ACS News Service Weekly PressPac: Wed Nov 29 15:42:03 EST 2006

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News Items in this Edition

Unprecedented efficiency in producing hydrogen from water

Scientists are reporting a major advance in technology for water photooxidation —using sunlight to produce clean-burning hydrogen fuel from ordinary water. Michael Gratzel and colleagues in Switzerland note that nature found this Holy Grail of modern energy independence 3 billion years ago, with the evolution of blue-green algae that use photosynthesis to split water into its components, hydrogen and oxygen.

Gratzel is namesake for the Gratzel Cell, a more-efficient solar cell that his group developed years ago. Solar cells produce electricity directly from sunlight. Their new research, scheduled for publication in the Dec. 13 issue of the weekly Journal of the American Chemical Society, reports development of a device that sets a new benchmark for efficiency in splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using visible light, which is ordinary sunlight.

Previously, the best water photooxidation technology had an external quantum efficiency of about 37 percent. The new technology's efficiency is 42 percent, which the researchers term “unprecedented.” The efficiency is due to an improved positive electrode and other innovations in the water-splitting device, researchers said.

New biosensors from the blood of llamas

Journal Information

Journal: American Chemical Society

Journal Article: " New Benchmark for Water Photooxidation by Nanostructured Fe203 Films "

An unusual protein found in the blood of llamas has enabled scientists to develop a quick, simple method for making antibodies that could be used in a new generation of biosensors. The biosensors could detect deliberate environmental contamination with a wide range of disease-causing microbes and toxins, with new sensors produced quickly in response to newly emerging biothreats, researchers said.

The U. S. Naval Research Laboratory's Ellen R. Goldman and Andrew Hayhurst, of the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, describe their research in a report scheduled for the Dec. 1 issue of the ACS‘s Analytical Chemistry, a semi-monthly journal. Llamas, they point out, are among certain animals (camels and sharks being the others) that produce heavy chain antibodies, from which so-called single domain antibodies (sdAbs) can be isolated by genetic engineering. These antibodies are tougher and more durable than the antibodies now used in medical tests and biosensors. Single domain antibodies do not need refrigeration, for instance, and can withstand temperatures of almost 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

The researchers describe producing sdAbs to a smallpox virus surrogate, cholera toxin, and other biothreats by harvesting antibodies from a library of over a billion different sdAbs engineered in the laboratory, which bypasses the need for injecting llamas with those substances. “The delivery speed and the sdAb protein characteristics of small size, ruggedness, and ability to be engineered for optimal orientation and patterning means that sdAbs are likely to be high-performance yet low-maintenance substitutes for any antibody-based biosensor,” the report states.

More accurate estimates of community-wide illicit drug use

Journal Information

Journal: Analytical Chemistry

Journal Article: “Facile Generation of Heat-Stable Antiviral and Antitoxin Single Domain Antibodies From a Semisynthetic Llama Library”

Scientists in Italy are reporting development of a method for more accurate estimates of the amount of illicit drug use in a community. Sara Castiglioni and colleagues note that current estimates of community-wide illicit drug use are based on indirect methods—such as population surveys, crime statistics and interviews—that tend to be unreliable.

In a report scheduled for the Dec. 15 issue of ACS’s Analytical Chemistry, a semi-monthly journal, they describe the first application of an analytical technique that directly determines the amounts of a wide variety of illicit drugs in wastewater collected at sewage treatment plants. Termed high pressure liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry, the tool can detect amphetamines, cocaine, THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) and other drugs.

The test identifies drugs and drug byproducts that illicit drug users excrete in their urine. Those compounds pass through sewage treatment plants and may appear in rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water. In addition to making better estimates of population-wide drug use, the technique also could provide a way to monitor drug use and changing patterns of drug use in real time, the researchers state. They previously developed a similar test for cocaine, and used it to suggest that cocaine use was more prevalent than once believed.

Carbon nanomaterials may disperse more widely in waterways

Journal Information

Journal: Analytical Chemistry

Journal Article: "Identification and Measurement of Illicit Drugs and Their Metabolites in Urban Wastewater by Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry"

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) released to the environment in the coming era of industrial-scale production could spread through lakes, rivers and other waterways more widely than previously anticipated, scientists are reporting in a study scheduled for the January 1, 2007, issue of ACS’s Environmental Science & Technology.

The Georgia Institute of Technology’s Jaehong Kim and colleagues point out that industrial-scale production facilities for CNTs are now under construction in order to meet anticipated demand for these nanomaterials in a range of commercial applications. Gaps, however, still remain in understanding of the possible health and environmental effects of CNTs, they add.

CNTs are extremely hydrophobic—repelled by water—and clump together rather than dispersing widely in pure water. That led to reduced concerns about widespread dispersion of CNTs in the water environment. The new study, however, showed that CNTs interact with natural organic matter, which is present in lakes and rivers, in ways that lead to wider dispersion.

The researchers conclude: “These findings suggest that dispersal of carbon-based nanomaterials in the natural, aqueous environment might occur to an unexpected extent following a mechanism that has not been previously considered in environmental fate and transport studies.”

Toward tracing the source of anthrax in the 2001 terrorism attacks

Journal Information

Journal: Environmental Science & Technology

Journal Article: “Natural Organic Matter Stabilizes Carbon Nanotubes in the Aqueous Phase”

New technology for analyzing water may have narrowed the possible source of anthrax used in the 2001 terrorist attacks to a handful of institutions, according to an article scheduled for the Dec. 4 issue of Chemical & Engineering News, the ACS’s weekly newsmagazine.

In the article, C&EN Senior Correspondent Lois R. Ember describes how science is aiding an extraordinarily difficult FBI criminal probe of the first major act of bioterrorism on United States soil. It occurred a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, when anthrax-laced letters sent through the mail killed five people and raised the fear level nationwide. Despite 9,100 FBI interviews, 67 searches, and 6,000 grand jury subpoenas, the case remains unsolved.

Ember surveys new developments in the case, including an August scientific article with a paragraph that “set the scientific and arms control communities abuzz.” Another development involves the reported application of technology for tracing the source of water used to process the anthrax spores to the northeastern United States. If true, one source told C&EN, it would narrow the likely source of the anthrax to “two or three” institutions in the region that had access to the Ames strain of anthrax used in the attacks.

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National Historic Chemical Landmarks
America came of age as a nation in the late 1700s — the same time chemistry came of age as a science. Since then, chemists have played key roles in expanding the frontiers of knowledge, advancing medicine and industry, and creating products from aspirin to zippers. The ACS’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks program recognizes these outstanding accomplishments and tells the stories behind the research. The most recent landmark was designated on Oct. 25, when ACS designated Procter & Gamble’s development of Tide® — "the washing miracle" synthetic detergent — a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a special ceremony in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Landmarks web site has valuable resources for feature stories and background.

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Chemistry in Cancer Research: A Vital Partnership

Chemistry has an increasingly important role in research on cancer diagnosis, prevention and treatment. To spotlight that role, the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) will cosponsor a special conference entitled, “Chemistry in Cancer Research: A Vital Partnership,” Feb. 4-7 in San Diego, Calif. The program will feature presentations by prominent scientists on drug discovery, proteomics, the chemical biology of carcinogenesis, biomarkers and analytical chemistry, modeling and bioinformatics, and structural biology.

The American Chemical Society – the world’s largest scientific society – is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

Journal Information

Journal: Chemical & Engineering News

Journal Article: “Anthrax Sleuthing: Science aids a nettlesome FBI criminal probe”