Posted tagged ‘Chemistry’

Is Chemistry the Key to Sustainable Living? – A Review

November 28, 2010

This was a debate held by the Royal Society of Chemistry at the flash, newly renovated Chemistry Centre in Burlington House, Piccadilly.

The main speaker was Dr Mike Pitts from the Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network, with Professor Tom Welton (Imperial College) and Bob Crawford (Unilever) backing him up in the subsequent debate.

Obviously his answer to the title question was yes, as Pitts admitted straightaway, otherwise the whole thing would have been rather pointless.

Pitts was a striking speaker, perhaps surprisingly for a scientist; he really knows how to communicate in non-scientific terms,which is just as well as this event was billed as a policy event and hoped to attract a broad audience. In the end, though the Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was present, there did not seem to be many other notable individuals present, and the audience mainly consisted of RSC staff, interested members and students, and the odd visitor from another learned society. I realise that the RSC deliberately kept the invite list small but the room was half empty in the end and it seemed that the event could have been more widely promoted.

I didn’t learn much new from the talk itself, which went along the lines of “here’s the doom and gloom” then “here are some generic ways in which we can change the way we think about chemistry to solve the doom and gloom”. Pitts focussed on the scarce natural resurces aspect of things; rare earth metals and carbon and other “poorly managed elments”, but also covered water and biodiversity (no explanation of how chemistry can help with the latter, though).

His solution, in general, was an interesting one that will, however require a great deal of change in the way society behaves. He proposed that we should not think so much about individual products and think instead about their overall life cycle. This was not just in terms of those designing them, though he was keen for designers and chemists to collaborate more together, but in terms of what we as society buy. He believes that in the future we will buy a service rather than a product, for example, for the experience of using a washing machine, rather than simply buying and owning a washing machine. This service would then cover “cradle to grave” of the machine rather than the current situation which covers cradle to point of disposal.

Such a way of viewing things would certainly enable and indeed encourage service providers to think more about the way they design products to make them recyclable etc. For the user, such a usage scheme could mean a seamless service even when things go wrong (and encourage longer-lasting products in the first place). But the fundamental tenet of this view is that the users would not be the owners of the “things”, simply the users. It would be like renting your TV in years gone by. As much as I like this idea personally, I am not sure that our highly capitalist, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses society is ready to own less. I’d be interested to see how this could be put to the man on the street in a way that would actually make him buy it.

Chemistry can certainly help to achieve this goal but it is going to take a lot more than chemistry to make it viable. Psychology, marketing, and probably policy decisions in parliament too. Scientists have been trying to change people’s behaviour for years with the dire warnings about global warming etc. It is going to take more than that to get us to alter our comfortable lifestyle in which we own houses, cars, furniture, white goods, etc.

Lucky dip

November 25, 2010

Two new stories of mine on hybrid electrolytes and a new way to dye biodegradable polymers, have appeared on the Chemistry World website. And a couple on Materials Views on nanoplasmonics, nanomemory, and super strong nanocontacts.Quite a mix!

When is news not news?

October 29, 2010

I started thinking about this after being given a job by my friends at Chemistry World. The paper seemed quite cool and speaking with the author about it really enthused me, but then I spoke to another expert on the field and my enthusiasm was somewhat dampened.

I still think the paper and the idea in it is pretty cool – solve the problem of electrolyte migration in Li ion batteries by tethering the electrolytes. This makes better batteries that can last for longer and are safer than conventional Li ion batteries. Li ion batteries can hold a lot more charge than other sorts of batteries so working with them could be a good idea. Although no-one here has addressed the problem that Li resources may be running out so how do we make the batteries then? I guess that’s someone else’s problem.

The issue pointed out by the other expert is that only part of the electrolyte is tethered. Oh yes and apparently they’ve only tested the system at between 100th to 1000th of the operation current of a real Li ion battery. Issues that may have been easily resolved pre-publication with a couple more experiments – but then such is the way of peer review.

My problem was then is this story still worth publishing as news? I think yes, as it does further science and is a neat new concept, but it certainly doesn’t have the impact that it might have done and a lot of lay-people might not understand that this one experiment cannot really hope to solve all our battery concerns. They might read this and think the advances had already been made, or alternatively read this and think we are still a long way from the perfect battery (which would be true, though we may be closer now than we were).

I liked the concept so I think it is worth bringing to a wider audience, you may not agree. Anyhow the story appeared here so you can judge for yourselves whether it is newsworthy or not.

Building up graphene nanoribbons

July 22, 2010

Just a quickie….to let you know that another article I wrote on graphene nanomaterials is now online on the Chemistry World website. That’s the third article on nanographene in two months – clearly a hot area or something!

Piece in Chemistry World

June 15, 2010

A piece I wrote on the tuning of reduced graphene oxide to make conductive lines such as nanocircuitry can be found on the Chemistry World webpage.

Wow – I can see a long way from here

May 18, 2010

Hello. This is a post to introduce myself and my blog to the world.

Imagine you are a very small thing, a dwarf or a beetle or even smaller (but try and limit your sense of even smaller to something that actually has eyes, please, or you will destroy the rest of my analogy). You find a huge creature, something giant in your view. It can see a long way, further than you have ever even imagined. It tells you all about the wonders it can see. But you want to see with your own eyes, so slowly, laboriously, and with lots of help, you climb up the giant and look to see what you can see from the dizzy heights.

What you can see is a lot. You may not understand it all, certainly not at first. The giant has a bit of explaining to do. But at some point you realise that actually, because you are sitting on the giant’s shoulder, your eyes are higher up than its eyes are, and you can see further still. You could never have done that if you were still on the ground, you needed the giant’s help, but now you are the one who can see the most amazing wonders.

I’m sure that by now you get the point. The analogy I’m using is not a new one, according to the very reliable Wikipedia, it wasn’t even the illustrious scientist Isaac Newton who was the first to use it but a 12th century philosopher called Bernard of Chartres. It has even been used by others for their slogan before – you may have used a certain search engine to help you find this blog. But I like the idea of something small and beetle-like (myself, or maybe you) being able to see more and further than the things I know and understand to be huge and amazing, simply by working with those things. Some people prefer to sit on the ground and deny the existence of the wonders that can be seen from the shoulders of the giants, simply because they don’t like the giant. This blog is not for you. This blog is for those of you interested in my notes from the shoulder of the giant.

I will the first to admit that I may not understand everything I see from here – that’s where you the community as the giant come in – you can help me to understand those things better, and communicate them better to those beetle-like beings on the ground who may be just starting the long climb up. Because that’s how we can make the giants even taller, and raise up the beetles/dwarves/Lilliputians even higher, so they can see even more than we can, and pass on their notes to the future.

As you might have gathered, I’m actually not a beetle at all (finding a beetle capable of typing would be an impressive feat) but a simple PhD chemist interested in science and communicating it. I’ve been working in the area of chemistry and science now for a good few years, and have met a lot of great, sincere, and hardworking people who are part of the effort to climb up the giant, and to raise the giant onto a hill. I admire their hard work in the face of  adversity. This blog represents a snapshot of my views. Where I can, I will back up my views with evidence, but it’s always going to be my interpretation of what I can see. If you think I am misrepresenting your case, maybe I just haven’t understood it. That might be my fault for being just plain dim, or it could be that you haven’t stated your case sufficiently clearly enough – in my experience both are quite likely. In any case, I’ll try not to make personal attacks or judgements – if you think I am doing so please give me the benefit of the doubt and just let me know how you feel. I can be contacted on