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This week, The Alchemist learns of rumors of silicon neurons and the coming cyborg age, he discovers that a compound that leads to ovine Cyclops has now been synthesized for cancer drug research, and how chicken poop down on the shooting range could help solve the problem of lead in the soil. Also, in the news, a new type of fuel cell for truckers that reduces their emissions during rest periods and the increasing cost in water of producing bioethanol. Finally, a major award for a generic pharmacologist.

Bird guano and growing plants can be used to bioremediate land contaminated with the toxic heavy metal lead at shooting ranges, according to research in Japan. Writing in the July-August 2009 issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality, Yohey Hashimoto of Mie University and colleagues explain how they used an X-ray absorption fine structure investigation to demonstrate that poultry waste in combination with plant growth can immobilize lead in soil and restore degraded vegetation in shooting range sites. Cerussite (lead carbonate) and organolead complexes were transformed into geochemically stable species, such as chloropyromorphite (phosphatolead chloride up to 35% of the total lead.

Volvo Technology AB, StatoilHydro ASA, the Danish company H2 Logic AS, Powercell Sweden AB and Sweden's SINTEF have joined forces to develop a new hydrogen-powered fuel-cell system for heavy goods vehicles and forklift trucks that could reduce carbon dioxide emissions significantly. The fuel cell could significantly reduce emissions during idle times when engines are left running in neutral rather than stopping and starting them repeatedly. The new type of fuel cell uses some of the vehicle's diesel fuel to produce necessary hydrogen to keep an engine ticking over during rest periods. The developers point out that in the USA alone, big trucks running in neutral during rest periods generate 1.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, which is more than the total emissions produced by all Norwegian road transport.

Production of bioethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels could have a much greater detrimental impact on the environment than previously thought, according to a new study from Sangwon Suh and colleagues in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, at the University of Minnesota. Writing in Environmental Science & Technology, the team explain how bioethanol production may consume up to three times more water than earlier estimates suggested. Previous studies estimated that a gallon of corn-based bioethanol used between 263 and 784 gallons of water from farm to fuel pump. Suh's team determined that these estimates do not take into account the significant variation in regional irrigation practices.

The Board of Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) announced that six individuals from Burma, China, India, the Philippines, and Thailand will receive Asia's premier prize, the Ramon Magsaysay Award. Among the six, Krisana Kraisintu, 57, from Thailand is acknowledged for "her placing pharmaceutical rigor at the service of patients, through her determined and fearless devotion to producing much-needed generic drugs in Thailand and elsewhere in the developing world."

We may have taken another tentative step forward towards a cyborg future with the development of transistors with lipid membranes by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The researchers there have sealed silicon-nanowire transistors in a membrane similar to those that surround biological cells and claim that these hybrid devices operate in a similar way to nerve cells. The development could one day lead to better interfaces for prosthetic limbs and cochlear implants. They could also find use as novel biosensors for medical diagnostics applications.

Pregnant sheep that eat corn lilies give birth to lambs with only one eye in the centre of their heads. The underlying cause is a compound dubbed cyclopamine, for obvious reasons. However, this natural alkaloid may have a redeeming feature in that it is proving to be an effective candidate for cancer therapy in adult people and is undergoing clinical trials. Now, researchers at the universities of Leipzig, Germany and Thessaloniki, Greece, have developed a new synthetic pathway for the production of cyclopamine that could help improve structure-activity studies and the development of cyclopamine analogues with improved physiological properties.