ChemWeb Newsletter

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In awards this week, The Alchemist learns of $1 million boost for biofuels research that could circumvent some of the environmental concerns associated with renewable energy sources. In the world of pharma we discover that there might be yet another string to the bow of aspirin-like drugs, this time in the fight against breast cancer. There's good chemical news for those hoping to save Gulf Coast Wetlands from the rampages of the coypu with the discovery of a chemical lure, The Alchemist also hears of a novel system of surfactants and gelators that can form separate compartmentalized structures resembling the organelles in a living cell. You might care to have a drink with The Alchemist this week in celebration of a clearer understanding of why some drinks, such as ouzo, form cloudy emulsions with water. Finally, a little kitchen chemistry could give your French fries a little je ne c'est quoi.

Environmental controversy surrounds the use of biofuels as a means to mitigate climate change and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Now, $1million is to be pumped into a research project at the University of Colorado at Boulder to develop solar-thermal biomass-to-gas conversion technology. Alan Weimer's team in the chemical and biological engineering department will benefit from the three-year grant and hope, in that time, to find a way to use concentrated sunlight to heat biomass like grass, sorghum, corn stalks and leaves, wood waste, and algae to more than 1000 Celsius for fractions of a second. This will generate "syngas" - a mixture of carbon oxides and hydrogen - that can be readily turned into hydrogen or liquid fuels.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like aspirin, may also have a role to play in reducing breast cancer, according to researchers at Guy's Hospital in London published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice. Ian Fentiman and colleagues reviewed the literature of the last 27 years and found a correlation with reduced breast cancer risk in NSAID users as well as benefits for women with established breast cancer. The researchers stress, however, that further research is needed to determine the best type, dose and duration and whether the benefits of regular NSAID use outweigh the side effects.

A natural chemical that could be used to trap 5 kg rodents has been identified by researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology. Nutria, or coypu, are very large rat-like animals that are ravaging wetlands on the US Gulf Coast. Now, SIT's Athula Attygalle and colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa have identified compounds in the anal scent glands of the species as (E,E)-farnesol and its esters using gas chromatographic retention times, and electron-ionization (EI) and chemical-ionization (CI) mass spectra. The compounds could be incorporated into a lure so that the fast-breeding rodents might be trapped quickly.

Chemists in The Netherlands have developed a system of versatile, compartmentalized nanostructures that can emulate the organelles found in living cells. Such functional, nanostructured systems would also be useful for technical applications, such as biosensors, self-repairing materials, optoelectronic components, or nanocapsules. Jan van Esch at the Universities of Delft and Groningen and his team are using surfactants and gelators to form aggregate systems that can coexist without interfering with each other - like cellular organelles - they thus make versatile, highly complex structures with separate compartments.

Anyone who enjoys Ouzo or Pernod and certain other drinks like Sambuca will be familiar with the effect of adding water to these alcoholic beverages. Chemists too are familiar with this kind of cloudy emulsion formation and hope to put the effect to good use in the areas of cosmetics and drug delivery, according to Erik van der Linden and colleagues at Wageningen University in The Netherlands. Now, they have measured the stability of various emulsions prepared from commercial Pernod and compared the results to theoretical predictions of their formation. The theory seems to be at odds with the experimental results, suggesting that the predicted behavior is not quite as clear as chemists had thought. "More knowledge of the parameters that determine the stability of these emulsions, besides interfacial tension, solubility, and density difference, might lead to better control of the emulsification process," the researchers say.

Soaking chipped potatoes in water before frying can reduce the formation of carcinogenic acrylamide according to a study published in the journal Science of Food and Agriculture. The discovery in 2002 that toxic acrylamide is formed naturally when certain carbohydrate based foods are cooked, and in particularly fried, led to a media feeding frenzy over toxic chemicals in our food. However, acrylamide, while toxic and putatively carcinogenic, forms naturally during the cooking process as a result of the reaction, at temperatures above 120 Celsius, of sugars and amino acids in starchy foods. It is quite ironic that the current generation of domestic cooks seems to have forgotten this traditional pre-preparation step of dunking chipped potatoes before frying.