New Ruthenium Catalyst Boosts Borane Fuel Cells

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Ammonia borane, H3NBH3, has been pegged as an ideal fuel cell material due to its very high hydrogen density (19.6 %). However, so far it has failed to perform as well as expected, as the release of hydrogen leads to the formation of borazine, which is resistant to further hydrogen release and can deactivate the catalyst used in this reaction. Therefore, very few systems have been developed which produce more than 2 equivalents of hydrogen from ammonia borane.

A team of scientists from the University of South Carolina may have solved this problem, using a novel ruthenium catalyst which not only catalyses the release of 2.7 equivalents of hydrogen, but which can dehydrogenate the borazine formed, eliminating it from the system. This has not been achieved for any of the high-performing catalysts reported to date. This catalyst is able to polymerise the borazine to polyborazylene, liberating hydrogen in the process.

This result is big news for the hydrogen fuel cell area, especially as this catalyst is air and moisture tolerant, is reusable and requires low catalytic loadings. The utilisation of ammonia borane as a hydrogen fuel source may finally become a reality through technologies like this.

This work was published in Dalton Transactions in March 2016, and can be found online here.

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CV of Failures

Today, I came across this blog post on the Nature Jobs website, which I think makes an excellent point. Being in research myself, I am more than aware of the number of failures scientists can go through in their career – not only failed experiments, but rejected papers, grant proposals, fellowship/PhD/job applications, the list goes on.

We’re constantly pressured to hide our failures and focus on the successes, even though they may make up a tiny fraction of our efforts. As Melanie Stefan, author of the blog post, writes: “At conferences, I talk about the one project that worked, not about the many that failed” – and this is the truth for the majority of researchers. Not only in presentations, but in journal articles, PhD theses and CVs, we embellish the few successes as much as physically possible, and sweep any failures under the carpet, regardless of how much work and time went into them.

Indeed, I a fellow PhD student in my year isn’t including any of the work he carried out in the first 2.5 years of his research, as it didn’t yield any results he feels are worth discussing. I think this is a terrible shame. Yes, his work wasn’t successful, but isn’t this a result in itself? Shouldn’t the scientific community know that his methodology isn’t fruitful, so that it may be worked upon and improved? Furthermore, shouldn’t his hard work be recognised and praised? Unfortunately, as scientists we’re conditioned to hide our failures and pray for a success we can cling onto.

This is where the idea of a “CV of Failures” comes in. Melanie hits the nail on the head when she says “As scientists, we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others. Often, other scientists’ careers seem to be a constant, streamlined series of triumphs. Therefore, whenever we experience an individual failure, we feel alone and dejected.”

It is so true. We go to conferences and assume that other students are sailing through their PhDs on a stream of non-stop successes, whilst we’re floundering in mixed, confusing results. New academics come into the department with what appear to be flawless careers histories of top-notch publications and seamless shifts into new positions. However, we should know that this isn’t the case. The success rates for fellowships and lectureships are extremely low, and it is highly unlikely that other researchers haven’t faced the same rejections that you yourself are currently experiencing. Unfortunately, we hide this, and feel we need to put out a sheen of non-stop success on our CVs.

Melanie suggests that we try to change this – by cataloging our rejections and struggles into a CV of failures. Not only will this give credit to the hours of effort and work which would be lost to our memories otherwise, but it can show other researchers that none of us are perfect. No one goes through their scientific career without a single failure, and maybe it’s about time we shared them with each other and inspired one another to shake off our rejections and keep heading towards success.

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R.I.P. Harry Kroto (1939-2016)

What sad news. The discovery of C60 was game-changing, and I remember doing a piece of work on it during my undergraduate degree.

In the Dark

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I heard earlier this afternoon of the death at the age of 76 of the distinguished chemist Sir Harry Kroto.

Along with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, Harry Kroto was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 for the discovery of the C60 structure that became known as Buckminsterfullerene (or the “Buckyball” for short).

Harry had a long association with the University of Sussex and was a regular visitor to the Falmer campus even after he moved to the USA.

I remember first meeting him in the 1988 when, as a new postdoc fresh out of my PhD, I had just taken over organising the Friday seminars for the Astronomy Centre. One speaker called off his talk just an hour before it was due to start so I asked if anyone could suggest someone on campus who might stand in. Someone suggested Harry, whose office was nearby in the…

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Tiniest Happy Birthday Message to the Queen

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A team of scientists from the University of Nottingham have created the tiniest ever happy birthday message to the Queen – on a corgi hair!

The interdisciplinary team of chemists, physicists and engineers were demonstrating the power of the new £12m Nanoscale and  Microscale Research Centre at the School of Chemistry when they revealed the image, made on a Focused Ion Beam Scanning Electron Microscope (FIB-SEM) at the Centre.

The facility is directed by Andrei Khlobystov, Professor of Nanomaterials at the School of Chemistry, and who was on the team awarded the Guinness World Record for the world’s smallest test tube. When asked about the Centre, he said: “This centre will be one of the largest and most advanced clusters of instrumentation for nanoscale and microscale research in the UK. We anticipate it will have significant regional, national and global impact.”

Indeed, this fun image highlights the amazing activities which can be carried out on the smallest of scales, and results have already been obtained in the fields of engine oils, hair damage, satellite chip corrosion, paints and coatings and catalysis.

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Failure: why science is so successful

Today, Chemistry World have published the review of what appears to be a very interesting book that will no doubt interest all chemistry lovers – Failure: why science is so successful.

In his book, Stuart Firestein discusses that half of science is failed experiments and wrong hypotheses, and this is usually glossed over or forgotten completely.

We should not only accept the failures in our work, but appreciate and relish them – a negative result is still a result, and one which inevitably teaches us something and allows us to progress closer to the correct answer.

As a PhD student, I’ve encountered many a negative or unexpected result, and I agree that it would be a boost not only to researchers’ morale, but also the knowledge of our field, if failures were embraced and shared. How else can we learn from our mistakes and move on to bigger and better things?

We’re often told to ignore our failures, or even to hide them, and continue searching for the big break that’ll make our careers. However, this doesn’t help the field move forward, and it only serves to demoralise and demotivate students and Post-Docs whose hard work is being pushed aside and forgotten. I agree with Stuart that failure should be taken note of, and used in a positive way to benefit science and ourselves.

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Toxicity is a hazardous waste

Today I came across an opinion article in Chemistry World which highlights what I believe is a very important issue – chemists today are not being properly trained and prepared in reducing toxicity in their methods.

Now, this isn’t only an issue for the green chemists out there – as chemistry undergraduates and postgraduates we’re often completely unaware of how significant the toxicity of solvents, reagents and products are further down the development pipeline of a new material. We’re simply overjoyed if we manage to make the product we’ve been working on for months, and we’re thrilled if it exhibits the properties we’ve been hoping for, such as cancer killing activity. Never do we step back and consider the carcinogenic chloroform we carried out a work-up with, or the explosive starting materials which couldn’t possibly be used on an industrial scale.

And, why would we? I personally only remember the reduction of toxicity being mentioned in specific green/environmental chemistry modules I chose as an undergraduate, which often leads students to only considering these issues in this context. It’s a green chemistry issue, not one to think about in every day synthetic laboratory work, right? I have come across some of these issues in my PhD, as its industrially funded, so I have some appreciation of what solvents might not be desirable/scaleable, but this has only been mentioned in passing, and I’ve had no formal training in this area.

It’s a common problem throughout chemistry degrees/PhDs, which his highlighted throughout this article. Newly trained chemists give very little thought to the toxicity issues of their work and, crucially, it isn’t instilled in them by their professors or supervisors that they should be. Indeed, many supervisors are more interested in results which they can publish than whether or not their methodology would be commercially viable. However, when these students venture out of academia into the world of industry, this is something they’ll very much have to be aware of, and this knowledge would be extremely useful if taught beforehand.

Unless we want to hide in academia forever, it’s about time we opened our eyes to how our chemistry might affect the real world, and whether the work we’re carrying out would be remotely industrially viable. If we came together with engineers, process chemists and industrial chemists, we could all save ourselves valuable time, energy and resources by knowing what our final goals really are.

Of course, chemistry for the sake of chemistry is still something I advocate – we always need to learn more about the world around us – but, if we’re going to have a grand goal for our research, we need to take a step back and no our limits right from the beginning. Only then, will we reach a conclusion everyone can benefit from.

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Saving Science from the Scientists

Recently, I listened to a very interesting and relevant programme on BBC Radio 4 called “Saving Science from the Scientists” – which you can find here.

In it, science journalist Alok Jha explores whether scientific research is as rigorous and reliable as we all would hope and, as a chemist, I thought he raised some very important points.

Although the two-part series does focus a little on fraud in the publication of scientific papers, Alok also discusses how the pressure to publish, the instability of an academic career and the focus on Impact Factor are having a detrimental effect on science as  a whole. This is something both scientists and the general public need to be concerned about, because a loss of faith in scientific results would be disastrous.

I have particularly strong feelings about this topic, as I’m coming to the end of the PhD process myself, and have seen the toxic “publish or perish” atmosphere in academia at the moment. Although as a naive, bright-eyed Masters student you want to make new and exciting chemical discoveries and contribute to the knowledge in your field, you soon learn that your real goal is to crowbar your supervisor’s work into a “high impact” journal. And, should you fail, your academic career is almost certainly doomed.

It’s true that quality results being published in top journals may be achievable through hard work alone, but more often than not it’s down to luck – what project you’re given, which ligand/metal/substrate/molecule/etc you decide to work on first, what other people in your field happen to be working on, etc. There are many variables which are out of your control, and if you get stuck on a particularly tricky or fruitless project, it’s often too late to change your fate.

In an ideal world, a project that yielded negative or unexpectedly disappointing results would still be of value to the scientific community – after all, if you prove something doesn’t work, that’s still a result, right? Wrong! Most journals aren’t interested in negative or less interesting outcomes, and your work may consequently never get published – after all, your supervisor doesn’t want a poor quality journal on their record.

This gets me onto my biggest pet peeve of academic research. Scientists want a good track record. They want only top journals on their publication list, which is encouraged by systems such as the Research Excellence Framework, which awards chemistry departments lower ratings for publishing in lower impact journals. This leads to less interesting or ground-breaking research never being published, which doesn’t only leave PhD students disheartened (and worried about their career prospects) but your scientific field of choice is missing novel results which could advance in the area in the future. If no one knows your results, how will others know it’s not worth pursuing or, more importantly, figure out what to change to achieve better results next time? Knowledge is being kept under wraps simply because our academic system deems it unworthy of publication.

It’s good to see the media taking an active interest in these problems, and I sincerely hope that scientists, universities and publishing houses take a hard look at the downwards spiral this culture of research is creating. Research isn’t only about getting your name out there and advancing your personal career, it’s about growing your field, and putting knowledge into the public eye. It’s high time we all remembered that.

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