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This week The Alchemist muses on making carbon dioxide useful, learns how not to waste ketchup but also hears of a pharmaceutical blind alley. There is an explanation of non-celiac wheat sensitivity this week and a record-breaker under pressure. Sadly, we report the death of Ahmed Zewail.

The greenhouse gas carbon dioxide generated by burning fossil fuels gets a bad rap because of its growing impact on our changing climate. However, it might be redeemed if there were an energy- and resource-efficient way to convert it back into something useful or use it to generate new energy. Now, researchers at Cornell University, New York, USA, have developed an electrochemical cell, which they say traps carbon dioxide from the air to generate electricity. At the same time, the cell produces a high-value C2 compound as a byproduct of the process. An aluminum anode and a mixed stream of oxygen and carbon dioxide are the essential features of the system.

It's a perennial culinary problem, how to extract that last dollop of ketchup from the almost-empty bottle. Now, researchers at Colorado State University have developed a superhydrophobic material that "slicks" away sticky fluids, such as ketchup, maple syrup and other viscous food substances. The material itself is non-toxic being composed of beeswax and carnauba wax and so might be used as a lining material for food bottles and jars to allow every last dollop or drop to be released. The material might not only reduce food waste but precludes the need to use synthetic compounds as packaging liners which often have marketing, environmental, and regulatory baggage.

Hopes of using chloroquine as a promising compound for reducing the immune system activation and inflammation caused by chronic HIV infection seem to have been dashed. Studies show it to be only moderately effective in patients on antiretroviral therapy and so of much less clinical potential than originally thought. Chloroquine is a Toll-like receptor inhibitor and has been tested in a clinical trial with two groups of HIV-infected patients on or off ART with either 250 milligrams of oral chloroquine or placebo for 12 weeks in a crossover study design. The negative result has a positive side in that now research efforts can be deployed to focus on developing alternative approaches.

Many people are sensitive to wheat and suffer serious health problems when they eat food made from this grain. However, hard-baked evidence to explain why people who do not have celiac disease suffer has now emerged. Researchers from Columbia University Medical Center writing in the journal "Gut" explain that wheat sensitivity is not an imaginary condition as has been suggested by some pundits recently. The work by Ivan Seidenberg and colleagues "demonstrates that there is a biological basis for these symptoms in a significant number of these patients.” Celiac disease causes extensive intestinal damage when a sufferer ingests wheat products. The new work suggests that non-celiac sufferers of wheat sensitivity have a weakened intestinal barrier, which leads to a problematic, body-wide inflammatory immune response.

Studies by scientists at the Carnegie Institution of Science into how the various phases of hydrocarbons behave under high pressures and temperatures, such as those present deep within the Earth's interior are providing insights into what might occur on other planets. Sergey Lobanov and colleagues are investigating methane and its paradoxical behavior, which despite the molecule being one of the most common across the universe is, in some ways, the least understood. Our knowledge of physics and chemistry of volatiles inside planets is based mainly on observations of the fluxes at their surfaces, says Lobanov. However, the physical and chemical properties of methane are poorly understand at the kinds of pressures that form diamonds or that exist on the icy, gas-giant planet Neptune, for instance.

It is with sadness that we report the death of femtochemistry pioneer and Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail at the age of 70. Egyptian-born Zewail was the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry, professor of physics, and director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology at Caltech. He was the sole recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work that made possible observations of atoms in motion on the femtosecond (10^15 second) timescale. "Ahmed was the quintessential scholar and global citizen," says Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum. "He spent a lifetime developing instruments that interrogate nature in fundamentally new ways."