News: Bullet-proof Graphene

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Every scientist in the world knows about graphene – the atom-thick material first discovered a decade ago, and pegged to be the new wonder material. Many people have begun to doubt graphene would live up to its high expectations, but reports in both Nature and Science this week highlight promising new applications for the substance.

A report in Nature published online yesterday described the use of graphene as a proton transport material, as it was found that protons are able to pass through the material. This intriguing result could lead to graphene having potential a potential application as a membrane in hydrogen fuel cells, as current cells use thick polymer membranes which can leak protons and cause power losses. At the moment this is just a proof of concept, but if it could be scaled up and engineered successfully this could massively help the development of hydrogen fuel cells.

Meanwhile, an article published in Science today has proven that graphene is very resistant to damage by small silica ‘bullets’, highlighting the material’s potential use in protective coatings or even bullet-proof armour. This works because the graphene sheets are able to disperse the impact of the projectile by sending ripples quickly through their structure.

Of course, these new discoveries are very early studies which may never lead to any commercial applications, but they highlight new uses for this material which has captured everyone’s attention so greatly in the last decade. Who knows what new and interesting properties will be revealed in the near future.

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Organic Molecules Detected by Philae

You’d have had to be living under a rock for the last couple of weeks to not have heard about the European Space Agency’s Philae spacecraft which successfully landed on a comet recently. This was big news, as nothing like this has been achieved before, and the world may finally be able to unlock the mystery behind whether comets brought life to Earth billions of years ago.

Well, this week, it was revealed to BBC News that organic molecules have been detected by Philae on Comet 67P’s surface. As this article explains, the results are still being interpreted and the identity of the molecules are yet to be disclosed. Even so, this is intriguing, and will hopefully reveal new insights into what sorts of material comets are able to deliver to planets.

For the moment Philae is lying dormant, but as its solar panels are exposed to sunlight in the near future we will hopefully hear more about this comet and have some of science’s biggest and oldest questions answered.

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Illuminating Atoms – there’s still time to see the beauty of crystallography

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As many of you will know, 2014 is the International Year of Crystallography, and to celebrate this, photographer Max Alexander is exhibiting a brilliant selection of work showcasing the inspirational work of crystallographers.

The exhibit is called Illuminating Atoms, and is being shown at the Royal Albert Hall until the 7th December. There’s also a free open day on Saturday 29th November between 10am and 4pm.

Crystallography is a vital tool that us synthetic chemists utilise on a regular basis not only to identify our compounds, but to study them in the solid state. Throughout the last 100 years it has enabled chemists, biologists and physicists alike learn more about the matter around us and has revealed new and exciting bonding modes, enzyme structures, drug polymorphs and crystal lattices.

If, like me, you’ve carried out some of your own crystallography, you’ll know how much beauty can actually be enjoyed through the process. Crystals are, by their very nature, the most attractive form of many substances, as the extended crystal lattice provides a level of uniformity and structure which leads to the formation of beautiful shapes and colours. A crystal’s ability to transmit polarised light can also lead to very pretty images of glowing crystals under a polarising microscope. Even the most serious chemist can often be found carrying photos of their most attractive crystals on their camera or in their phone. My colleagues at Nottingham have often come back to our lab waving their phone with a photo of some particularly impressive crystals they’ve just put on the diffractometer.

You can see two examples of Max’s stunning photos can be seen on this page on the New Scientist website.

The exhibit will no doubt be fascinating, and if you’re visiting the Royal Albert Hall between now and the 7th December I strongly suggest you take a peek.

You can find out more information here.

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Quintuple bond activates CO2 and SO2

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This recent article published in Chemical Communications describes the unusual and interesting reactivity of the chromium-chromium quintuple bond first published by Kempe and co-workers back in 2008.

Quintuple bonds, first reported in Science by Power and his team in 2005, were a major discovery at the time, as quadruple bonds were believed to be the highest bond order possible between two atoms, and these were still relatively uncommon. Following Power and then Kempe’s reports of such species, interest has shifted to the reactivity of these compounds, to see if interesting species may be accessible through these very low-coordinate intermediates.

Here, Kempe has shown that his highly reducing compound is able to activate both carbon and sulfur dioxides – which may prove useful for removing these gases from pollutants. The CO2 was converted into an oxidised Cr-Cr bond containing bridging carbonyl groups, releasing dioxygen in the process. This is intriguing and, if it could be made catalytic, could be a nice way of converting carbon dioxide to a more useful gas. Interestingly, the weaker S-O bond in SO2 bond could not be cleaved in such a way, with a novel bridging dithionite being formed instead. This is unprecedented, and further study could glean some interesting mechanistic information from this complex.

The synthesis of unusual and highly reactive low-coordinate compounds such as these is often to referred to as purely fundamental ‘blue sky’ research, but articles such as these indicate the potential future usefulness of such studies, both for potential applications of these species and the mechanistic insight they could offer us.

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IPCC: fossil fuels should be phased out by 2100

A report published today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that a dangerous level of climate change will be upon us if fossil fuels are not phased out by 2100.

The report suggests that most of the world’s electricity needs must come from low-carbon sources by 2050, or the Earth will face “severe, pervasive and irreversible” damage.

Renewable energy sources have been heavily invested in during recent years, but currently only make up 30% of the power industry. The IPCC’s report suggests this needs to drastically change – with a target of 80% being recommended by 2050.

The report is a frank and clear summary of the causes, impacts and potential action to be taken in respect to climate change, and will hopefully spur politicians and scientists around the globe to act. It suggests the use of carbon capture and storage (CSS) to make use of the carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, rather than allowing it to build up. Research into this area is ongoing, but very few commercial plants are carrying this technology out successfully at the moment.

The alternative is to take on research in the area of renewable energy – and many groups are doing just that, with work into areas such as solar cells and hydrogen storage being very popular currently. Perhaps it is also the time for governments to revisit the area of nuclear power, and look into developing safe and efficient nuclear plants which can replace the fossil fuel power stations currently in use.

One thing is for sure – it’s not only up to the governments around the world, but to us as scientists to keep the research into low-carbon energy ongoing, and keep this matter in the forefront of the world’s considerations. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in an unpleasant future that we could have prevented.

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