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#NamethatElement – Vibranium

7 January, 2016 - 13:36

What should we name the new elements? Chris Chapman, Chemistry World‘s comment editor, puts forward the case for his favourite…

The news that we have four new elements is, obviously, buttock-clenchingly exciting for chemistry name nerds. The four new confirmed elements – 113, 115, 117 and 118 – will now have a proper name instead of the tongue-twisting ununpentium and the like. This can be proposed by the discoverers, although the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (Iupac) will get the final say. According to its latest rules, currently out for consultation, the elements can be named after a mythological concept or character; a mineral; a place; a property of the element; or a scientist. The endings of the elements are already decided: 113 and 115 will end in ‘ium’, 117 ‘ine’, and 118 ‘on’.

© Everett Collection/REX Shutterstock

— Captain America – © Everett Collection/REX Shutterstock

So here’s a suggestion to the Japanese Riken group (discoverers for 113) or the Russian-American collaboration who discovered 115. How about vibranium?

Vibranium, as any comic book nerd knows, is a key element that comprises Captain America’s shield, and gives the irritatingly squeaky clean hero a way to dink bullets away, or a handy Frisbee to take out some bothersome villains. It’s also the element that Tony Stark ‘invents’ in the abysmal Iron Man 2 to end his crippling palladium dependency. Bizarrely, in the movie in turns out the element’s structure was hidden by his father (John Slattery, playing exactly the same character as he did in Mad Men) in a diorama of a 1974 business expo. Tony proceeds to go on a drinking binge, hurl abuse at Don Cheadle and miraculously create the element at his Malibu pad with little more than his raw genius.

This ‘discovery’ is further brought in to question in Avengers: Age of Ultron, when the Avengers (Tony Stark included) ship off to the African state of Wakanda to get some mined vibranium. That’s right – the element Stark ‘invented’ from his lunatic father’s model village turns out to be a cornerstone of industry in an African kingdom ruled by King T’Challa, who goes by the rather uncomfortable superhero moniker Black Panther. Indeed, according to Marvel canon, Wakanda is an industrial powerhouse that dominates Africa, largely due to its vibranium monopoly. This pretty much torpedoes Stark’s invention claims – he probably just placed an order for the element on Amazon while he was on his bender.

If vibranium’s fictional discovery wasn’t mad enough, Marvel insists vibranium is an ‘anti-metal’, capable of dissolving other elements, which makes you wonder how they made it into an alloy to start with. It has the ability to absorb vibrations (a tick in the Iupac box), and, should it be shattered, creates some kind of chain reaction that blows up all other vibranium in range; to the delight of Daily Mail readers everywhere, in the comics this is known inexplicably as ‘vibranium cancer’.

All of which makes it dream comic book fodder, and an ideal chance for scientists to geek out. Just imagine the carnage in this fictional universe if vibranium suddenly popped up as a genuine element on the periodic table. It would nullify the power of Captain America’s shield. It would cripple the economy of an entire African state. And it would give smarmy billionaire Tony Stark a chance to fly around in his decidedly non-iron floaty-shooty-supersuit going ‘See! I told you vibranium could be synthesised!’

This kind of paradigm-shifting chance to mess with comic books comes only once in a generation. Discoverers, I implore you: let 113 or 115 be vibranium. The result would be hilarious.

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Categories: Education

Before it was the real thing…

4 January, 2016 - 09:57

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

When the Children of the Nineties survey discovered that a good number of mothers were feeding their babies cola, the public were shocked. But, believe it or not, Coca-Cola was originally developed as a healthy medicine. Its inventor was John Stith Pemberton, a pharmacist by trade, whose aim was to develop new ‘brain tonics’.

He also had personal motivations. After receiving pain relief treatment as an injured soldier in 1865, Pemberton had become addicted to morphine. This was not an uncommon problem amongst war veterans, but as a pharmacist, Pemberton was especially aware of the dangers of his addiction. He tried many mixtures in the hopes of developing an opium-free alternative, including his amusingly-named, if unprofitable, ‘Dr Tuggle’s Compound Syrup of Globe Flower’.

Soon, Pemberton started playing around with the recipe for a popular drink, Vin Mariani, that combined Bordeaux red wine with coca leaf extract. The cocaine in the coca leaf naturally gave the wine a bit of a kick, making it inevitably popular. Pemberton decided to combine the Vin Mariani with kola nut powder, a fairly horrible caffeine-containing substance in the hopes of enhancing its medicinal effects. He sold it as ‘Pemberton’s French Wine Coca’, a treatment for headaches, nerves, nausea, addiction, constipation, asthma and even impotence.

In 1886, the prohibition law was passed in Atlanta, making it illegal to sell substances containing alcohol. Unperturbed, Pemberton removed the wine from the recipe, leaving the tonic very bitter. He combined sugar syrup with the formula, but this created a foul-tasting murky-brown medicine. Realising he would need to add other things to his Coca-Cola to make the flavour bearable, Pemberton included vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and the citric acid that is probably responsible for making cola excellent for getting blood stains out of things. He softened the colour with caramel dye. Over the years, he continued to poke about with the recipe that would become a legendary secret.

Perhaps one reason for this secrecy was the denial that it had ever contained cocaine. The Coca-Cola company famously stated that the name was ‘meaningless but fanciful’ and denied that their product had ever contained any amount of cocaine. However, historians believe that Coca-Cola contained cocaine until 1929, fifteen years after it was made illegal, although only in trace amounts. Until this point, research had not fully optimised the method for extracting all the psychoactive chemicals from the coca leaves; thus, if coca leaves were used (and they were), traces of cocaine would have been present, even if chemists had done their best to remove them (which early on, they probably didn’t, and later on, they probably did). Could accidental cocaine content be the secret behind Coca-Cola’s early success?

The real turning point in Pemberton’s commercial triumph was in turning away from medicines altogether. Medicines started being taxed in 1898, and Coca-Cola fought a long court battle to become a soft drink and soft drink only. Marketing cola as a drink had started much earlier, when the flavour was tested on customers by serving it at drug stores through a carbonated water fountain. Some believe that fizzy water was first added by accident, instead of plain water during the syrup preparation, whilst other sources are adamant that cola was always intended as a carbonated beverage. One thing is certain: Pemberton, with the help of others including Willis Venable, shoved a lot of different things in his tonic recipe – and fizz was the formula that worked.

Was it the slip of a hand that made Coca-Cola? Or the accident of unlucky laws that perturbed the formula? One thing remains true: only its high kola bean caffeine content remains to resemble the original tincture, and it’s a soft drink, not a drug. Although caffeine has never really been considered medicine, it expands blood vessels, increasing blood flow, heart rate and respiration, as well as acting as a mood elevator. Recent research has discovered that, perhaps because of these properties, caffeine can boost the effects of other medicines, and it is now routinely sold with ibuprofen. So maybe, just occasionally, you should feed your babies Pemberton’s coca after all…

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Categories: Education

Testing enzyme-infused mash potatoes

21 December, 2015 - 12:37

Guest post by Yuandi Li

January’s Chemistry World sees the launch of The Hot Plate, with the first instalment looking at how the addition of malt powder can improve mash. I was tasked with giving the recipe a try in my own kitchen to see if using a little chemistry knowledge would deliver a boost in sweetness and texture. There are few ingredients in the kitchen as useful yet underappreciated as the humble root vegetable, and it was exciting to take these Cinderella ingredients to the ball and give them some overdue attention and respect.


  • 1kg root vegetables
  • 10g diastatic malt powder (1% by weight)
  • Amylase powder can be used as an alternative to diastatic malt powder if unavailable; use the same weights


  1. Peel, chop and boil the root vegetables until soft
  2. Mash the root vegetables into a purée along with milk, butter or any other seasoning and allow to cool
  3. Once the purée is at room temperature, stir in the malt powder
  4. Heat to 55°C for one hour using a water bath. (Alternatively, heat in a bowl over a pan of boiling water or bain marie, then put in an insulated container to hold for an hour; the temperature does not need to be exact)
  5. Enjoy!

I tried the recipe with regular potatoes and sweet potatoes. The potato was boiled, mashed and pushed through a sieve to produce as smooth a texture as possible. Still, like all mashed potato, it maintained some granularity. As expected, at this stage it didn’t taste sweet at all. The malt powder was then mixed in and potato was divided into two portions. One portion was heated at 50°C in a bain marie (a bowl placed over a pot of simmering water; you will need to stir the mixture regularly to maintain an even temperature) for one hour. I also made a control batch, which was obliterated in a microwave to denature the amylase. This control sample tasted exactly like normal potato at the end of the experiment, confirming that any changes in taste or texture are due to enzyme action rather than the simple addition of malt.

The sweet potato – intended for a complete dish – was cooked in pork stock. It was then puréed in a food processor along with some onions sautéed with star anise and thyme. Starch leached from vegetable cells is the enemy of a good mash as it causes gloopiness, so you should never ‘mash’ potatoes in a food processor; however, this is fine for sweet potatoes as they have half the amount of starch of a potato. Once mashed, the sweet potato was seasoned with some butter, salt and pepper. Again, two portions were created: one as a control, and one with malt powder, which was then vacuum-packed and held in a water bath at 50°C for one hour. As with the potato, the control batch tasted normal.

I expected the amylase to have a much greater effect on the potato due to it higher starch content. I was proved right. The mash tasted disturbingly sweet, had lost all semblance of texture (you could actually see this happening whilst cooking the mash) and had the consistency of wallpaper paste (probably due to leftover starch).

The sweet potato was a different story. It also received a sweetness boost, but it wasn’t stodgy at all and actually became lighter in texture. The reason is unclear; it might be due to its naturally lower starch content or the fact that – unlike the potato – it wasn’t agitated during cooking (agitation can extract starch). In any case, the sweet potato was definitely a success, resulting in a more pleasant mouthfeel. A colleague thought it even brought out the taste of the onions, though that could be a result of ‘stewing’ the mixture for an hour.

But this isn’t the end of the investigation of this fascinating ingredient. How might amylase fit in with other applications? A sweet, smooth mashed potato is simply too far from most people’s expectations of mashed potato, but could it improve the texture of potato doughnuts? Or could a light sprinkling of malt powder on the surface of chips or potato fondant prior to cooking lead to a crisper crust in the former or help caramelisation in the latter? And what about other carbs? What might it do to rice?

I hope you have fun making the recipe as well as doing your own experiments. Drop us a comment if you do; we’d love to know your findings.

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Categories: Education

Unwrapping our chocolate cover

16 December, 2015 - 16:48

Hopefully, it hasn’t escaped your notice that our December issue had a feature about chocolate in it – one of our tastiest articles this year! As soon as we knew that article was going in the issue, we knew exactly what we wanted on the cover: chocolate, and lots of it. But we’re Chemistry World, not Cadbury World, so we had to shoehorn in some chemistry.

What better way than to make a molecule of theobromine (one of the key alkaloid compounds found in everyone’s favourite cocoa-bean-based confectionery) out of chocolate?

In extensive (and hunger-inducing) discussions among the team, we came down to a couple of options: make a model ourselves out of shop-bought chocs or get a pro to do it. So armed with £20 out of the magazine’s budget, I headed to the shops to try the first option.

As you can see, we didn’t make too bad a fist of it. A popular brand of chocolate balls in white, milk and dark chocolate provided oxygen, nitrogen and carbon atoms respectively. Mini chocolate fingers were the perfect size for bonds (other long thin chocolates were less successful and were ethically sacrificed after the experiments), with smaller chocolate balls standing in for hydrogen.

As a proof-of-concept, it worked. But it wasn’t really good enough for the cover of your favourite monthly chemistry magazine. So we got in touch with top chocolatier Aneesh Popat, who we’d already spoken to for the feature. He was happy to help, and made the model that graced our cover while our photographer snapped away.

Rather than just putting the atoms on a flat surface carefully and hoping they wouldn’t roll away, Aneesh inserted chocolate straws into different flavour truffles and used compressed air to cool them down and ‘set’ the structure.

The result was a lot better than our amateur efforts and Aneesh could even pick it up and show it off for us. And our picture editor, Lizzy, who bravely volunteered to supervise the shoot, assured us the chocolate tasted pretty good too – but for some reason, none of them made it back to the office…

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Categories: Education

Oh baby, it’s cold outside the lab

14 December, 2015 - 15:09

Guest post by Heather Cassell

As we get deeper into December, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, holiday season festivities, and researchers are thinking about having some time away from the lab. But for some December can lead to a blue Christmas; the approach of the holidays can fill certain groups of lab denizens, especially students, with fear. Students have to contend with coursework deadlines approaching rapidly – and there are the January exams to consider – so they’re rarely heard to say ‘thank God it’s Christmas.’ This also means it’s not the most wonderful time of the year for those who have to mark the coursework too.

And so, the start of December ‘tis the season for careful lab work planning; you must make the most of the time you have left in the lab before you leave, otherwise you’ll risk abandoning an experiment or driving home for Christmas with work on your mind. Worse still, poor planning means you may have to come in at awkward times over the holidays, or even miss the opportunity to be rockin’ around the Christmas tree, enjoying the mistletoe and wine at the lab Christmas party!

When it comes to Christmas decorations offices are fairly easy to decorate. There are very few restrictions on what you can put up (it’s more down to taste, or in some cases lack of taste), so you can deck the halls with pretty much whatever you like. But health and safety rules in the lab mean that many decorations are not suitable for use, as they constitute a fire hazard. This means the offices tend to get all of the silver bells, the holly and the ivy, but the labs can seem so very bare in comparison, the non-scientists might ask even each other ‘do they know it’s Christmas?’

Over the years I have seen some great ways to get around this, with ingenious lab elves using lab consumables to make decorations. It is amazing what you can create with a few micro-centrifuge tubes, pipette tips, foil and some tape – I’ve seen stars, trees and strings of Christmas ‘lights’ all bringing joy to the lab.

If you really want to feel like Santa Claus is coming to town, you can create a chemis-tree – a tannenbaum of flasks filled with colourful solvents and held together with clamps, further decorated with other bits of lab kit, such as rubber tubing. These creations are a joy to behold and can help any lab step into Christmas even though they do tend to exhaust the lab’s supply of clamps! I highly recommend searching twitter for some lovely examples, and also see the Chemistry World blog post on them, published last Christmas.

This year, why not let your imagination run wild when decorating your lab? Don’t settle for a clinical white Christmas, but think of how your lab can safely take some Christmas wrapping.

Merry Xmas everybody, good luck to all who have deadlines (and those who have to do the marking), I hope you’ll all find that December will be magic again.

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Categories: Education

ISACS18 poster prize winner: Emmanuel Etim

9 December, 2015 - 13:33

Chemistry World was pleased to sponsor a poster prize at ISACS18 (Challenges in Organic Materials and Supramolecular Chemistry), held in Bangalore, India, last month. PhD student Emmanuel Etim from the Indian Institute of Science, India, was the winner with his poster titled: Interstellar hydrogen bonding

Emmanuel Etim

Emmanuel explains his work:

‘We are interested in understanding the chemistry of interstellar molecules – ie molecules that exist in the space between the stars – because of their importance in astrochemistry, astrophysics, astrobiology, astronomy and related fie

Over 200 of these molecules have been detected in different astronomical sources largely via their rotational spectra. Isomerism is a conspicuous feature of these molecules with over 40% of the known molecules (excluding the diatomics and other special species like the C3, C5, which cannot form isomers) observed in more than one isomeric form.

But why are some isomers observed and others are not has been a question for decades. In addressing this question, we investigated 130 molecules from 31 isomeric groups and we found a unique relationship, which accounts for the detection of some isomers and the non-detection of others. According to the Energy, Stability and Abundance (ESA) relationship, interstellar abundances of related species are directly proportional to their stabilities. However, we observed some deviations from the ESA relationship in a few isomeric groups: Where the most stable isomers are not observed and where the most stable isomers are not the most abundant. What could be responsible for these deviations?

How are these molecules formed? Reactions that occur on the surfaces of interstellar dust particles have been invoked in the formation of molecular hydrogen; as well as for the synthesis of larger interstellar molecules. Water molecules constitute about 70% of the interstellar dust grains (interstellar ice). These water molecules serve as the platform for hydrogen bonding. This interstellar hydrogen bonding causes a greater portion of these molecules to be attached to the surface of the dust grains. This reduces the overall abundances of the molecules in the gas phase.

Our high level quantum chemical calculations for the hydrogen bond interaction between the interstellar molecules (known and possible) and water, shows a direct correlation between the binding energies of these complexes and the abundances of the interstellar molecules. This accounts for the observed deviations from the ESA relationship.

From both ESA relationship and interstellar hydrogen bonding, we predicted ketenes as potential candidates for astronomical observation. In line with this, ketenyl radical has just been observed in space.

Finally, the weakly bound complexes that are formed in the interstellar medium (ISM), are they detectable? The conditions in the terrestrial laboratories where weakly bound complexes are observed are similar to the conditions in ISM and the high binding energies of the complexes imply that these complexes are detectable in ISM.’

Congratulations to Emmanuel on his great poster.


Submit a poster abstract for ISACS19 (Challenges in organic chemistry), to be held in Irvine, US, in March 2016, here:

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2015/16 Chemistry World science communication competition

7 December, 2015 - 09:37

Kathryn Harkup, science communicator and one of the judges for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition gives her advice for entering the competition.

I am very excited to see the entries for the Chemistry World competition. This year’s fantastic theme of public attitudes is a really good opportunity to show how we can get the general public enthusiastic about chemistry. So what am I looking for from the entrants?

© Courtesy of Kathryn Harkup

There is no set way of being a good science communicator. You can be funny or serious, spectacular or straightforward but the most important thing me is be interesting. Tell people nuggets of information they will want to share with their friends. Tell stories with a clear beginning, middle and end so an audience or reader can follow your train of thought and relate it back to others later. Keep it simple. Don’t get bogged down in details. If it isn’t relevant to your topic, ditch it. Think of some science communicators who inspire you and try to figure out what it is that makes you read their books or watch their TV shows.

Think carefully about who your audience is. Chemistry sometimes sounds like a foreign language to those who don’t speak it every day. Avoid using technical terms and describe things in everyday language. Chemistry can be complex, but you don’t need to dumb it down for your audience, you just need to explain it well. Use analogies to explain tricky concepts.

Get non-chemists to read your work and hear your presentations and watch and listen to them carefully for feedback. Learn from your audience. If something you do doesn’t get the reaction you wanted, think about what you can do to change it. And most important of all, emotions can be contagious, so enjoy yourself.

Kathryn Harkup is a trained chemist and freelance science communicator who swapped the fume hood to deliver talks and workshops on the quirky side of science. Kathryn’s book A is for arsenic: the poisons of Agatha Christie was published by Bloomsbury in September 2015.

If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2015/16 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of public attitudes to chemistry offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2015/16 Chemistry World science communication competition

30 November, 2015 - 10:12

Sue Nelson, science journalist and one of the judges for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition gives her tips for communicating science effectively.

Science communication combines a number of skills. In print it’s a potent mix of good writing with a key understanding of the science involved and the ability to explain a story or concept in language that makes the reader wish they’d thought of that phrase.

Sue Nelson

© Courtesy of Sue Nelson

An article must be written for the appropriate audience and so even when not aimed at scientists, the science must always be correct. Simplifying something often involves understanding the concepts to a much higher level in order to get it right.

A good headline and introduction is your sales pitch. Make them memorable and interesting. This is not the place to give the names of whoever funded any research.  Ensure that whoever reads that opening paragraph will want to keep on reading to the end of the piece. So structure it well. Know where you are starting and ending before you begin writing.

The choice of quotes is essential. Quotes provided on press releases are often written by committee and most journalists – including myself – can tell. The words don’t always read right because it’s unlikely anyone would talk that way in real life. The solution? Don’t make quotes up. Interview a scientist, researcher or as many as you think are needed for your story and encourage them to expand upon their work. Get the facts and the colour. How scientists feel about research, or the lengths they’ve gone to get some data, keeps people reading and maintains a reader’s interest. If there’s a human interest aspect, get that too.

When making a film for the competition, have fun with it. We want to see who you are and what you’ve got to say, not who think you ought to be presenting like. There’s only one Brian Cox or Alice Roberts so be yourself. When addressing the camera directly, imagine you are talking to someone you know and like (we will hear it in your voice and see it in your face). This will help with a natural delivery.

We walk and talk all the time but doing so on camera is surprisingly difficult and can look stilted and unnatural. If you find it difficult, don’t do it. But if you want to include any walking and talking, or a demonstration, rehearse it until it’s second nature. And choreograph your movements. Check the angles on camera – sometimes you need to hold your hand differently if fingers are covering something you want us to see. It might not feel natural but it will look better on screen.

From a technical point of view, do the same as what you’d do with a camera on a smartphone. Don’t film yourself in front of a window or we will only see your silhouette. Make sure you are well lit and we can hear you clearly. Get the basics right and then concentrate on what you’d like to say. There’s no need to memorise everything. Just remember key points and keep it natural and free flowing.

I can’t wait to read your entries and see your videos. Good luck!

Sue Nelson is an award-winning science journalist and broadcaster and a director of Boffin Media. She makes short films for the European Space Agency, produces and presents podcasts and radio programmes, and is former BBC science and environment correspondent. Sue has also written on science for most of the UK’s national newspapers.

If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2015/16 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of public attitudes to chemistry offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2015/16 Chemistry World science communication competition

24 November, 2015 - 11:44

Steve Cross, science stand-up and workshop leader for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition writes about what he looks for in a great communicator.

I’ve been in science communication full-time for 14 years, and I’ve seen hundreds of science performances at Science Showoff and Bright Club over the last few years. The ones that have really impressed me have always had some things in common.

Steve Cross

© Courtesy of Steve Cross

I’m really interested in honest science. Don’t just tell us something’s great and expect us to go along with you. Don’t just say this research might make all of our lives amazing (without telling us how likely that is!). Instead take us underneath the surface. Help us to see people and stories and places and where this science has come from. Bring it to life so that it has the kind of powerful narrative and great characters of our favourite TV shows, instead of creating something that just sounds like the exhortations to buy stuff that go between them. Don’t tell us how interesting this science is, because we’re savvy 21st-century media consumers and we won’t believe you. Instead show us things that make us decide for ourselves that what you care about really matters.

When it comes to seeing you talk about science in person or on tape I really want to connect with you. You can get along with hiding a lot of emotion when writing but as soon as I’m seeing you talk I need to feel like this is something you’ve chosen to talk about, and something you’ve decided that I personally need to hear. Don’t forget who your audience is (I for one don’t have a PhD in high-energy physics, so please don’t assume that I do!), and even more importantly don’t forget who you are. You could have talked about any one of millions of pieces of research. So why did you choose this?

Steve Cross is a public engagement consultant, stand-up comedian and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow. He runs Science Showoff and travels around the world making experts funny.

If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2015/16 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of public attitudes to chemistry offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Categories: Education

Chemistry in confinement

13 November, 2015 - 10:44

Guest post by Heather Cassell

In general, labs are large, light and airy places, filled with racks of consumables, glinting glassware that reflects and enhances the light, large bits of kit that you use in your day to day experiments, and – most of the time – other people. But occasionally (or quite frequently, depending on the nature of your project) your work requires you to visit a piece of rarefied, specialist equipment that lives in a room all of its own.

© OJO Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

There are many reasons why kit may be placed in solitary confinement. There are the large, sensitive and fabulously expensive devices that necessitate careful handling. There are those that require the use of light sensitive reagents, or are themselves light sensitive, and exist in state of permanent darkness. Others are separated from the main lab for researchers’ own health and safety.

As with any specialist equipment, the first step when is to get the proper training. If it’s not a device you’ve known since your first day in an undergraduate lab, it’s very bad form to just go in and start pressing buttons and hope for the best. Having the proper training will provide you with all the health and safety information you need, helping you to understand why this particular bit of kit was isolated in the first place. This is particularly important as you often work in these labs on your own, and will need to know what to do if something goes wrong.

Specialised and rare as they are, these bits of kit are often in high demand. A particularly popular device may be booked well in advance, forcing you to plan your experiment around its availability. There may be time restrictions on busy machines to allow everyone a fair turn during the day, and woe betide anyone who over runs over their allotted time or commits the cardinal sin of failing to use the booking sheet, for they will feel the passive-aggressive wrath  of the other users. Longer experiments may need to be run outside peak hours, such as very early in the morning or late at night. This can be very lonely and time can easily disappear; you realise you’ve been sat in this small dark room for hours without moving with only the screen/display/machine for light, repeating the same song in your head until time has little meaning.

After you have run your experiment, you emerge, blinking, from the darkened room with either a fistful of results to analyse, or a huge sense of disappointment. Science may be built on failed experiments and inexplicable results, but those hours can still feel wasted, and it takes human company and a cup of tea – or if it’s late a good night’s sleep – to put everything into perspective. Then you regroup, book yourself into the next available slot and you are ready for the next challenge of working in the lab.

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Categories: Education

Happy Halloween! Time to carve the cucurbiturils…

30 October, 2015 - 16:00

Guest post from Tom Branson

It’s that time of year again, when all things creepy come out to play. Witches, monsters and of course the grinning pumpkins will be out and about. The humble pumpkin has found itself increasingly popular with artists wishing to outdo each other with their carving skills, but pumpkins have also found a home amongst equally competitive chemists shaping their constructions.

If you’re beginning to think I’ve been hit with a confusion spell then never fear, I’m simply referring to the modest cucurbituril. This molecule gets its name from the term for the pumpkin family. There’s apparently a resemblance between the ribs of the pumpkin and the bonds of the macromolecule. But this similarity is nowhere better shown than in the Halloween themed cover of the latest edition of Chemical Science.

This cover brings us into the darkness of a pumpkin-scientist’s den, light spilling through carved features illuminating the creations within. Looming large on the desk is a ghastly pumpkin, smiling whilst xenon bats flitter in and out of its gaping mouth. The desk is also littered with smaller cucurbiturils and a structure half way through its transmogrification into a fully-fledged pumpkin-xenon-bat-exchanger-thing. On the left side stands an old cage and a bat confined within. A dusty spider’s web blocks the exit, which is also being guarded nearby by acryptophaneunwilling to release its hostage.

The scientist’s intriguing plans lie open on the desk stating the diabolical aims of the pumpkin experiments using NMR and saturation transfer spectroscopy. I’m sure we could dive deeper into these intentions if we can get our hands on that USB stick with its 16 cucurBIT memory. For me, it’s these finishing touches that really make the difference, the attention to detail adding to the tongue-in-cheek appeal of this cover. The combination of molecular structures, scientific data and metaphorical bats combine brilliantly to bring this image to life.

Leif Schröder provides the brains behind this creation, with the study being performed in his lab at the Leibniz-Institut fur Molekulare Pharmakologie in Berlin. Schröder told me that after realising that their article would be published around Halloween he couldn’t resist the pumpkin connection. He collaborated with Barth van Rossum, also from the same institute, and it was his visualisation skills that brought the cover to life. The pair has previously combined this year to produce a wealth of other captivating cryptophane covers.

These ‘pumpkin’ molecules are very promising for use in signal amplification of xenon MRI. Xe cucurbituril complexes are poorly soluble in water and so in order to investigate this system Schroder developed the Hyper-CEST technique, combining hyperpolarised Xe with chemical exchange saturation transfer. Cucurbituril offered a 100-fold improvement in sensitivity when compared with the previous favourite, cryptophane.

I can add this timely Halloween cover to the same category as the champagne and fireworks we saw for Angewandte Chemie’s 125th birthday, but I am yet to confirm a scientific sighting of the Easter bunny. So that leaves me with thoughts of what could be next for the chemical holiday celebrations. Will we see an α‑cyclodextrin become a snowflake this winter? Or after the recent buckyball patisseries can we expect a C60 snowman? If any of you out there have spotted other seasonal cover images then please share them here in the comments.

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Categories: Education

Super luck

22 October, 2015 - 16:30

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Some people are said to be luckier than others, but can the same lucky chance happen twice, to the same person? Harry Coover was a serial inventor, patenting more than 460 inventions in his 94-year life, but his most famous product was discovered by accident.

— Superglue in use (©iStock)

In 1951, whilst trying to come up with a heat resistant polymer to make jet canopies from, Harry Coover and Fred Joyner accidentally created a substance that glued two refractometer prisms together with an obstinacy not to be resisted. Joyner began to panic – the prisms were very expensive – but Coover did not: he had seen this reaction before. He had made it.

During the second world war , Coover had been a practising scientist developing clear plastic gun sights. One group of materials he tested were the cyanoacrylates, because they were transparent, but they had proved far too sticky. At the time, Coover had abandoned the persistently sticky cyanoacrylates, but as he said himself, ‘serendipity [gave him] a second chance.’ Knowing chance was unlikely to strike a third time, Coover immediately began investigating the cyanoacrylates – by rushing round the laboratory sticking together everything he could find. Although he probably destroyed a lot of laboratory equipment, he did learn some interesting things about the properties of this ‘super’ glue.

The exothermic process which creates the powerful chemical bonds between materials was a polymerisation reaction, initiated by moisture and, in particular, hydroxide ions. The resultant polymer bonds firmly to the surfaces and to itself, forming a hard, transparent plastic. Cyanoacrylates are so sensitive to moisture that the moisture in the air is enough to make it set hard, and this is why tubes of glue slowly harden, becoming unusable approximately one month after being opened. Under airtight conditions, however, such as an unopened tube or tube left over silica drying beads, superglue stays sticky for a whole year.

Not everything has moisture in it, so not everything bonds to superglue, but most materials do – and when they do the strengths of the chemical bonds are incredible: one radio station who decided to put the product to the test were able to lift a car by using a small area of superglue to attach it to a crane. But tough as it is, it’s not chemically impervious – if you do need to unstick superglue, use acetone (nail varnish remover); acetone depolymerises the superglue, weakening the bond.

Harry Coover also discovered that cyanoacrylate was non-toxic and apparently harmless to humans. This led to another profound discovery: since we naturally have moisture in our bodies, the glue efficiently binds human tissues together. Only a few years after it was patented, superglue was used as an emergency medical spray in the Vietnam War to hold together wounds before soldiers could reach a hospital to receive stitches. It was brought onto the market in 1958.

Only the smallest amount needs to be used, which is in itself lucky, since the exothermic reaction can even cause small burns or ignite cotton wool if used in excess. Medical applications of superglue persist, and new uses have been discovered, such as forensic definition of fingerprints, where fumes of superglue react with the moisture left by fingerprints to produce visible, white prints on surfaces.

It’s hard to say whether Harry Coover’s inventive methods would have inevitably led him back round to cyanoacrylates, or whether luck really did strike the same man twice. A sticky problem.

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2015 chemistry Nobel

2 October, 2015 - 14:50

Next week Göran Hansson, Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, will sit in the academy’s session hall, festooned with lavish paintings of former members such as Carl Linnaeus and Anders Celsius, to announce the 2015 chemistry Nobel prize.

No one knows what the Nobel committee have been discussing in the lead up to this year’s announcement, but we can offer you a peek behind the curtain to see how they think in our exclusive interview series with Bengt Norden, a former chair of the Nobel chemistry committee.

Speculation on the Nobel prize is hotting up…

In the meantime, the predictions for this year’s prize have already begun in earnest. Thomson Reuters have again cast their analytical eye over research citations in the past year to produce their three best educated guesses.

In what is sure to be one of the more popular choices, they’ve recognised John Goodenough and Stanley Whittingham for their development of the lithium–ion battery. It’s a sentiment shared by many on twitter and ChemBark blogger Paul Bracher, who made a convincing case on last night’s ACS #chemnobel predictions webinar that recognition for Goodenough is long overdue. If you want to find out more about Goodenough’s illustrious research career, have a read of our profile on the battery pioneer.

Thomson Reuters also declared Carolyn Bertozzi as a 2015 citation laureate for her contributions to bioorthogonal chemistry.  But the one that will likely cause some febrile discussion is Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for their controversial gene editing technique, CRISPR–Cas9.

Some online commentators agree that Charpentier and Doudna should be awarded a Nobel, with Sam Lord, the Everyday Scientist, pitching his flag somewhat tentatively in the CRISPR camp. If the comments section is anything to go by, however, he may already be regretting his proclamation and acknowledges that their work may be supplanted by other techniques in as little as six months.

Others have taken a more playful approach in their prophesying, with several researchers at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, delivering a defence of their picks to an audience of high school students. The pupils eventually voted for Peter Schultz and his work on the genetic code.

If you want to peer into the Nobel crystal ball and perhaps chip in with your own thoughts, check out #chemnobel on twitter. Or, if you want to back up your pick with some historical context, why not play with C&EN’s infographic that explores which research areas have dominated over the prizes’ history?

In any case, we’ll be keeping you up to date with a live blog next Wednesday when the winners will be announced, so keep a look out on the Chemistry World website.


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Categories: Education

ISACS17 poster prize winner: Tom Jellicoe

24 September, 2015 - 14:26

Chemistry World was thrilled to sponsor a poster prize at ISACS17 (Challenges in Chemical Renewable Energy), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, earlier this month. PhD student Tom Jellicoe from the University of Cambridge, UK, was the winner with his poster titled: Solar photon multiplication through singlet fission down-conversion.

— Tom Jellicoe

Tom explains his work:

‘My research looks at charge carrier multiplication in nanocrystal-based photovoltaics – the idea that from one incoming photon you can extract more than one charge carrier pair, generating additional current from high energy light in the solar spectrum that would usually be lost as heat. This is important because conventional solar cells are approaching a fundamental efficiency limit of around 33% known as the Shockley-Queisser limit. One of the largest sources of loss is due to thermalisation of charge-carriers – when a solar cell operates all charge carriers are extracted at the same energy so you extract the same amount of energy from high energy light as low energy light and the excess is lost as heat. The aim of our research is to use the excess energy to generate additional current via a process called singlet fission. We aim to make it generally applicable to state-of-the-art silicon photovoltaics by optically coupling the singlet fission process to the solar cell through luminescent quantum dots. My role is to synthesise the quantum dots which convert the excitations generated from singlet fission into a useable form for the solar cell.

As Daniel Nocera said during the panel discussion at ISACS17, energy researchers need to know what price they are up against and create chemistry cheap enough to compete. For a number of years a lot of photovoltaic research has looked at novel semiconductors such as organics or quantum dots but with the price of silicon photovoltaics dropping and the efficiency increasing it is unlikely that the emerging technologies can complete. Our attitude is “if you can’t beat them join them” and that’s why we hope to apply our down-conversion process to existing technologies and from our calculations it could improve their power output by up to 20%.’

Congratulations to Tom on his great poster.


Submit a poster abstract for ISACS19 (Challenges in organic chemistry), to be held in Irvine, US, in March 2016, here:

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Categories: Education

Quotable Chemistry – the winners!

18 September, 2015 - 13:22

Academic chemists are forever quoting one another. Whether word-for-word or paraphrased, journal papers are rich in (properly referenced) quotes from other people’s work, so much so that to be oft quoted (and therefore frequently referenced) is one measure by which we determine a scientist’s value. But not all good chemistry quotes come from ‘the literature’ – quotable chemistry can be found in the well-thumbed pages of textbooks, from behind the lectern at public lectures, in biographies of famous figures and of course, from the vast world of fiction.

Here at Chemistry World we love a good, pithy quote. We sprinkle them into our news, embolden and enlarge them in our features, and use sound bites from our podcast interviews to tempt you to tune in.

What about your favourite chemistry quotations?  We teamed up with the volunteers at the Wikiquote project to help get them the exposure they deserve. To this end we invited our readers to send in their best examples of quotable chemistry, and we are delighted to  announce our favourites from the hundreds that we received.


Suggested by: Tyler Meldrum, Williamsburg, Virginia

Tyler wins the top prize of £50 Amazon vouchers for suggesting this quote from the first in the series of Flavia de Luce mystery novels by Alan Bradley. I’m sure the metaphor will not be lost on many chemists, whose work Bradley likens to the hard graft of tending vines. Experimental chemistry takes planning, patience and a willingness to nurture experiments, putting in the hours with the ever present risk of the crop failing and coming to nothing.

Tyler adds ‘if you haven’t read these books, you should. Flavia is an 11-year-old chemist (speciality: poisons) who helps solve mysteries. She brings charm and sass to chemistry.’


2nd place:

Suggested by: Andres Tretiakov, London

Andres wins the second prize of £25 Amazon vouchers for this quote, another harvested from the world of fiction. Written in 1880, this quote stems from a passage on ‘losing God’ to the new understanding of science, an examination of the tensions between science and church in the late nineteenth century.


Runners up, each receiving a Chemistry World mug:

Suggested by: Jessica Gilgor, Reno, Nevada

Many of the quotes we received were from biographies of famous chemists. This one is from the life story of Ira Remsen, who sweetened our lives as the co-discoverer of saccharin. It’s a call to arms that Jessica Gilgor clearly took seriously:

Jessica said ‘I’m glad you liked the quote as much as I did…..I actually have it tattooed on my arm. … I got it in December 2012 to celebrate my graduation from the University of Nevada Reno with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Chemistry.’

Suggested by: Nessa Carson, Illinois

Harry Kroto, who shared the chemistry Nobel prize in 1996 with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley for their discovery of buckminsterfullerene, is known to be outspoken. But this quote wasn’t him grandstanding or flexing his ego. It was part of a speech he gave in Thailand to accept an honorary Doctoral degree from Naresuan University – his way to encourage future chemists. ‘Whenever you have a project, you start the project’ Harry said ‘and say: “I am going to do something fantastic that no one else could have imagined”.’ It clearly worked for Nessa, who described it as ‘a great inspirational quote that really sums up what research is about for me.’

Suggested by: Valerio Fasano, Manchester

Primo Levi was the source of one of the quotes in our original post to announce the Quotable Chemistry competition, and he’s such an elegant writer that we were not surprised to receive several entries quoting him. This, from Valerio Fasano, was our favourite.

We’ve passed all of the eligible quotes along to the Wikiquote project to consider for inclusion. Congratulations to all our winners and many thanks to everyone who entered for helping us to bring a wider audience to memorable, inspirational, quotable chemistry.

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Categories: Education

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