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This week, The Alchemist learns how bionic implants might be powered up by a breath of fresh air while the elusive water dimer is spotted using rotational spectroscopy. In environmental research, a carbon capture material acts like an organometallic sponge and the whole of human metabolism has been mapped. New materials could put an end to fogged windshields and bathroom mirrors. Finally, this week's award goes to lipid science.




Researchers at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw have combined an enzyme, carbon nanotubes and silicate to make a composite cathode material. The cathode sits in a biofuel cell or zinc-oxygen biobattery and uses nothing more than air as its oxygen source. At present, many laboratories work on glucose-oxygen biofuel cells that generate a voltage of 0.6-0.7 V whereas a zinc-oxygen biobattery with the cathode can produce 1.75 V for many hours. Such a system could one day be used to power cardiac pacemakers or hearing aids or even active contact lenses and other medical aids.





Chemists working with water have endlessly sought to reveal its inner secrets, homing in on fluxional clusters and the hydrogen bond. Now, Mikhail Tretyakov of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Nizhny Novgorod and colleagues have found the elusive water dimer the vapor phase. Such dimers are thought to account for a mere one percent of water vapor and their vibrational spectra overlap with that of the monomer making detection and analysis difficult. Tretyakov thus turned to rotational spectroscopy on a machine an order of magnitude more sensitive than others and a decade in development. Their spectra reveal a distinct pattern of four peaks in the millimeter-wave region as predicted due to the presence of the water dimer. The findings have implications for improving our understanding of this most enigmatic and yet ubiquitous of compounds. It could also assist in the fine tuning of climate models given the important role of water vapor in the atmosphere.





Researchers at the University of South Florida and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) have developed a metal-organic framework (MOF) compound that is very efficient, inexpensive and reusable for the sequestration of carbon dioxide. The team has worked on the previously known but under-used material SIFSIX-1-Cu and demonstrated that it can capture carbon dioxide even in the presence of water vapor. Team leader Michael Zaworotko is reluctant to hype the discovery too much but nevertheless says that while he hates to use the word unprecedented, the team has sort of hit a sweet spot in terms of properties.





A kind of Google Map of human metabolic processes has been drawn up by international researchers. The work builds on a pioneering study at the University of California, San Diego, and gives us a comprehensive virtual reconstruction of human metabolism. The model, Recon 2, could be used to track the detailed causes of diseases like cancer, diabetes and even psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders and so open up new routes to therapeutic discovery and pharmaceutical targets. UCSD's Bernhard Palsson likens the metabolic map to Google Street View allowing researchers to zoom in on metabolic avenues that lead to cancerous tumor growth for instance or obtaining finely detailed images of individual metabolic reactions.





Imagine that your car's windshield never fogged up and never got frozen over with frost. Robert Cohen of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and colleagues explain that anti-fogging coatings that absorb water have been the focus of attention lately because of their ability to reduce light scattering and the resultant distortion caused by condensation. They have now developed a new coating that rapidly absorbs water molecules that cannot freeze in the coating but at the same time is hydrophobic and so repels larger droplets. The material consists of a functionalized material prepared using hydrogen-bonding-assisted layer-by-layer (LbL) assembly of poly(vinyl alcohol) (PVA) and poly(acrylic acid) (PAA). The functionalization is through incorporation of poly(ethylene glycol methyl ether) (PEG) segments, which enhances the anti-fogging and anti-frost properties.





Félix Goñi of the University of the Basque Country will receive this year's European Avanti award. This award is the most important in the world for research on lipids. Until now the American Society of Biophysics has issued this award, but this year for the first time, the European Biophysical Societies Association (EBSA) has also granted it. This new award aims to recognize the most important European scientific contributions in the understanding of Biophysics of lipids, including metabolism, enzymology, structure and membranes.