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CHEM IDEAS

Biochemical 'Frog Foam' Shines in 2010 Earth Awards

1:30 AM MDT | September 23, 2010 | By ALEX SCOTT

A glittering award ceremony was held last night in central London to celebrate the Earth Awards 2010 featuring projects shortlisted for their contribution toward sustainability. The winner - as selected by a committee featuring the likes of Sir Richard Branson, CEO of the Virgin Group; the zoologist Jane Goodall; and Graham Hill, the founder of Treehugger - was a biochemical technology; artificial photosynthetic foam, as developed by David Wendell, assistant professor of biomedical and environmental engineering from the University of Cincinnati (UC; Cincinnati, OH)., developed in association with Carlo Montemagno, dean of UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. The design is based on the foam nests of a semi-tropical frog called the Tungara frog, which creates very long-lived foams for its developing tadpoles. The science behind the foam technology was recently published in the science journal Nano Letters.

Bright future: Fluorescent image of polymer vesicles within the foam

 
The photosynthetic foam is a novel artificial material – a protein surfactant, featuring plant, bacterial, frog and fungal enzymes, to produce sugars from sunlight and carbon dioxide. The sugars may then be converted into ethanol or other molecules. Plants typically convert solar energy into sugars at a rate of 1-5% but the foam does this at a minimum rate of 16% - and even more in some circumstances, according to Wendell. Foam was chosen because it can effectively concentrate the reactants but allow very good light and air penetration.

The unique protein surfactant allowed lipid vesicles and coupled enzyme activity to be concentrated to the microscale Plateau channels of the foam, directing photoderived chemical energy to the singular purpose of carbon fixation and sugar synthesis, with chemical conversion efficiencies approaching 96%, the researchers say.

Wendell: Accepting his Earth Award.
The technology is pre-commercial. Wendell and his team’s next steps will be to try to make the technology feasible for large-scale applications such as carbon capture at coal-burning power plants.
 
“The advantage for our system, compared to plants and algae, is that all of the captured solar energy is converted to sugars, whereas these organisms must divert a great deal of energy to other functions to maintain life and reproduce,” Wendell says. “Our foam also uses no soil, so food production would not be interrupted, and it can be used in highly enriched carbon dioxide environments, like the exhaust from coal-burning power plants, unlike many natural photosynthetic systems.”

That Wendell and his team took the $50,000 prize is good news not just for Wendell’s ongoing research but a pointer that chemistry’s younger cousin - biochemistry – even in the guise of a strange foaming mass – can draw the backing of the glitterati as the source of environmental innovation. Last night’s $50,000 prize was presented by the King of Malaysia no less. Biochemistry is in. Butterfly houses – a project also entered for the Earth Awards - are not.

That is not to say that all chemicals are in vogue: At the $1 million annual Heinz awards, also held this week and also with an eye on the the global environment, one of the 10 winners was Frederick vom Saal, a professor at the University of Missouri (Coumbia, MO) for uncovering health problems linked to bisphenol A (BPA). He has been challenging the chemical industry on the safety of BPA for decades.


Lynn Goldman, M.D., George Washington University (Washington, D.C. and Silver Spring, MD.) is another individual recognized by Heinz for promoting regulation of dangerous chemicals and expanding citizens’ right to know about pollution in their communities.

A third chemicals-related Heinz winner is Terrence Collins, professor at the Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA.) for using green chemistry to detoxify hazardous chemicals and training the next generation of scientists. "Throughout his scientific career he has demonstrated an informed willingness to challenge entrenched ideas and misguided conventional wisdom, guided by a sharp and intellectually rigorous focus on what is necessary to move chemistry toward a truly sustainable path," Heinz says.

The inclusion of such winners show that good chemistry is high up on society's wider agenda. Given that many leaders in the chemical industry are now refocusing their companies' R&D efforts toward megatrend issues - including energy and water shortages - the recent shower of awards being bestowed on good chemistry should be viewed as positive news.

















 
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