ChemWeb Newsletter

Not a subscriber? Join now.April 8, 2005


This week's Alchemist picks up on several stories from the 229th national meeting of the American Chemical Society as well as some fascinating research elsewhere. First, we report on how thicker nanotubes could cut costs and how a benchtop simulation could prove useful in recovering natural gas from the ocean floor. Next up is the fast food additive that could prevent type II diabetes, and the domestic plastics factory. Finally, an artistic sawhorse is broken at last.

The primary ingredient in solid rocket fuel is of growing concern to environmentalists and the latest findings from the UK suggest that this material causes retarded development in at least one species of fish. Helen Crane of the University of Exeter and AstraZeneca's Brixham Environmental Laboratory and her colleagues found that fathead minnows exposed to environmentally relevant levels of ammonium perchlorate in the earliest stages of life showed retarded development compared with control fish. The study, published in the April issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, points to a need for further urgent research into the effects of this compound on marine and other life.

Researchers at the University of Oregon have been granted a patent for greener nanoparticles that could lead to a new class of electronics and optics devices assembled from ultrasmall transistors operating efficiently at room temperature. The patent awarded to chemist Jim Hutchison who carried out the underpinning work with research students Gerd Woehrle and Marvin Warner covers the assembly of devices using DNA as a template. In Hutchison's lab, DNA serves as an architectural scaffold for gold nanoparticles allowing his team to construct nanotransistors more efficiently than is otherwise possible.

Hydroxypropylmethylcellulose (HPMC, a form of soluble cellulose already used as a texturizing food additive) could make fat-rich junk food more palatable for the health conscious. According to Wallace Yokoyama of the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, in Albany, California, the compound slows down fat absorption and if it proves effective in humans, could reduce the risk of developing insulin resistance or type II diabetes. Yokoyama warns that while the compound's benefit is in slowing fat absorption and reducing the "insulin spike" triggered by fatty foods. It will not prevent those dining on excess amounts of such foods from gaining weight.

That ubiquitous pharmaceutical, aspirin, delivers yet again in modern pharmacology. According to John Marler of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), aspirin works just as well as warfarin in reducing blood clotting. Aspirin and warfarin have been used to reduce the risk of stroke, partial blockage of arteries in the brain (intracranial stenosis) for several years. The latest double-blind, randomized clinical trial shows for the first time that aspirin is equally as effective as warfarin and has fewer side effects. Marler explains this is good news for patients because a simple low-cost drug that works just as well one that is more expensive and more complicated to administer and monitor means less medical intervention and lower healthcare costs.

Physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, USA, and Chonnam National University, Korea, have discovered a link between two different types of superconducting behavior. Their findings show that plutonium-cobalt-pentagallium (a plutonium-based superconductor discovered in 2002) has characteristics of both heavy-fermion systems, which lose their electrical resistance at below 1 K and so-called high-temperature copper oxides, which are superconducting at 100 K or higher. The discovery could bridge the knowledge gap between the low and high temperature superconductors and lead to new superconducting materials that have zero resistance at room temperature.

When it comes to the possibility of life on Mars feelings run sky high, as the correspondence following our news item of Feb. 22nd testifies. Apparently, NASA's official stance on the evidence of life obtained so far do not point to its existence. Our resident Mars expert, Dr. Dan McCleese, Chief Scientist of the Mars Program at JPL, sends us this: However, European researchers are confident that life will be discovered there, however primitive, while recent results from experiments in the Atacama desert also point to the possibility albeit from a terrestrial perspective. Now, the strongest evidence yet that life could exist on Mars, a sea of ice near the planet's equator, has been observed by the European Mars Express spacecraft. The sea appears to have bubbled up from an aquatic layer beneath the surface. Researchers believe this sea may provide the right conditions for Martian microbes.