Five chemical engineering research stories from September 2016

To help you stay up-to-date with the latest achievements from the chemical engineering research community here is our monthly instalment with some of the latest stories.

September’s five stories of amazing chemical engineering research and innovation are:

The Popeye effect – powered by spinach

spinachPopeye was right; we can be powered by spinach! Researchers from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have developed a bio-photo-electro-chemical (BPEC) cell that produces electricity and hydrogen from water using sunlight, using a simple membrane extract from spinach leaves. The article, publish in the journal Nature Communications, demonstrates the unique combination of a man-made BPEC cell and plant membranes, which absorb sunlight and convert it into a flow of electrons highly efficiently. The team hope that this paves the way for the development of new technologies for the creation of clean fuels from renewable sources. The raw material of the device is water, and its products are electric current, hydrogen and oxygen.

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Suspending a liquid within a liquid, within a liquid… (Day 280)

When I read through scientific journals, the articles that grab my attention aren’t always the ones describing the most novel ideas. Sometimes it’s enough to just make something easier. That’s why today’s story appealed to me.

Many everyday products including medicines, beauty products and foodstuffs contain emulsions: liquids with tiny droplets of another liquid suspended within them (see my blog ‘food, glorious, food…emulsions‘).  A classic example that we all can create at home is vinaigrette (salad dressing), which is an emulsion of oil and vinegar.

MIT researchers designed these complex emulsions to change their configuration in response to stimuli, such as light, or the addition of a chemical surfactant.

Photo Credit | Christine Daniloff\MIT
MIT researchers designed these complex emulsions to change their configuration in response to stimuli, such as light, or the addition of a chemical surfactant.

Vinaigrette is a straightforward two component mixture. However, things get far more interesting when you suspend a liquid within a liquid, within a liquid. These complex emulsions (in this case a double emulsion) can be tailored for use in specific applications.

A team of chemists and chemical engineers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, have found a way to simplify the process of creating complex emulsions. Their method offers possibilities for rapid production at scale.

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The true meaning of our science (Day 208)

SpeakerI am always in favour of evidence-driven policy making. Who wouldn’t want their country’s decisions made on facts?

However, I often worry if the public, politicians and policy makers really understand or, at least, are accurately interpreting the science behind the evidence.

In the UK, we have seen the recent launch of a report from the ‘What Works Centres’, designed to make the best evidence of what works available to our decision makers.

With top findings from the UK so far including:

  • The use of peer tutoring in schools, where young people work together in small groups, has a high positive impact on achievement
  • Putting more policemen on the beat does not necessarily reduce crime, unless officers are carefully targeted
  • More lives could be saved or improved if people with acute heart failure were routinely treated by specialist heart failure teams

As engineers and researchers, it is our job to ensure that we send a clear message of what our work means, why it matters, where it is applicable and how and when it should be used.

I recently came across a Nature article discussing ‘Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims’ which made me evaluate the message I am sending to decision makers.

From this I have put together a list of just ten things I think we need to tell people know to ensure they understand and correctly interpret the science behind our chemical engineering message:

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