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Archive → June, 2009

Algae-To-Fuel: The Tough Part

The New York Times (and its Green Inc. blog) are covering Dow Chemical and startup company Algenol Biofuels‘ newly announced plan to build a pilot plant for converting carbon dioxide into ethanol. (You’ll hear more about this story in C&EN soon).

As you might be able to guess from Algenol’s name, the idea is to use specially-engineered algae to make the ethanol, which would be used as fuel or as a feedstock for plastics.

Both of the stories are business stories, so I don’t expect them to have a great deal of information about the science behind this announcement. But it’s important to emphasize a potential stumbling block for this technology-getting the ethanol the algae makes into a usable form.
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Things I Didn't Expect To Find In The Arctic

I’m still up at Toolik Field Station, NSF’s long-term research site in northern Alaska, and wanted to make a few comments about life at the station. Here are just a few things I didn’t expect I’d see this far north in the world:

1. A musical interlude.

There was a serious jam session/sing-a-long last night in the overflow dining tent. I hear it’s a standing gig, and if you don’t know how to play an instrument, you’re encouraged to pick one up and learn. There were some usual suspects—guitar, banjo, harmonica, violin—and some less expected additions—a full drum kit, mandolin, and a saw. Earlier in the day, I had noticed some mysterious markings on the floor of the tent. Turns out, they are song chords. Crowd favorites? Dylan (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”), Talking Heads (“Psycho Killer”), and Beatles (“Hide Your Love Away”).

2. Mosquitos.

Before I left for Alaska, I told friends I needed to track down Deet and a mosquito net. Many were perplexed: there are mosquitos in the arctic? Sure are. Each person has their own personal swarm. It reminds me of the dirt cloud perpetually surrounding Pigpen. Breck Bowden, a scientist who has been coming up here for two decades, commented at breakfast yesterday that the mosquitos this summer are the worst he’s seen since 1997. Constant itching isn’t the only problem; the pests can get into instrumentation in the field and seriously throw off measurements. We witnessed their meddling ways when we went out to measure carbon exchange in a particularly mosquito-rich area of heath. For a small taste of what it’s like, another reporter on the trip posted video of what happens when you put nine journalists in a bug-filled van.

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June In Paris

Lovely Paris is where the journal Tetrahedron Letters

is currently celebrating its 50th birthday, by means of a conference near the city’s famous catacombs. About 1000 chemists are in town, attracted by a seriously solid line-up of speakers, and, well, Paris in June.

Anyway, a back-in-the-day anecdote by E. J. Corey made it perfectly clear why he had the conference’s first speaker slot. In late 1958, much before his Nobel Prize, he was still a young prof at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Corey says he noticed an announcement that a journal called Tetrahedron Letters

would be started. With a theoretical paper in hand that needed a home, Corey figured he’d try out the new journal. Lo and behold, his paper was accepted. A surprise came in 1959 when he got a complimentary copy of the inaugural edition of the new journal. Corey told the audience that when he flipped it open, he found his paper not only in the first issue, but on the first page. I just took a quick peek online and found the title: “A theory for the stereospecific polymerization of propylene oxide by ferric chloride,” should anyone be curious.

Not to miss out on the nostalgia, Nobel Prize winner Jean-Marie Lehn also mentioned his link to the journal. Lehn says that two papers published in Tetrahedron Letters in 1969 were some of the first in the area of supramolecular chemistry. But he warned the audience that we might want to brush up on our French, because that’s the language he published them in.

Innovation: We Know It When We See It

Quick – think of an innovative product.

Good. Now think of an innovative service.

What popped into your head? I thought of the iPod and Netflix.

On Tuesday I sat in on a summit called The State of Innovation: Moving Beyond Boardroom and Lab, hosted by Seed Magazine and the Council on Competitiveness. The participants included Chad Holliday, former CEO of DuPont, biologist and writer E.O. Wilson, and digerati leader and investor Esther Dyson, among many other luminaries.

Wilson delighted the summit attendees with his insight on why being innovative is so darned hard. “We have Star Wars vision, Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and God-like technologies,” he said.

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Extreme Chemistry: Arctic Edition

Greetings from (nearly) the top of the world! I’m sitting in a tent full of science journalists at the Toolik Field Station, NSF’s long-term ecological research in northern Alaska. In the summer months, there are upwards of 120 scientists and support staff on site doing a range of research related to climate change.

The writers are here as guests of the Marine Biological Laboratory, which sponsors an annual science journalism program. The idea of the program is give journalists a glimpse of the research going on here not just by talking to folks in the field, but by also getting our hands dirty. Actually, hands, clothes, gear—it’s all dirty. We’ve been tromping through the tundra, wading into streams, sliding on aufeis, all in the name of science.

Yesterday, we hiked through the tundra to see a thermokarst, a gulley formed when an ice wedge melts beneath the thick layer of permafrost, causing the soil to erode. We took samples of the water and soil, then came back to the chemistry lab (tight quarters in a trailer), and analyzed them for nutrient content. The fear is that there’s so much organic matter trapped in the permafrost that this kind of rapid melting will only accelerate climate change. In the next week or so, we’ll be heading out to several locations in and around camp to get a flavor of the wide range of research happening here.

It all may sound rather straightforward, but consider this: in a given day, the temperature can fluctuate from below freezing to above 70ºF. Getting to the sampling site may require a several-mile hike carrying a ton of equipment, possibly even a drop-off by a helicopter. Once arrived at the sampling site, it could mean wading waist-deep into the water while combating a swarm of mosquitos. And did I mention that showers are only allowed twice a week here?

So I throw it out to you, readers. Is there any pressing area of climate change research you’d like to learn about? Any questions about the camp (or life at the camp) itself? I’m here for another week and a half, so fire away.

New Element, Old News?

It’s perhaps telling of how some of the media sees chemistry- several outlets were abuzz at the news that IUPAC has recognized a new chemical element. As for the chemistry-specific blogosphere and news outlets? By comparison, tumbleweeds. Not even Mitch weighed in.

Now, it’s not like we missed out on the story. When there was actual chemistry news to report, actual scientific advances, plenty of chemistry communicators were out there, covering the discovery of 112 back in 1996, and the finding that it behaves like mercury.

The recent coverage appears to have stemmed from a press release from the GSI Center for Heavy Ion Research, in Darmstadt, Germany (where 112 was discovered) announcing IUPAC’s recognition of 112, which took more than a decade since the element’s discovery.

I’m glad that 112 is finally official, but this is a bureaucratic advance, not a scientific one. I guess it’s a fun news story, in that it gets people talking about what the element’s name will be. Maybe I shouldn’t complain- at least this story gets chemistry into the news. I suppose it just underscores the different purposes different publications and online sources have as outlets for information/analysis.

What is pretty interesting, as The Great Beyond noted, is that with 112, discoverer Sigurd Hofmann and his colleagues at GSI will get to name a sixth element. According to this Wikipedia site, it seems like only Berkeley’s team of scientists (which included eminent nuclear chemists Glenn Seaborg and Albert Ghiorso, among others) has had the opportunity to name more. I wonder whether naming fatigue sets in at some point.

Image: Lead foil-equipped target wheel. Scientists “fired” Zn ions at this target to produce element 112. Credit: A. Zschau, GSI

Summer Camp Awesomeness

From 30Threads, via Terra Sig: What happens when you drop 50 pounds of Silly Putty from a 10-story building?

Do you–or your kids–have any good memories of summer camp science adventures? Please share them in the comments. I’ve got my eye on a science camp for my daughter next summer, so perhaps I’ll be back next year to share her stories.

Titan On The Rocks, With A Twist Of Hydrocarbons

My first glimpse of the surface of Saturn’s giant moon, Titan, sent from the Cassini mission’s Huygens lander in 2004, blew my mind– not because it looked so exotic, but because it looked so much like Earth. There they were: channels and debris flows, on a moon nearly a billion miles away.

This Earthly verisimilitude has an incredibly cool twist, of course. Titan’s climate generally hovers around 93 Kelvin, so frozen water ice assumes the roles of silica-based rocks, pebbles, and boulders on Earth, while liquid methane and ethane act like water.

And that raises an interesting question. When rocks and stream beds are made up of water ice, how quickly do they erode? On Earth, or even Mars, the rate of erosion—the impacts as particles whack against a larger surface–is a function of rock tensile strength and elasticity. But ice is not your ordinary solid.
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