Sunday, June 26, 2011

Creating a material that mimics dolphin skin amongst new scheme's research collaborations

Researchers from Imperial College London and University College London are planning to develop a new material that mimics dolphin skin, so that water can flow more efficiently down pipes, in one of seven early-stage projects that will receive support from a new scheme announced today.

The Kick-Start scheme aims to advance engineering research and promote collaborations between the two universities. They have distributed one hundred thousand pounds in seed funding among projects that also include an initiative to make power plants that use from waste more sustainable. The seed funding will help teams to establish their collaborative projects and pursue further funding to get their research to the next level. The scheme is an initiative of the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial and the School of the Built Environment, Engineering and Mathematical and Physical Sciences at UCL.

Professor Jeff Magee, Principal of the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial, says:

“From improving the way that water is managed to enhancing the way that energy is generated, this scheme provides vital seed funding to get some innovative projects off the ground. We think our wealth of outstanding researchers, the close proximity of both institutions and the complementary areas of research at both universities will make it easier for these collaborations to work well. I look forward to seeing how these projects have evolved in the next few years.”

Two of the new scheme’s projects are:

Super-smooth pipes

Many arid countries around the world such as Australia and Libya rely on vast pipeline networks to transport water to areas where it is scarce. However, the resistance between the pipe walls and the flowing water causes friction, which means that huge amounts of energy has to be used to pump the large volume of water to its destination.

To address this, Dr. Michael Templeton, from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial, and Dr Andrew Wills, from the Department of Chemistry at UCL, aim to develop a new material that reduces this friction. They plan to mimic the special chemical properties and physical structure at the microscopic level of some of the most slippery surfaces in nature. One of the surfaces that they are exploring is dolphin .

Chemicals combine with tiny bumps on the animal’s skin to reduce the friction between the Dolphin and the water that it is swimming through. Similarly, the new material could have nanoscopic bumps, which will control the water flow, making it run more easily over the surface. It will also be coated with water repellent chemicals that will reduce the friction between water particles and pipe surface.

The expectation is that the new material will be in a form that could be applied to the inside of pipes, either as a material that lines the pipes or as a spray.

The team believe that there may also be applications for this material in other industries that require long-distance transport of fluids, such as the oil and gas industry.

Improving the sustainability of power plants that generate energy from waste

Making power plants that burn waste to produce energy more sustainable and efficient will be the focus of the project run by Professor Chris Cheeseman, from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial, and Dr. Julia Stegemann, from the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at UCL.

These power plants burn waste that cannot be recycled by any other means. The heat generated from the combustion process is used to create steam, which powers a turbine to generate electricity. The plants can also produce hot water that can be distributed to local communities.

Currently, there is significant public opposition in the UK to the construction of new plants, which are called “Energy from Waste Plants”, because they are seen as environmentally unfriendly, emitting CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere. As a result, the UK lags significantly behind many other European countries, with 24 Energy from Waste Plants, in contrast to others such as France, which has around 130.

The researchers believe that these have the potential to make a significant contribution to energy supply in the UK. Current estimates have shown that about 10 percent of the UK’s energy requirements could come from waste, which could provide a secure source of energy for the country.

The researchers have received seed funding to kick-start a wide ranging project, which will involve stakeholders such as community groups and Energy from Waste Service providers.

They will investigate new ways to extract resources from the residues at the end of the combustion process, which include metals such as steel, aluminium and tin. The researchers will also investigate ways in which the energy generated from the process can be used more efficiently. This could include exporting excess heat, generated from the plant, to local communities.

The team will develop new methodologies for characterising the types of waste going into these facilities. Knowing more about the type of waste that is being combusted will enable the researchers to calculate how much comes from renewable sources such as plant material, which is called biomass. Knowing the percentage of biomass used in the combustion process will enable Energy from Waste companies to charge more for their energy because it comes from a sustainable resource.

The team will also carry out research that aims to understand and resolve the public concerns and planning issues associated with developing new energy from waste infrastructure.

Provided by Imperial College London (news : web)

New evidence backs up claim of dinosaur soft tissue find

 In a new study, biochemist James San Antonio and colleagues offer evidence to support the claims by Mary Higby Schweitzer back in 2005, that she and her colleagues had unearthed a soft tissue specimen that belonged to a Tyrannosaurus rex. Roundly criticized by many in the science community, the specimen, discovered inside a femur fragment, has yet to be proven to be anything else. Now, in a paper published on PLoS ONE, San Antonio and his colleagues (including Mary Schweitzer) claim they’ve found a plausible explanation for the survival of soft dinosaur material after some 68 million years.

The team focused on bits of found in the remains, which are a group of proteins found in the flesh and bones of animals; it grows in a triple helix, which when it winds together, is known as a microfibril. When thousands of microfibril wind together, as they often do, they are known as microfibrils.

After carefully studying 11 fragments of collagen recovered from the T. rex bone and then comparing them to similar fragments in modern rat and human collagen, the team discovered that the found fragments all came from the same innermost part of the fibrils that make up microfibrils. San Antononio likens them to tiny fibers that sit at the very innermost part of a very thick strong rope.
In their paper, the research team suggests that because they were so tightly wound, the microfibrils could have survived over millions of years. They also note that the specimens also contained very few amino acids, which are very susceptible to decay.

To back up her claims, or to quiet the naysayers, Schweitzer points out that if the found were actually contaminants from other more recent organisms, as some have claimed, there should have been more randomness to the collagen, instead of the strict uniformity that was found. She also notes that two other labs have corroborated her results.
The unfortunate side story to all the research done so far though, including these latest findings, is that thus far there is no way to definitively prove whether the soft tissue found inside that T. rex bone was in fact a remnant from its original owner, or something that came after. Thus, claims from both those supporting the idea that dinosaur tissue could have survived for millions of years, and those that think it’s nonsense, are likely to continue.

More information: San Antonio JD, Schweitzer MH, Jensen ST, Kalluri R, Buckley M, et al. (2011) Dinosaur Peptides Suggest Mechanisms of Protein Survival. PLoS ONE 6(6): e20381. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020381

Eleven collagen peptide sequences recovered from chemical extracts of dinosaur bones were mapped onto molecular models of the vertebrate collagen fibril derived from extant taxa. The dinosaur peptides localized to fibril regions protected by the close packing of collagen molecules, and contained few acidic amino acids. Four peptides mapped to collagen regions crucial for cell-collagen interactions and tissue development. Dinosaur peptides were not represented in more exposed parts of the collagen fibril or regions mediating intermolecular cross-linking. Thus functionally significant regions of collagen fibrils that are physically shielded within the fibril may be preferentially preserved in fossils. These results show empirically that structure-function relationships at the molecular level could contribute to selective preservation in fossilized vertebrate remains across geological time, suggest a ‘preservation motif’, and bolster current concepts linking collagen structure to biological function. This non-random distribution supports the hypothesis that the peptides are produced by the extinct organisms and suggests a chemical mechanism for survival.

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What makes a plant a plant?

Although scientists have been able to sequence the genomes of many organisms, they still lack a context for associating the proteins encoded in genes with specific biological processes. To better understand the genetics underlying plant physiology and ecology—especially in regard to photosynthesis—a team of researchers including Carnegie's Arthur Grossman identified a list of proteins encoded in the genomes of plants and green algae, but not in the genomes of organisms that don't generate energy through photosynthesis. Their work will be published June 17 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Using advanced computational tools to analyze the genomes of 28 different plants and photosynthetic , Grossman and his colleagues at the University of California in Los Angeles and the Joint Institute of the Department of Energy were able to identify 597 proteins encoded on plant and green algal genomes, but that are not present in non-photosynthetic organisms. They call this suite of proteins the GreenCut.

Interestingly, of the 597 GreenCut proteins, 286 have known functions, while the remaining 311 have not been associated with a specific biological process and are called "unknowns."

The majority of the GreenCut proteins, 52 percent, have been localized in a cellular organelle called the chloroplast--the compartment where photosynthesis takes place. It is widely accepted that chloroplasts originated from photosynthetic, single-celled bacteria called cyanobacteria, which were engulfed by a more complex, non-photosynthetic cell more than 1.5 billion years ago. While the relationship between the two organisms was originally symbiotic, over evolutionary time the cyanobacterium transferred most of its information to the nucleus of the host organism, losing its ability to live independent of its partner.

"This genetically-reduced cyanobacterium, which is now termed a chloroplast, has maintained its ability to perform photosynthesis and certain other essential metabolic functions, such as the synthesis of amino acids and fats. The processes that take place in the chloroplast must also be tightly integrated with metabolic processes that occur in other parts the cell outside of the chloroplast," Grossman explained.

While recent evidence suggests that many of the unknowns of the GreenCut are associated with photosynthetic function, not all GreenCut proteins are located in the chloroplast. But since they are unique to photosynthetic organisms and highly conserved throughout plants and other photosynthetic organisms, it is likely that they are critical for other plant-specific processes. Possible functions could be associated with regulation of metabolism, control of DNA transcription, and the functioning of other cellular organelles, including the energy producing mitochondria and the house-cleaning peroxisomes.

Expanding this work, Grossman and his colleagues found that many GreenCut proteins have been maintained in ancient cyanobacteria, red algae, and other single-celled algae called diatoms. Comparison of GreenCut proteins among various organisms is opening windows for discoveries about the roles that these proteins play in photosynthetic cells, the evolution of chloroplasts, and how photosynthetic cells might be tailored for survival under different environmental conditions.

Provided by Carnegie Institution

Baking powder for environmentally friendly hydrogen storage

Hydrogen is under consideration as a promising energy carrier for a future sustainable energy economy. However, practicable solutions for the easy and safe storage of hydrogen are still being sought. Despite some progress, no generally applicable solutions that meet the requirements of industry have been found to date. In the journal Angewandte Chemie Matthias Beller and his team at the Leibnitz Institute for Catalysis (Rostock, Germany) have now introduced a new approach to hydrogen storage that is based on simple salts of formic acid and carbonic acid.

Practical must take up and give off hydrogen at standard pressure and room temperature, accommodate a large amount of hydrogen in as little space as possible, and release it rapidly and on-demand. tanks store hydrogen in a relatively manageable volume but are very heavy and expensive, as well as operating only at or far too slowly. In addition to organic hydrogen storage materials, such as methane and methanol, researchers have been interested in formic acid (HCO2H) and its salts, known as formates, for the generation of hydrogen. A fundamental problem with the use of these storage materials is the separation of the carbon dioxide formed when the hydrogen is released.

The team from Rostock has now successfully used a special ruthenium catalyst that catalyzes both the release and uptake of hydrogen to establish a reversible, CO2-free hydrogen storage cycle. In this system, hydrogen is released from nontoxic formates and the resulting CO2 captured in the form of bicarbonates. Bicarbonates are a component of many natural stones and are also commonly used as baking powder or sherbet (, NaHCO3).

“Our new concept has a number of advantages,” says Beller, “in comparison to CO2, solid bicarbonate is easy to handle and is very soluble in water. The resulting bicarbonate solution can be catalytically converted to a formate solution under much milder conditions than those required for the reactions to form methane or methanol.” In addition, the harmless solid could easily be stored and transported. Retrieval of the hydrogen occurs at room temperature or even lower. Says Beller, “Most important is that a closed carbon cycle is now possible because the resulting bicarbonate can simply be loaded up with hydrogen again.”

More information: Matthias Beller, CO2-"Neutral" Hydrogen Storage Based on Bicarbonates and Formates, Angewandte Chemie International Edition, … ie.201101995

Provided by Wiley (news : web)