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Yet another natural organic synthesis catches the eye of The Alchemist this week as does an environmental revelation that links the ozone hole with global warming. In the realm of crystallography jumping isomers capture the imagination while a touch sensor lights up. The era of smear-free smart screens may well be coming to a gadget near you soon. Finally, a significant grant could help heal burns.

Crystals of a cobalt complex can jump 10,000 times their height when exposed to light. Now, a team from Japan and Russia has come up with an explanation for this bizarre behavior. The crystals’ rapid movement is a result of stresses generated in the crystal when light induces a structural change within it, according to Elena Boldyreva of Novosibirsk State University and her colleagues. Light triggers an isomerization that forces a nitrite group in the complex to switch from being bonded through a nitrogen atom to an oxygen atom. This internal structural change generates a stress perpendicular to the original isomer's crystal structure which is then released as the crystals crack apart violently.

A sensor device based on individual zinc oxide (ZnO) nanowires acting as tiny LEDs that converts mechanical pressure - from a signature or a fingerprint - directly into light signals that can be captured and processed optically has been developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Beyond collecting signatures and fingerprints, the technique could also be used in biological imaging and micro-electromechanical (MEMS) systems. Ultimately, it could provide a new approach for human-machine interfaces and perhaps even for adding skin-like touch sensitivity to robots.

Touch screens have become ubiquitous and almost essential for many of us, but long before the touch screen there were grubby fingers and greasy fingerprints. When they collide it leads to a smeary view of our digital world that could spread pathogens between users. Steve block, an electronics industry scientist at Dow Corning who works on coatings for touch screens explains: There's a whole range of things that can contaminate those surfaces, he says. There are natural oils on the fingers as well as the lotions people put their hands. Then there's cosmetics and the times when you hold your telephone up to your ear and it's sweaty. Various research teams are looking at natural non-stick materials, such as the insides of the carnivorous pitcher plant to find smart ways to maintain your touch screen's pristine, out of the box, smoothness.

The Chemical Alliance Zone’s Chemicals and Materials Commercialization Fund has awarded $20,000 to Jingwei Xie of Marshall University to enable the commercialization of technology for treating skin injuries. Research in Xie’s lab involves using nanotechnology to create scaffolds made of tiny fibers for skin grafts following burning or other injury. The treatment of large-area, full-thickness burns still constitutes a major surgical repair challenge, says Xie. The new technology could side-step many of the drawbacks of conventional skin grafts for badly burned patients, including heavy scarring and poor functional recovery. Our product shows great promise for addressing all these shortcomings and improving the healing of these types of wounds, says Xie.

Chemists at The Scripps Research Institute have devised a synthetic route to the putative anticancer compound ingenol first extracted from the milky sap of Euphorbia plants. The achievement could lead to a simpler route to ingenol analogs and allow researchers to investigate their therapeutic properties. The work might also provide a simple way to produce ingenol mebutate for the treatment of actinic keratosis (a common precursor to non-melanoma skin cancer). I think that most organic chemists had considered ingenol beyond the reach of scalable chemical synthesis, says team leader Phil Baran.

Non-scientists often confuse the chemical issues surrounding global warming and greenhouse gases, low-level ozone pollution and the atmospheric ozone hole. Of course, many greenhouse gases are ozone-eaters and greenhouses gases represent a serious low-level problem. However, recent computer modeling now reveals that the ozone hole above Antarctica may itself have a slight warming influence on our planet. The work, carried out by Kevin Grise, a climate scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York City, and colleagues, suggests that shifting wind patterns caused by the ozone hole push clouds farther toward the South Pole, reducing the amount of radiation the clouds reflect and possibly causing a bit of warming rather than cooling. We were surprised this effect happened just by shifting the jet stream and the clouds, explains climate scientist Grise. He adds that this small warming effect could be important for researchers hoping to produce an accurate predictive model of the future climate of the Southern Hemisphere.