Five chemical engineering research stories from May 2016

Since the end of ChemEng365 our ChemEngBlog has become a little quiet. To make sure you stay up-to-date with the latest achievements from the chemical engineering research community we will be providing you with monthly updates on some of the latest stories.

So here are five stories of amazing chemical engineering research and innovation:

Seven chemical separations to change the world

Floating energyDavid Sholl and Ryan Lively, chemical and biomolecular engineers, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, US, highlighted seven chemical separation processes that, if improved, would reap great global benefits. The list they have drawn up is not exhaustive (we are sure there are more we could add!) but includes; hydrocarbons from crude oil, uranium from seawater, alkenes from alkanes, greenhouse gases from dilute emissions, rare-earth metals from ores, benzene derivatives from each other, and trace contaminants from water.

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Robert Langer, chemical engineer, wins Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (Day 253)

My aim in writing this blog has been to ensure the voice of chemical engineering is heard in all corners of the world.

Trophy

Photo Credit | Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering
Trophy

Yesterday was a breakthrough moment in terms of recognition, as Robert Langer – chemical engineer and professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, US – was awarded the second ever Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

Bob Langer’s achievement demonstrates the importance of chemical engineering on a truly global scale.  His pioneering work in drug delivery, tissue engineering and nanotechnology has touched the lives of billions of people.

He has developed a field that, quite simply, didn’t previously exist.  This highlights the most important role that chemical engineers play in society today – improving quality of life for all.

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One less trip to Accident and Emergency (Day 185)

Boy in hospitalChildren aged one to five are notorious for putting things in their mouth. It’s part of their learning process and parents spend a lot of time and effort trying to safety-proof their homes.

There’s some good advice online about how to care for a child that is choking, but there are are other hidden dangers, especially from small button batteries.

It is fairly common for flat, round batteries that power toys, hearing aids, calculators, and many other devices to be swallowed.

Swallowing these batteries has severe consequences, including burns that permanently damage the oesophagus, tears in the digestive tract, and in some cases, even death.

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‘Injecting’ from the inside (Day 136)

Most of our prescription medicines are administered orally or by injection. As a patient, the general preference is to receive medicine orally in pill or ‘syrup’ format. Indeed a phobia or fear of needles is common and with billions of injections given each year that’s a lot of nervous patients.

Injections pose other challenges too for patients and medical professionals. There is always a risk of infection caused by piercing the skin, especially from contaminated needles, and medical professionals need to be wary of ‘stick’ injuries.

But sometimes injections are unavoidable. Drugs made from large proteins can be broken down in the stomach before they can take effect. But what if there was a way to use the powerful acids in our stomachs to deliver an injection in the form of a pill – from the inside?

It seems implausible, but that’s what researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Massachusetts General Hospital have managed to do.

Microneedle pill

A schematic drawing of a microneedle pill with hollow needles. When the pill reaches the desired location in the digestive tract, the pH-sensitive coating surrounding the capsule dissolves, allowing the drug to be released through the microneedles. Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT, based on images by Carol Schoellhammer and Giovanni Traverso

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The Zebrafish solution (Day 133)

ZebrafishIf you’ve ever had a tropical aquarium there’s a good chance you’ll have owned and been delighted by the vibrant colours of a darting Zebrafish.

What you may not know is that the Zebrafish has become a firm favourite of the research community. One reason for this is that Zebrafish embryos are completely transparent making them ideally suited for studying developmental processes as they occur.

As a general introduction to why Zebrafish are so attractive to the science community, take a look at this YouTube video produced by University College London (UCL).

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A new approach to bone injuries (Day 101)

X ray of human bodyTypically, we all have 206 bones in our body by the time we are adults. It’s not surprising that we break them every now and again.

Collarbones, arms, wrists, hips and ankles are parts of the body most at risk of breakage.

I always think the body is remarkable in how it can heal itself. In children, bones can repair in as little as three weeks.

But sometimes, nature needs a little help, especially if the defect is so severe that a normal approach won’t work.

Now some clever chemical engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have devised a new implantable tissue scaffold coated with bone growth factors that are released slowly over a few weeks.

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Fighting lung cancer with personalised medicine (Day 93)

DNA and RNARecently I wrote about twins who were creating a better mechanism to release cancer-fighting drugs and about researchers using epigenetics to identify the best treatments for cancers.

Now I have more good news about chemical engineers working to combat lung cancer.

Researchers at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have successfully used RNA therapies to shrink and slow the growth of lung cancer tumours.

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It’s in our genes (Day 85)

DNAThe world of genetics is fascinating and there always seems an endless stream of findings and breakthroughs with the potential for predicting and treating health problems.

This month, research published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated women with mutations in the PALB2 gene face a one in three chance of getting breast cancer by age 70.

A team at the Institute of Cancer Research, in London, have shown 14 separate genetic mutations can greatly increase the odds of aggressive prostate cancers and form the basis for genetic screening in a similar way to breast cancer in women.

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