazzling audiences with their latest shiny new instruments.

Everything is that little bit better, faster, more reliable than the competition in some way or another, and as a self-confessed amateur when it comes to most of this kit, it can be hard to see through the spiel to find out what’s really groundbreaking. But a few little things have caught my eye on my wander around the exhibition hall.

Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) conjures up images of large, expensive equipment confined to the basements of laboratories. But NanoMagnetics Instruments based near Oxford, UK, has made an AFM unit that will sit on the palm of your hand, and sells for the price of an optical microscope. The company is aiming it at users who might have thought AFM was inaccessible to them – either because of price or size of the equipment. The ezAFM can be packed up into a small suitcase and taken out into the field or from lab to lab to be used wherever it’s needed.

Taming GC gas guzzlers

Conserving helium is a major priority as it becomes a progressively more scarce resource. While gas chromatography (GC) probably isn’t one of the biggest consumers of the gas, the shortages can make it difficult to maintain supplies in labs. With that in mind, Thermo Fisher Scientific has developed a new injector module that cuts helium consumption dramatically.

In a normal GC, as the sample is injected into the instrument, a relatively large amount of gas is used to ‘split’ the sample and purge the injection port, while a small amount goes through the column to carry the sample through the machine. In Thermo’s new injector, the splitting and purging is done with nitrogen, and helium is only used as the carrier gas. That means that if, for example, a cylinder of helium would normally last for three months of continuous operation, with the modified injector it will last for three to four years.

Holding the key

— Waters’ iKey

Microfluidics systems – from lab-on-a-chip reactors to diagnostic sensors – are increasingly popping up in all sorts of applications. Waters has developed a series of plug and play microfluidic liquid chromatography (LC) cartridges, called iKeys, that plug in to the source of a mass spectrometer (MS). The company claims that the microfluidic platform is more sensitive than other LC-MS systems, requiring smaller samples, but is also easy to use and significantly reduces solvent consumption.

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Categories: Education

Chemists called to action to create virtual human

22 February, 2014 - 06:29

What can chemists do to help create a ‘virtual human’? At the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2014 meeting in Chicago, a panel of researchers set out their demands for the chemistry community.

Using multiple supercomputing resources at an unprecedented scale, we show how it is now becoming possible to reliably select the appropriate drug with which to treat an individual patient based on the strength of interaction of that drug with the patient’s own protein sequence. This is demonstrated in the case of HIV infection in which one wishes to know which of the several FDA approved drugs will be most effective against the HIV-1 protease target. These findings will be published on 14 February 2014, to coincide with the AAAS 2014 session on the Virtual Human: Helping Facilitate Breakthroughs in Medicine. Credit: D. Wright, B. Hall, O. Kenway, S. Jha, P. V. Coveney, “Computing Clinically Relevant Binding Free Energies of HIV-1 Protease Inhibitors”, Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation (2014), DOI: 10.1021/ct4007037

But what is a ‘virtual human’? Projects range from organ-on-a-chip microfluidic devices that might mimic a particular behaviour of a certain organ, through to detailed computer models that map the entire skeleton, or even simulate a human brain. Others take a broader approach, sampling thousands of biomarkers from thousands of healthy individuals to chart the variability and dynamism of human biochemistry.

It’s a subject that exists at the interfaces chemistry, biology, physics and computer sciences, and has obvious medicinal potential in allowing us to develop new drugs in silico or helping us to treat existing patients.

Underpinning all of this work is chemistry, but each project places different demands on the chemistry community. ‘I think what is really important for the study that’s going to look at a whole series of different individuals is to develop techniques, measurement techniques or imaging techniques, that can explore completely new dimensions of patient data space’ offered Leroy Hood, co-founder of the institute for systems biology in Seattle, US. ‘So I think what is really going to be critical is … the development of highly miniaturised, highly effective devices for being able to make measurements. For example, I’d like to have a microfluidic chip that could measure 2500 proteins in the blood accurately. … There are new chemical approaches that I think within 5 years will enable us to do this and then convert these assays on to a microfluidic platform so you can take a fraction of a droplet of blood and in 5 minutes you can make 2500 measurements. It will let you assess wellness for near 50 major organs, so these are the kind of things we need.’

These tests would need to be fast, highly specific and work with minuscule samples, but there is also the demand for these techniques to be cheap: ‘we need to be able to make reagent technologies for genome sequencing, for example, at a much more affordable price’ adds Vijay Chandru, chairman of Strand Life Sciences in India, where he’s been overseeing the development of a virtual human liver. ‘That requires innovation from chemistry. You talk about a thousand dollar genome but it really is much more expensive to actually sequence a genome and I believe that chemistry can bring the cost down.’

Hood also argues that we need to improve our ability to see on the macro scale at molecular resolution in order to better understand our most complex organs: ‘the other thing that I think is really critical is imaging. I think in the end the only way we’re ever going to understand the brain is to be able to do molecular in vivo imaging in the context of whatever operations you’re interested in.’

Peter Coveney of University College London wants chemists to push out of their comfort zone: ‘What I’m interested in is chemists looking at life in a more interesting way. That means studying systems out of equilibrium. It still shocks me how much of chemistry is stuck in an old fashioned equilibrium style approach, and studying complicated non-equilibrium systems begins to address these network issues. And also the patient specificity and accuracy of the calculations that we’re alluding to is something that these people need to address.’

Finally, Christian Jacob, from the University of Calgary, Canada, pointed out that more data and more complicated models will require researcher teams with a wider range of skills. ‘We also need more computational chemists, because there’s actually a huge gap between people who gather the data and who is going to build the metadata, the meta models around the data. Eventually they have to be encouraged to actually be able to work with the data.’

So, can your work help create a virtual human?

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Categories: Education

Concrete chemistry and the TFL sugar rush

30 January, 2014 - 14:43

Just when we all thought the tube couldn’t get any worse, frustrated commuters in London last week were treated to the news that, due to an engineering mishap, a signal control room for the Victoria line had become flooded with fast-setting concrete, forcing the line to temporarily halt.

© UsVsTh3m/Twitter

— © UsVsTh3m/Twitter

Then things got even weirder… the news reported that when the sludgy mess was discovered, staff had rushed to nearby shops to buy bags of sugar to throw on it. This, they said, ‘stops the concrete from setting so quickly’ so it could be cleaned up before it damaged equipment. This intrigued us in CW office – why sugar? It seems bizarre that something so simple and readily available could have this effect.

It turns out this trick is well known in the construction industry, and builders often use small amounts of sugar or sugary liquid as an instant retardant for concrete on hot days, to stop it setting too quickly and cracking.

Sugar disrupts the setting process by preventing the hydration reaction between water and cement – a key ingredient of the concrete mix containing calcium, silicon and aluminium oxides. Dry concrete mix contains cement together with a coarse aggregate – usually sand or crushed gravel. When water is added it reacts with the cement’s components to make a thick paste which hardens to bind the aggregate together.

Throwing sugar into the mix interferes with the hydration process, although the exact mechanism is still a bit of a mystery. One theory is that the sugar molecules coat cement particles and prevent them clumping together to form a smooth paste. Another suggests that the sugar reacts with aluminium and calcium in the cement to make insoluble complexes. These interfere with the hardening process and leave less Al and Ca available to react with the water. Some sugars work better than others (white refined sugar works well, while the milk sugar lactose only has a moderate retarding effect), and salt acts in a similar way. The cement hydration process itself is not fully understood, and there are likely to be several interactions at play.

The more sugar you mix in, the longer the concrete takes to set, and if the sugar concentration exceeds 1% of the cement mixture it will refuse to harden altogether. While this effect can be useful, it does have its downsides. Because sugar is not usually considered hazardous, dry concrete mix can easily become contaminated while it is being transported. The Australian company CSR, which used to produce both sugar and building materials, once had to recall a whole shipment of cement after it used one of its bulk sugar boats to transport aggregate.

As for the signal control room at Victoria, it seemed the sugar did its job long enough for the concrete to be scooped out – the trains were back to normal the following day.

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Categories: Education

FameLab – Scientists on stage and under scrutiny

28 January, 2014 - 18:27

For the last couple of years, I’ve been honoured with an invitation to join the judging panel on the Cambridge heats of FameLab, an international competition to ‘find the new voices of science and engineering across the world’. FameLab was set up by the Cheltenham Science Festival (in partnership with Nesta) back in 2005, and aimed to ‘find and nurture scientists and engineers with a flair for communicating with public audiences’. After developing a link with the British Council in 2007, FameLab has been intent on global domination, and with more than 23 countries competing in 2013, seems to be well on the way to reaching that goal.

To test the mettle of our aspiring science communicators, each challenger must prepare a three minute presentation. Time is tight, and there’s usually a strong incentive to stop at the 3 minute mark (in our case, the sound of an awful squeaky dog toy, drowning out your big punchline). As a judge, I’m asked to evaluate each presentation on ‘the three Cs’: content, clarity and charisma.

Everybody (well, almost everybody) who takes the stage is well prepared, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, so it can be hard to divide them. After all, who am I to tell a physicist that her ‘content’ on dark matter isn’t strong enough?

To try to balance out the personal understanding and subconscious biases, FameLab invites a number of judges from different fields, but even if that helps to smooth the content quibbles, the wildly subjective ‘charisma’ category can lead to heated arguments on the judging panel. ‘Clarity’ at least seems a fairly straightforward measure – how well did I understand you? But even that leaves questions – what’s an acceptable level of verbal shortcut before we start ‘dumbing down’?

Organised by the Cambridge Science Festival team, our local final is this week, and so far we’ve seen 20 engaging, thought provoking and entertaining performances from new and established researchers, covering topics including crystallography, materials science, stem cells, worm holes and ‘the planet that never was’. I’m really looking forward to the final, where the 10 best performers will have to face the judging panel again with brand new material, and we’ll pick a winner to send to the UK final later in the year.

Regardless of who will win this week, FameLab as a movement goes to show how excited, enthusiastic and skilled young researchers can be at telling the stories of their science.

If you think you can communicate science with flair, then keep an eye on the FameLab website for local opportunities. If you’re better behind the keyboard than on stage, why not apply for the Chemistry World science communication competition?

The Cambridge University science magazine, BlueSci, have created a playlist of the finalists so far:

And a public vote will put four of the remaining hopefuls through:

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Categories: Education

Chart-topping UK scientists

20 January, 2014 - 17:30

Last week, the Science Council released a list of their ‘100 leading practising scientists’. Their aim in publishing the list was to ‘highlight a collective blind spot in the approach of government, media and public to science, which either tends to reference dead people or to regard only academics and researchers as scientists.’

The Science Council is an umbrella that brings together 41 learned societies or professional bodies, including the Institute of Physics, the Society of Biology and of course, the Royal Society of Chemistry. To arrive at their list, member organisations were invited to nominate individuals who ‘who are currently engaged with UK science that other scientists might look to for leadership in their sector or career’. They then convened a representative judging panel to knock it down to a round 100.

The Chemistry World team looked through the list and realised that it contained a number of familiar names (perhaps no surprise, as the Royal Society of Chemistry is one of the organisations called upon to nominate), so we thought we would highlight some of the Science Council’s top 100, explaining how and why they appeared in the pages of Chemistry World

Hagan Bayley

Bayley accepts his 2008 Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the Year award from then RSC president Dave Garner (left) and RSC Industry and Technology forum president David Alker (right)
© Royal Society of Chemistry

Not only the winner of the 2008 Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the year for his role in the spin-out company Oxford Nanopore, Bayley’s work has been highlighted in our news and feature articles over the years. Here he’s recognised for ‘ground breaking research into the structures and properties of biological molecules’, including engineered membrane proteins that may allow for affordable and reliable DNA sequencing. He also joined us on the Chemistry World podcast to talk about his work 3D printing tissue-like materials.

Lee Cronin

The Science Council recognise Cronin as someone whose star is in the ascendant, and he’s certainly not coy about his ambitions.

In a feature on the origins of life, we discussed Cronin’s work on self-assembly and self-organisation but he’s also graced our pages for 3D printing bespoke labware and even miniaturised fluidic devices. His productive team at the University of Glasgow have also published on efficient electrolysis systems for production of useable hydrogen gas.

Andre Geim

As one of the fathers of graphene , Geim’s work turns up in almost every edition of Chemistry World since he jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physics with Konstantin Novoselov in 2010. Although the news is not always good, new understanding and potential applications of graphene are regularly published in the scientific literature. From fluid filters, transparent loudspeakers, carbon capture devices, and antimicrobials, we try to keep abreast of the range of applications.

John Pickett

The idea of working with biting insects may make your skin crawl, but John Pickett has been at Rothamsted Research for over 30 years, investigating what it is that makes some people so appealing to pests, while others seem to remain bite free. His work on volatile chemicals and their interactions with insects have regularly made our news pages.

Christopher Evans

Biotech entrepreneur and microbiologist turned biochemist Christopher Evans may not feature in the magazine for groundbreaking science, but he has a significant impact behind the scenes through investment and entrepreneurship. As well as heading up the Merlin investment partnership, Evans campaigns for more public-private partnerships in science funding. He certainly made his mark on our own Bibiana Campos-Seijo when she met him, according to her editorial in April 2012.

Shankar Balasubramanian

Recognised here for ‘his work in the applications of chemistry to biological and medical sciences and as the principal inventor of the leading next generation DNA sequencing methodology’, we’ve featured Balasubramanian’s work on sequencing and epigenetics, as well as his successful bids to secure conspicuous amounts of funding for multidisciplinary work.

Lesley Yellowlees

The Royal Society of Chemistry were delighted to see their first female president included in the ‘communicators’ section of the science council’s list, as Yellowlees has been outspoken on issues surrounding science policy, funding and diversity. The election of the first female president of the Royal Society of Chemistry ‘made a big impact,’ she told Laura Howes for our feature on women in science, ‘but in a way it’s a shame that it was worthy of remark.’ She is recognised by the science council for ‘being a public champion for more women in science’, and has helped Chemistry World look back at the history of chemistry at Edinburgh university, where she is head of the science faculty.

Jamie Gallagher

As an engaging science communicator with a PhD in thermoelectronics and one of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s 175 faces, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Gallagher has graced our pages, most recently with an insightful analysis of the countries of origin for each of the elements of the periodic table.

He’s also a passionate advocate of equality and diversity in science, telling the Royal Society of Chemistry that ‘science is for everyone and we have hundreds of years of history to correct, we are making fast progress but until equality is achieved across the board, until anyone who wants to pursue science has that ability then we must continue to fight.’

John Holman

The value of education is highlighted by the science council selecting 10 ‘teacher scientists’, including John Holman, who in addition to being emeritus professor in the department of chemistry at the University of York, is a senior fellow in education at the Wellcome Trust. He has written for Chemistry World on trends in high school chemistry teaching, and was the first director of the National Science Learning Centre in York.


Peter Wothers

Dr Peter Wothers, by Nathan Pitt of the Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge. CC-BY-SA

Last but not least is Peter Wothers, a teaching fellow at the department of chemistry, University of Cambridge. The science council recognise him for ‘his role in helping to bridge the transition between sixth-form and university through his leadership in developing the syllabus for the Chemistry Pre-University qualification’, but Wothers is a renowned science communicator, performing to packed houses at the Cambridge Science Festival and delivering the 2012 Royal Institution Christmas lectures. This hasn’t stopped him from finding time to contribute to a Chemistry World feature on ‘inspiring the next generation’, being profiled in our jobs pages and telling the stories of compounds on the Chemistry in its Element podcast.

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Categories: Education

Meet the judges: Bibiana Campos-Seijo

10 January, 2014 - 15:10

We’re running a series of guest posts from the judges of the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition. Here, Chemistry World editor Bibiana Campos-Seijo adds her thoughts on ‘openness in science’.


I’ve very much enjoyed reading the posts by my fellow judges. All interpret the theme of the competition in very different ways but one of the threads I picked up is that most focus how openness affects the relationship between the scientist and others – eg between the scientists and the publishers of information – with Philip Ball calling for a preprint server for chemical papers to encourage debate, engagement and the swift dissemination of information – or between scientists and the media with Adam Hart-Davis drawing on his own experience.  

I input ‘openness in science’ into a Google search (most people would never admit to doing this but it helps me focus, refine and polish my thoughts and ideas when I can’t find a way to articulate them appropriately and/or swiftly) and that same thread continues with small variations.

One of the top results is a study launched in 2011 by the Royal Society titled ‘Science as a public enterprise: opening up scientific information’. Its focus was to determine how the sharing of scientific information should best be managed to improve the quality of research and build public trust. The report concerns openness in relation to the interaction between the scientist and others, in this case the public.

Another result that caught my eye was a document titled ‘The value of openness in scientific problem solving’. The focus in this case was information sharing between different scientists and the role that collaborations have in the scientific process. The theme once more is openness in relation to the interactions among scientists.

What strikes me is that there is very little mention of openness in relation to the individual. For me, openness is all about the person and is an attitude that is at the core of what makes a scientist. How s/he then chooses to interact or share with others is somewhat secondary and in many cases is done via pre-existing routes (eg publishing, scientific conferences, etc). Openness and an open mind are vital to understand the scientific process and the challenges it brings, to foster innovation and to embrace and implement new discoveries and technology as they come along. Of course, it is also about being open to discussion and challenges by others but openness at the level of the individual is, in my view, vital to the definition of a scientist.

Obviously there is no right or wrong answer and openness is all of the above. However you choose to interpret it, we are looking forward to receiving your entry and are very excited to be supporting this competition once again.


Bibiana Campos Seijo is the editor of Chemistry World and magazines publisher for the Royal Society of Chemistry. After completing a PhD in chemistry, she ran her own e-learning business before moving into publishing first as a technical editor for the European Respiratory Society and then managing a portfolio of pharmaceutical titles at Advanstar Communications. In 2009, she moved to the Royal Society of Chemistry to lead the Magazines team.

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Categories: Education

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