Friday, April 1, 2011

Solix Biofuels Raises Money, Changes Name

Algae-growing firm Solix Biofuels has raised $16 million in a second round of venture capital funding. It has also changed its name to Solix BioSystems “to better reflect its role as a leading provider of algae production systems.”

Solix BioSystems' Lumian AGS4000, an algae grower. Credit: Solix BioSystems

There are many, many firms working hard right this moment trying to make money by growing algae for biofuel. Solix joins at least one other firm – OriginOil – in looking to make money from firms looking to make money with algae.

The first two most difficult things about using algae as a feedstock for biofuels is 1) growing algae and 2) growing a lot of algae.

But growing some algae isn’t THAT difficult, it’s really just complicated. Solix BioSystems is aiming to solve that problem by marketing a complete system that will get you up and running. The system has a culture capacity of 4000 liters. Which gives the algal entrepreneur a test bed and growth area for one or more of his or her favorate strains. The outdoor arrangement grows algae in large narrow plastic bags suspended in a pool of water, with CO2 bubbles (and sunshine that you supply) to feed the algae.

It is interesting to note the additional support structure included to keep the algae growing and content. The support system trailer handles preparation, dosing, harvesting, cleaning… and features  ”programmable sparge timing.” I don’t know what the cost would be to scale up this sort of system, but it seems it may be expensive.

So, growing algae – check. Scaling up – unknown. The second set of challenges includes separating the oil from the water and the algae. Origin Oil, which makes a very different sort of photobioreactor, has an answer for this one. I can’t explain it, but the video reminds me of a lava lamp and is very groovy.

If you would be interested in trying your hand at building a small photobioreactor for algae, InventGeek has the instructions.


Chevron Phillips Studies Cracker, Plus Scary Publishing News

I was completely wrong about who would build a new cracker in the U.S. It wasn’t a “foreign” firm at all. Chevron Phillips–based in the Woodlands, Texas–announced it is studying a new ethane cracker at one of its Gulf Coast facilities. The company already makes ethylene at Sweeny, Port Arthur, and Cedar Bayou, Texas. It also makes styrene in Louisiana and has an aromatics plant in Mississippi.

Let me illustrate how surprised I was by this announcement. While sitting in a ballroom at the Hilton last week waiting for the conference to begin, I actually made a list of every ethylene maker in North America and the pro’s and con’s of each building a cracker. (I was preparing a post on this blog, though I do that kind of thing for fun as well) Chevron Phillips was dismissed out of hand (I’m using the passive voice to make this less embarrassing to me.) My reasoning was that they just restarted an idle unit in Sweeny. (I’m really glad I didn’t publish that list.)

I suppose there might be room for another cracker, especially somewhere in the Northeast, that would sip ethane from the Marcellus shale. And of course, there will likely be some incremental expansions and other investments related to ethylene. (Silver lining.)

Scary Publishing News:

Modern Plastics’ will publish its last print edition in April. I got an e-mail today from its publisher about folding everything into its website:

As part of the restructuring, the last print editions of Injection Molding Magazine and Modern Plastics Worldwide will be published in April. Injection Molding and Modern Plastics Worldwide will continue to deliver content via branded e-newsletters and the website.

Modern Plastics isn’t just some trade paper. It is an institution in the plastics industry. The magazine has 33,078 audited print subscribers and 10,462 qualified digital subscribers. The current print issue has 40 pages. This is down from a few years ago, which were perfect bound and 60+ pages. There seems to still be a decent amount of paying advertisers. I really do hope that the transition works out well. It looks like the odds are in its favor.


Academia vs. Alternative Science Careers—What’s the deal?

“Bart, don’t make fun of grad students, they just made a terrible life choice.” –Marge Simpson

This post is an outpouring of my thoughts and feelings about the whole “academia vs. alternative career” dilemma, arranged into lists to make them appear to have some level of organization. Take a look and let me know what you think!

Alternative careers aside, what are some of the things that make grad students decide against academia (anything but academia!):

I got caught in a bad project and want out… forever. (d “I want good data and a paper in Cell but I got a project straight from hell… whoa oh ohhhhh, caught in a bad project.” d) Great, now I have that song stuck in my head.I may not have had a bad project but my labmates were such meanies that I developed an aversion to all things research. (What, you mean it wasn’t funny when we wrapped all the items on your desk in foil and filled your desk drawers with packing peanuts when you were gone on vacation?)I married rich and will live off the income of my sugar-spouse.I like my life too much to sign it all away to the ever-growing list of academic responsibilities: research, grant writing, teaching, administrative stuff, meetings, recruiting, advising, group meetings, subgroup meetings, one-on-one meetings, conferences, writing papers (publish or perish!) and frequent world travel. Exciting for a single person without kids, not so much for someone who wants to actually see their spouse/family on occasion.I don’t want to put in ten years of schooling to get a job making marginally more per hour than the average person.I want to actually have kids before their child-bearing abilities have left me without a trace. I know, you can have kids before tenure, but from what I hear it makes it a lot harder (not surprising), especially if you don’t have a stay-at-home spouse.I don’t want to give up all my other hobbies forever and ever in the name of being a hard-core academic. Yes, this is an actual photo from the lab I work in. Photo credit: Nicole V. Tolan

Which leads me to… what’s the appeal of an “alternative career” in science?

Working a job that you love and that combines multiple interests and passions into one (i.e. science and writing, medicine and art, technology and law, you get my drift).Having an 8-to-5 job so that you can make time for the rest of your life. All those hobbies that got put on hold when grad school happened, you can get them back again!The option of moving around. You have heard it said that once you leave academia it’s hard to come back (although some argue against that). However, with an alternative career you may find yourself shifting gears over the years and end up doing something completely different from what you started off doing.The option of freelance. Just imagine: working in your pajamas from your cozy at-home office. No more driving through traffic or wearing sausage casings (a.k.a. pantyhose). Sure, it has its own set of pressures and challenges, but… just imagine…

What’s the take-home message? In my opinion, academia would be much more appealing if it wasn’t so gosh-darn demanding. I really believe that I would want to become a professor if the amount of work they had to do in one day was split up over three. That is, if I hadn’t recently fallen out of love with research.

I just think it’s too bad that the unreasonably high demands that are put on professors turn so many good professor candidates away from academia. Just sayin’…

View the original article here

Signal uncovered to help control when stem cells become fat cells

A research team at the School of Medicine and UC-San Francisco has uncovered a molecular signal that plays an important role in directing one type of “adult” stem cells to mature into fat cells.

The finding could help scientists design better drugs for type-2 diabetes and other diseases associated with obesity. And it may eventually lead to therapies for disorders of low muscle mass, such as pediatric muscular dystrophies or muscle degeneration in the elderly.

“We think the development of body composition is linked to stem cell fate,” said Brian Feldman, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of pediatrics and the senior author of the new study, which appeared March 18 in the . “The muscle and fat cell fates are pretty closely connected.”

One class of , the mesenchymal stem cells, gives rise to muscle, fat, cartilage and bone. Mesenchymal cells are considered “adult” stem cells; they are more specialized than embryonic stem cells, which are capable of differentiating into any cell in the body.

The new work suggests that blocking mesenchymal stem cells’ ability to advance to the fat cell fate may redirect the cells to form muscle instead.

“People might be willing to give up some of their fat in favor of developing some muscle,” Feldman said. “That would be the utopia — that we may be able to borrow some cells destined for the fat cell fate to try and treat disease.”

Feldman’s team uncovered a previously unknown role in mesenchymal stem cells for a gene called Per3. The gene produces a protein that inhibits the maturation of mesenchymal stem cells into . When the Per3 gene is switched off, a second gene that acts as the “master regulator” of the fat cell fate is dis-inhibited. This master regulator gene, called PPAR gamma, then sets in motion the chain of events that transforms the cell to a mature fat cell.

The researchers identified Per3’s role by delving into the actions of a class of hormones called glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids include the naturally-occurring stress hormone cortisol and a variety of medications, such as prednisone, that are used to control asthma and autoimmune disease. Long-term use of glucocorticoid drugs has several undesirable side effects, notably increased risk for obesity and type-2 diabetes. And, in cell cultures, glucocorticoids have been shown to promote the transformation of mesenchymal stem cells to fat cells. The team showed that this happens because glucocorticoids switch off Per3, crippling its ability to inhibit the transformation of a stem cell to a fat cell.

The researchers also demonstrated that mice genetically engineered to have a defect in the Per3 gene had more fat and less lean mass than control mice. These Per3 knockout mice also had reduced glucose tolerance, a measurement of sugar metabolism that suggests they would be prone to type-2 diabetes.

Per3 had been previously known to play a minor role in the body’s circadian clock, which regulates daily rhythms. Based on its new work, Feldman’s team thinks Per3 is controlled in part by the main clock mechanism, suggesting that perturbations in the circadian clock might change how many stem cells become fat cells.

“The surprise is that it looks like the clock is sitting upstream of this gene, integrating our biological rhythms into these cascades that regulate stem cell fate,” Feldman said. Previous epidemiological studies have shown that people with perturbed circadian rhythms, such as people who work night shifts, are at elevated risk for obesity, he noted. “The implication of our work is that there is a molecular mechanism that can be used to test whether that’s more than an epidemiologic association.”

Provided by Stanford University Medical Center (news : web)

Chemists play important roles as advisers for science-based television shows, movies

Do television shows like House, Breaking Bad, and Zula Patrol -- major sources of information about science and technology for millions of people -- try to get it right? Or do they play fast and loose with the facts, images, and nuances that forge public perceptions about science and help shape young people's career decisions?

Producers and writers for some of television's most popular medical, crime, science and science fiction shows today said they do strive for accuracy and ask more scientists to get involved and lend a hand in helping TV accurately portray science. It happened at a symposium titled "Hollywood Chemistry," held, quite appropriately, as part of the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society. Among the shows represented were House, Fox; Breaking Bad, AMC; Battlestar Galactica, Syfy; Eureka, Syfy, and Zula Patrol, PBS.

"Hollywood Chemistry" is one of the special Presidential Events, enabled by Nancy B. Jackson, Ph.D. ACS president for 2011. Donna Nelson, Ph.D., a chemist adviser for the six-time Emmy Award-winning AMC Channel show Breaking Bad, who organized the program with Jackson, said Hollywood needs more scientists to volunteer to vet the scientific accuracy of scripts and storyboards.

"It's really important for scientists to work with television and movie producers and writers so that when people watch science-based shows and films they are getting accurate information," Nelson said. She is with affiliated with the University of Oklahoma and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The people who make TV shows and films really are interested in getting the science right. They are serious in striving for accuracy and realism. For example, the credits at the start of Breaking Bad feature symbols of chemical elements from the Periodic Table. The symbols Br and Ba are for the elements bromine and barium as in 'Breaking Bad'."

Nevertheless, Breaking Bad producer Vince Gilligan told Nelson that she was the only chemist who volunteered to help with the accuracy of Breaking Bad, set and produced in Albuquerque, N.M. Nelson suspects it might not be due to any lack of a spirit of volunteerism among chemists, but chemists' reluctance to affiliate themselves with Breaking Bad's storyline. The series is about a high school chemistry teacher, diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, who seeks financial security for his family by making and selling methamphetamine.

More than ever, Nelson said, with 2011 the International Year of Chemistry (IYC), chemists have the opportunity to help increase public awareness of chemistry's major role in improving everyday life.

Nelson said that the producers and writers in the symposium discussed how -- with the help of advisers -- they accurately portrayed scientists at work and suggested how chemists and other scientists can help with scripts in the future. In addition, the symposium focused on new ideas and evaluated existing ones for better communicating science to the public.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptationsaff) from materials provided by American Chemical Society, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

'Green' cars could be made from pineapples and bananas

Your next new car hopefully won't be a lemon. But it could be a pineapple or a banana. That's because scientists in Brazil have developed a more effective way to use fibers from these and other plants in a new generation of automotive plastics that are stronger, lighter, and more eco-friendly than plastics now in use. They described the work, which could lead to stronger, lighter, and more sustainable materials for cars and other products, here today at the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Study leader Alcides Leao, Ph.D., said the used to reinforce the new may come from delicate fruits like bananas and pineapples, but they are super strong. Some of these so-called nano-cellulose fibers are almost as stiff as Kevlar, the renowned super-strong material used in armor and bulletproof vests. Unlike Kevlar and other traditional plastics, which are made from petroleum or natural gas, nano-cellulose fibers are completely renewable.

"The properties of these plastics are incredible," Leao said, "They are light, but very strong — 30 per cent lighter and 3-to-4 times stronger. We believe that a lot of car parts, including dashboards, bumpers, side panels, will be made of nano-sized fruit fibers in the future. For one thing, they will help reduce the weight of cars and that will improve fuel economy."

Besides weight reduction, nano-cellulose reinforced plastics have mechanical advantages over conventional automotive plastics, Leao added. These include greater resistance to damage from heat, spilled gasoline, water, and oxygen. With automobile manufacturers already testing nano-cellulose-reinforced plastics, with promising results, he predicted they would be used within two years.

Cellulose is the main material that makes up the wood in trees and other parts of . Its ordinary-size fibers have been used for centuries to make paper, extracted from wood that is ground up and processed. In more recent years, scientists have discovered that intensive processing of wood releases ultra-small, or "nano" cellulose fibers, so tiny that 50,000 could fit inside across the width of a single strand of human hair. Like fibers made from glass, carbon, and other materials, nano-cellulose fibers can be added to raw material used to make plastics, producing reinforced plastics that are stronger and more durable.

Leao said that pineapple leaves and stems, rather than wood, may be the most promising source for nano-cellulose. He is with Sao Paulo State University in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Another is curaua, a plant related to pineapple that is cultivated in South America. Other good sources include ; coir fibers found in coconut shells; typha, or "cattails;" sisal fibers produced from the agave plant; and fique, another plant related to pineapples.

To prepare the nano-fibers, the scientists insert the leaves and stems of pineapples or other plants into a device similar to a pressure cooker. They then add certain chemicals to the plants and heat the mixture over several cycles, producing a fine material that resembles talcum powder. The process is costly, but it takes just one pound of nano-cellulose to produce 100 pounds of super-strong, lightweight plastic, the scientists said.

"So far, we're focusing on replacing automotive plastics," said Leao. "But in the future, we may be able to replace steel and aluminum automotive parts using these plant-based nanocellulose materials."

Similar plastics also show promise for future use in medical applications, such as replacement materials for artificial heart valves, artificial ligaments, and hip joints, Leao and colleagues said.

Provided by American Chemical Society (news : web)

Heavy metals open path to high temperature nanomagnets

 How would you like to store all the films ever made on a device the size of an I-phone? Magnets made of just a few metallic atoms could make it possible to build radically smaller storage devices and have also recently been proposed as components for spintronics devices. There's just one obstacle. Nano-sized magnets have only been seen to work at temperatures a little above absolute zero.

Now a chemistry student at the University of Copenhagen has demonstrated that molecular magnets using the metals ruthenium and osmium retain their magnetic properties at higher temperatures. Most likely due to the larger spin-orbit coupling and more diffuse electron cloud present in these heavier elements. Some of his findings have recently been published in Chemistry -- A European Journal.

Iron not heavy enough

Kasper Steen Pedersen is studying for a Masters degree at the University of Copenhagen. Like many others in his chosen field of molecular magnetism he had been working with magnets based on 3d metal ions from iron. This seems an obvious choice when working with ordinary magnets which usually consist of about a trillion atoms. Single-molecule magnets are isolated molecules behaving like real magnets but they do not exhibit a three-dimensional order characteristic of a magnet.

Frozen magnets useless

Though interesting from a perspective of fundamental research, the need for very low temperatures make the miniscule magnets useless for any practical applications. So Pedersen wanted to see if another tack was possible. "When you take a look at the periodic table of the elements the solution seems obvious. Ruthenium and osmium are in the same group in the periodic table as iron, so it ought to be possible to create magnets out of these substances as well by using our knowledge about molecular magnets based on iron," says Pedersen.

Surprising properties for non-iron metals

As it turned out the chemical synthesis needed to build molecular magnets out of the substances was relatively simple. But the measured properties were surprising. "The chemical properties are the same for these metals as for iron. But the physical properties of the new magnets turned out to be very different from those made of iron. Basically, the magnetism arises from the electron spin but also from the motion of the electron around the nucleus. The latter contribution, which is very large for ruthenium, osmium and other heavy elements, has been largely ignored by the scientific community but we have now shown, experimentally, that is a very pronounced effect. And this is utterly new and exciting," explains Kasper Steen Pedersen.

Not quite a breakthrough

Using the unconventional metals for his magnets enabled Pedersen to raise the critical temperature only by a few Kelvin. However, the intriguing result that electron motion plays a large role for the magnetic properties paves the way for new synthetic approaches to molecular nanomagnets with unprecedented high critical temperatures.

"You'll not get me to call this a breakthrough. But it is a remarkable result for the field," concludes Kasper Steen Pedersen.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations) from materials provided by University of Copenhagen.

Journal Reference:

Kasper S. Pedersen, Magnus Schau-Magnussen, Jesper Bendix, Hogni Weihe, Andrei V. Palii, Sophia I. Klokishner, Serghei Ostrovsky, Oleg S. Reu, Hannu Mutka, Philip L. W. Tregenna-Piggott. Enhancing the Blocking Temperature in Single-Molecule Magnets by Incorporating 3d-5d Exchange Interactions. Chemistry - A European Journal, 2010; 16 (45): 13458 DOI: 10.1002/chem.201001259