ChemWeb Newsletter

Not a subscriber? Join now.April 10, 2007


This week's e-grant of $13.8 million could help solve data overload across the sciences by applying the engineer's workflow approach to scientific problems. In science, the Alchemist this week takes a peek at a tiny power station that could power nanotech devices, learns about the possibility of liquid robots, and finds out how to get solar power without the solar. Also this week an immunological peptide could defeat bacteria that have evolved resistance to bacteria while life extension through calorie restriction could be down to chemistry in a dog's world.

As data piles up fast in most scientific fields, A team of researchers led by Yolanda Gil at the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute has been awarded $13.8 million to build a prototype automated scientific workflow system that could channel the data streams for endeavors as diverse as high-throughput screening, climatic and seismic studies, and particle physics. "Our ability to gather data is surpassing our ability to analyze it. Our data warehouses are becoming data graveyards," Gil says. The $13.8m Windward project will bring to the analysis of scientific problems an approach similar to that of industrial engineering, where engineers create optimal workflows to bring together raw materials and machinery in the most efficient fashion to create product.

A prototype electric generator working on the nanoscale has been built by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology. The device based on arrays of vertically aligned zinc oxide nanowires that move inside a novel 'zig-zag' plate electrode produces a direct current by harvesting mechanical energy induced in the system by ultrasound energy. The designers explain that the device could just as easily draw its power from any mechanical vibration or even blood flow. "This is a major step toward a portable, adaptable and cost-effective technology for powering nanoscale devices," explains Zhong Lin Wang. Powering nanodevices has always been a stumbling block. "There has been a lot of interest in making nanodevices, but we have tended not to think about how to power them," Wang adds, "Our nanogenerator allows us to harvest or recycle energy from many sources to power these devices."

Memory metals could make reality the science fiction concept of a liquid robot, as seen in the Terminator movies, but on a much, much smaller scale. At least that is the idea envisioned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in its latest call for research proposals that will aim to design and build such "devices". Self-repairing metals are already a reality, according to research published recently in the journal Science by a team from the University of Illinois. The researchers have developed a process for synthesizing aluminum and gold sheets that have exceedingly small crystal sizes, just 100 nanometers across. If these materials are deformed they can snap back into their original shape with the application of heat. DARPA envisages devices or bots that could squeeze through tiny cracks and then reform into their original function structure at the flick of a switch.

Solar cells that use a range of organic dyes to generate electric power from any light source, solar or otherwise, could be incorporated into portable devices such as mp3 players, cellphones, and even clothing, according to their inventors at Massey University, New Zealand. Wayne Campbell and his colleagues have taken ten years to develop a proof-of-concept cell based on what the team describes as the most efficient porphyrin dye in the world, presumably outside the plant kingdom. "Within two to three years we will have developed a prototype for real applications," he says. Campbell said that unlike silicone-based solar cells, the porphyrin-based cells work even in low-light conditions, making them ideal for cloudy climates.

A novel peptide structure that can bolster the immune system against even multiple-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant enterococcus (VRE) could herald a new era of antibiotics resistant to bacterial defenses. Robert Hancock of the University of British Columbia have discovered a peptide sequence they refer to as innate defense regulator peptide (IDR-1) that can increase immunity without inducing the inflammatory response. The peptide those offers protection before and after infection.

Researchers at Imperial College London have studied the effects of dietary restriction on dog's life and discovered that changes in the chemical balance of microbial populations in the animals' gut could indicate why reducing calorific intake results in a longer life. Jeremy Nicholson and colleagues followed 12 "pairs" of dogs in which one partner in each pair was given 25% less food than the other. They found that the dogs who had less food lived almost 2 years longer and suffered less diabetes, less osteoarthritis, and were older when common late-onset diseases arose. The scientists suspect that microbial population of the dogs' guts could explain the metabolic differences. Those dogs on an unrestricted diet had higher levels of aliphatic amines in their urine, which are linked to reduced levels of fat-busting choline. A similar profile has been associated elsewhere with insulin resistance and obesity.