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This week The Alchemist goes green offering a survey of environmental news related to the chemical sciences. First up is the development of porous materials that can extract hydrogen from mixtures of gases. Next, solar energy could be used to convert the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide back into useful hydrocarbon fuel methane, while chicken manure offers a fowl approach to bioremediating oil-contaminated soil. On the global scale, NASA hopes to work with Cisco Systems to create a Planetary Skin to monitor worldwide carbon build up, and chemistry and computing have been combined to explain why Antarctica cooled from its former sub-tropical conditions of 35 million years ago to the icecap we see today. Finally, the 2009 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement is awarded to two scientists for their work on understanding the human impact on climate change.




US chemists have developed a novel class of porous materials that can effectively separate hydrogen from a complex mixture of gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. This property could make them useful as extraction materials for sourcing the feedstock for fuel cells on which the "hydrogen economy" will be based. Northwestern University chemist Mercouri Kanatzidis, working with postdoctoral research associate Gerasimos Armatas, now at the University of Crete, Greece, developed the materials using germanium, lead and tellurium, and explain that they function well without heating or cooling.





Solar energy can be used to convert the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and water vapor into useful methane fuel for heating and electricity generation, according research published this month in Nano Letters. Craig Grimes and colleagues, Oomman Varghese, and Maggie Paulose, Thomas LaTempa, at Pennsylvania State University have built a material based on a 3D array of nitrogen-doped titania nanotubes coated with an ultrathin layer of a platinum or copper co-catalyst. The co-catalyst shifts the materials' absorption out of the UV and into the visible so that it can exploit direct sunlight. The highly efficient photocatalyst operates at room temperature.





Chicken manure could be used in bioremediation of soil contaminated with crude oil, according to a report in the International Journal of Environment and Pollution. Bello Yakubu, Huiwen Ma, and ChuYu Zhang of Wuhan University, China, point out that contamination of soil by crude oil occurs around the world because of equipment failure, natural disasters, deliberate acts, and human error. They have now shown that microbial growth promoted by the application of chicken manure to contaminated soil accelerates the rate of growth of microbes that metabolize the components of crude oil. "This could be one of several environmentally friendly ways of abating petroleum hydrocarbon pollution in the natural ecosystem," Ma and colleagues say.





In February, NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite failed to reach orbit and left behind nothing but enormous carbon footprints and a big splash in the Pacific Ocean. However, the Agency is now teaming up with tech company Cisco Systems to develop "Planetary Skin", which will allow scientists to monitor the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere in near real-time. According to The Register, "global climate science could get a kick in the pants with NASA's new pact with Cisco Systems". Planetary Skin will draw on data from a network of satellite-, airborne-, sea-, and land-based sensors to update Earth's environmental status as the world turns.





35 million years ago, Antarctica was suddenly (in geological terms) covered in ice and a region that had been a balmy 25 Celsius or thereabouts for 100 million years succumbed to the big chill that modern human activity only now seems to be reversing. Scientists suspected that a sharp drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels must have been to blame but evidence was scant. Now, a combination of computer modeling and analysis of deep-core samples from Antarctica as well as chemical and isotopic proxies are allowing scientists, such as Mark Pagani, Zhonghui Liu, and David Zinniker at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, Matthew Huber of Purdue University, Indiana, and their colleagues to produce evidence of this climatic chemical shift that could have implications for our predictions of future global warming, or cooling.





Richard B. Alley of Pennsylvania State University and Veerabhadran "Ram" Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego will share the 2009 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement "for their scientific contributions that advanced understanding of how human activities influence global climate, and alter oceanic, glacial and atmospheric phenomena in ways that adversely affect planet Earth." The award consists of a cash award of $200,000, to be split between the recipients, and the gold Tyler Prize medallion. It was established in 1973 by the late John and Alice Tyler as an international award honoring achievements in environmental science, policy, energy and health of worldwide importance conferring great benefit on humanity.