NChem Research Highlights: Cheap fuel cells, biopolymer threading and biosensors

Happy New Year! Here are the first batch of Research Highlights of 2009. (Although I should confess that we wrote them last year…)

So, we all know fuel cells are going to rule the energy world soon…but not if they’re stuffed full with platinum and similarly expensive metals. Which is why replacing such precious metals with cheaper ones, like silver, at the cathode is so important. [FYI: I checked out the market and silver is about 100 times cheaper than platinum]

The biological world is full of long chain molecules, like DNA or proteins. How exactly these chains manage to thread through pores – either in enzymes or membranes – is pretty challenging. We’re getting closer to understanding thanks to some clever chemistry: threading a fluorescent polymer through a macrocycle until it reaches a certain point, at which it stops fluorescing. The kinetics of threading can therefore by studied by the fluorescence quenching.

Hyperpolarised xenon has been investigated as an alternative to using gadolinium compounds as contrast agents in MRI – it can be probed directly instead of protons. And now Ivan Dmochowski and colleagues have used 129-Xe as a biosensor that can determine the difference between two isozymes of carbonic anhydrase.

So, apart from the honour of being featured on In the Pipeline, what else have we been checking out in the new year? Steve’s been looking at some pretty pictures, thanks to his former home Lab on a Chip and their Art in Science feature. I’ve been learning how to make your home-brew nice and cloud-free – it’s all down to Stokes Law and a galactose polymer (carrageenan)…


Neil Withers (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)