Nanotechnology, Gasoline Grades, and Food Safety: A Week of Better Chemistry

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Melamine: illegal additive to foodstuff. Image by John A Jaksich

Melamine: illegal additive to foodstuff. Image by John A Jaksich

Chemistry, known as the central science, occupies an unfortunate niche in the minds of many, often due to boring classes and difficult tests during the educational process.

Not only are chemical phenomena poorly understood, but the fear of the unknown feeds negatively upon the psyche. However, as much as certain aspects of fear may be justified, there is an aspect of hope that is justified as well.

In this week’s round up of chemical technology and education we focus upon how the chemical sciences can improve our lives. Chemistry isn’t just not boring – it’s actually extremely beneficial.

Bio-analytical Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is the predominant theme in the majority of journal articles in the American Chemical Society. From an understanding of the intrinsic phenomena behind materials sciences, to explaining how biochemical pathways protect human physiology from nanoparticles, the nanotech revolution seems to be in full swing.

In the latest issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, researchers have uncovered how macrophages (scavengers of unwanted bacteria and foreign objects) found in the lungs ‘digest’ carbon nanotubes. Bio-nanotechnology is currently advancing in the laboratory with findings that the larger-sized molecules can be used to transport needed drugs to ‘hard-to-get-to-sites’ in the human body. However, once the nano-tube has performed its duty, it is found to persist in the body.

With this finding of macrophage digestion, drug delivery maybe augmented with designed macrophages that digest the carrier once completed.

Analytical Food Chemistry

Manufacturers illegally add the compound Melamine to foodstuffs to mask for total protein content.  Although it is masked as protein, the means to detect it in foodstuffs is now readily at hand. Researchers in South Korea have found the means to detect melamine in foods.

All chemical compounds have a distinct signature, nominally through the absorption and emission of light. Terahertz wavelengths of light can penetrate paper, cardboard, plastic and ceramic. Although there is no negative effect from the terahertz wavelengths of light, the light can detect the presence of certain organic chemicals that normally would be masked as lower wavelengths (higher energy) of light. This methodology gives us the ability to investigate the content of food, without destroying it.

Chemistry Education

Many years ago, a favorite laboratory technique for students was analysis of alcohol content in bottle of liquor from grocery store. This laboratory technique proved to be a welcome respite for anyone tiring of a day-to-day grind of abstract techniques and chemical nomenclature. As many may remember, it did not present many toxic compounds to be worried with.

In the same vein, college laboratories are now analyzing gasoline for its specific content. Nominally gasoline is rated by octane content. However, as different grades of gasoline may present problems to the average automobile, oil companies incorporated additives into the mix. First there was tetra-ethyl lead, followed by methyl tert-butyl ether and now ethanol seems to be the additive of choice for US grade gasoline. (The first two additives were deemed to be toxic so ethanol is chosen.)

The methodology of choice for college labs is Fourier-Transform infrared spectroscopy. In this technique, specific amounts of ethanol are determined by a slope intercept method. The equation governing the technique is

%ethanol = [(area of alcohol signal)/(area of other molecule signals) – (y-intercept)] / Slope value.

The mathematics is standard, but the chemistry is gives the student a taste of the gasoline industry.

Living Well Through Chemistry

Chemistry is a part of our daily lives, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Coming to an understanding and respect for the power of chemicals and nanomaterials to make life better will go a long way to repairing the topic’s popular reputation. Believe it or not, chemistry is cool.

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