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High value chemicals for pharmaceuticals could be made cheaper and greener by new catalysts

High value chemicals for pharmaceuticals could be made cheaper and greener by new catalysts

Chemicals used to make pharmaceuticals could be made more sustainably by a new series of catalysts

– The catalysts made by researchers at the University of Warwick and GoldenKeys High-Tech Materials Co., Ltd. in China can tailor make chemicals

– The ability to selectively make the chemicals means they can potentially be made quicker, cheaper and higher purity

High value chemicals used to make pharmaceuticals could be made much cheaper and quicker thanks to a series of new catalysts made by scientists at the University of Warwick in collaboration with GoldenKeys High-Tech Co., Ltd. in China.

The process of making high-value chemicals for uses such as the pharmaceutical or electronics chemical industry requires many years of work and a very high financial investment, with a large amount of side products going to waste.

However, in research published in August in the ACS journal Organic Letters, the paper: Probing the Effects of Heterocyclic Functionality in [(Benzene) Ru (TsDPENR)CI] Catalysts for Asymmetric Transfer Hydrogenation’, shows how scientists are able to tailor conditions in the catalyst to make the molecule required.

The research project between the University of Warwick and the GoldenKeys High-Tech Materials Co., Ltd., a Speciality Material Company led by Dr. Yingjian Xu FRSC in China, has resulted in the development of a series of new catalysts for the asymmetric synthesis of alcohols which could be used for high value chemicals such as pharmaceuticals and electronics chemicals, potentially making it faster, cheaper and more environmentally sustainable as less chemicals are required under the catalytic conditions.

Researchers were able to make the catalyst by making the molecules’ ligands – which act as building blocks, bind to the metal ruthenium.

This means that scientists can pick and choose which molecules to bind together to make a catalyst and in turn make the chemical required in a much faster and more sustainable way.

In some cases the ligands are ‘bidentate’ – meaning they form two bonds to the metal, and in other cases they are ‘tridentate’ – forming three bonds to the metal. Knowing how each ligand will bind also helps the identification of the optimal active form and the conditions required for the target application.

Professor Martin Wills from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Warwick comments:

“The ability to make high-value chemicals through our new series of catalysts using ruthenium metal means that they can be made much more sustainably.From left to right Jonathan Barrios-Rivera, Martin Wills, Yingjian Xu (Andy)

Dr. Yingjian Xu of GoldenKeys High-Tech Materials Co., Ltd. adds:

“If this method is used in the pharmaceutical and electronics chemical industries for example then products and intermediates can potentially be made more cheaply and quickly with higher purity for consumers and reduce waste as less material is needed to make the catalyst, unlike traditional stoichiometric methods.”

Materials provided by University of Warwick

‘Deforming’ solar cells could be clue to improved efficiency

‘Deforming’ solar cells could be clue to improved efficiency

  • Deformations and defects in structures of photoelectric technologies shown to improve their efficiency
  • University of Warwick physicists demonstrate that strain gradient can prevent recombination of photo-excited carriers in solar energy conversion
  • Increasingly important as devices become miniaturised

Solar panelsSolar cells and light-sensing technologies could be made more efficient by taking advantage of an unusual property due to deformations and defects in their structures.

Researchers from the University of Warwick’s Department of Physics have found that the strain gradient (i.e. inhomogeneous strain) in the solar cells, through physical force or induced during the fabrication process, can prevent photo-excited carriers from recombining, leading to an enhanced solar energy conversion efficiency. The results of their experiments have been published in Nature Communications.

The team of scientists used an epitaxial thin film of BiFeO3 grown on LaAlO3 substrate to determine the impact of inhomogenous deformation on the film’s ability to convert light into electricity by examining how its strain gradient affects its ability to separate photo-excited carriers.

Most commercial solar cells are formed of two layers creating at their boundary a junction between two kinds of semiconductors, p-type with positive charge carriers (electron vacancies) and n-type with negative charge carriers (electrons). When light is absorbed, the junction of the two semiconductors sustains an internal field splitting the photo-excited carriers in opposite directions, generating a current and voltage across the junction. Without such junctions the energy cannot be harvested and the photo-excited carriers will simply quickly recombine eliminating any electrical charge.

They found that the strain gradient can help prevent recombination by separating the light-excited electron-holes, enhancing the conversion efficiency of the solar cells. The BiFeO3/LaAlO3 film also exhibited some interesting photoelectric effects, such as persistent photoconductivity (improved electrical conductivity). It has potential applications in UV light sensors, actuators and transducers.

Dr Mingmin Yang from the University of Warwick said: “This work demonstrated the critical role of the strain gradient in mediating local photoelectric properties, which is largely overlooked previously. By engineering photoelectric technologies to take advantage of strain gradient, we may potentially increase the conversion efficiency of solar cells and enhance the sensitivity of light sensors.

“Another factor to consider is the grain boundaries in polycrystalline solar cells. Generally, defects accumulate at the grain boundaries, which would induce photo-carrier recombination, limiting efficiency. However, in some polycrystalline solar cells, such as CdTe solar cells, the grain boundaries would promote the collection of photo-carriers, where the giant strain gradient might play an important role. Therefore, we need to pay attention to the local strain gradient when we study the structure-properties relations in solar cells and light sensor materials.”

Previously, the effect of this strain on efficiency was thought to be negligible. With the increasing miniaturisation of technologies, the effect of strain gradient becomes magnified at smaller sizes. So in reducing the size of a device using one of these films, the magnitude of strain gradient increases dramatically.

Dr Yang adds: “The strain gradient induced effect, such as flexo-photovoltaic effect, ionic migration, etc, would be increasingly important at low dimensions.”

Materials provided by University of Warwick

Marathon-running molecule could speed up the race for new neurological treatments

Marathon-running molecule could speed up the race for new neurological treatments

  • Two proteins that activate the fastest molecule in our nerve cells identified by researchers at University of Warwick
  • Mechanism is responsible for transport through our nervous system
  • Faults in cargo transporters can lead to hereditary spastic paraplegia (HSP) and other neurodegenerative disorders
  • Could lead to therapeutic treatment for people with HSP and neurological disorders

Scientists at the University of Warwick have discovered a new process that sets the fastest molecular motor on its marathon-like runs through our neurons.

The findings, now published in Nature Communications, paves the way towards new treatments for certain neurological disorders.

The research focuses on KIF1C: a tiny protein-based molecular motor that moves along microscopic tubular tracks (called microtubules) within neurons. The motor converts chemical energy into mechanical energy used to transport various cargoes along microtubule tracks, which is necessary for maintaining proper neurological function.

Neurons are cells that form the basis of our nervous system, conducting the vital function of transferring signals between the brain, the spinal cord and the rest of the body. They consist of a soma, dendrites, and an axon, a long projection from the cell that transports signals to other neurons.

Molecular motors need to be inactive and park until their cargo is loaded onto them. Neurons are an unusually long (up to 3 feet) type of nerve cell, and because of this marathon distance, these tiny molecular motors need to keep going until their cargo is delivered at the end.

Insufficient cargo transport is a crucial cause for some debilitating neurological disorders. Faulty KIF1C molecular motors cause hereditary spastic paraplegia, which affects an estimated 135,000 people worldwide. Other studies have also found links between defective molecular motors and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

The research shows how, when not loaded with cargo, KIF1C prevents itself from attaching to microtubule tracks by folding on to itself. The scientists also identified two proteins: PTNPN21 and Hook3, which can attach to the KIF1C molecular motor. These proteins unfold KIF1C, activating it and allowing the motor to attach and run along the microtubule tracks – like firing the starting pistol for the marathon race.

The newly identified activators of KIF1C may stimulate cargo transport within the defective nerve cells of patients with hereditary spastic paraplegia, a possibility the team is currently exploring.

Commenting on the future impact of this research, Dr Anne Straube from Warwick Medical School said: “If we understand how motors are shut off and on, we may be able to design cellular transport machines with altered properties. These could potentially be transferred into patients with defect cellular transport to compensate for the defects. Alternatively they can be used for nanotechnology to build new materials by exploiting their ability to concentrate enzymes or chemical reagents. We are also studying the properties of the motors with patient mutations to understand why they function less well.

“We still know very little about how motors are regulated. There are 45 kinesins expressed in human cells, but we only have an idea how the motors are activated for less than a handful of them. KIF1C is the fastest motor in neurons and the motor that is the most versatile – it delivers cargoes efficiently to all processes in a neuron, not just the axon.”

Journal: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-10644-9

Materials provided by University of Warwick

Pre-term babies are less likely to form romantic relationships in adulthood

Pre-term babies are less likely to form romantic relationships in adulthood

  • A study of up to 4.4m adult participants has shown that those who were born pre-term (under 37 weeks gestation) are less likely to form romantic relationships, have sexual relations or experience parenthood than those who were born full term
  • Research from the University of Warwick suggests it’s partly due to pre-term birth being associated with being more often withdrawn and shy, socially excluded and less likely to take risks in adolescence
  • More needs to be done in schools and by parents to encourage social interactions at younger ages, so when they transition to adulthood they are more likely to meet someone and increase their wellbeing

Adults who were born pre-term (under 37 weeks gestation) are less likely to have a romantic relationship, a sexual partner and experience parenthood than those born full term. The meta-analysis by researchers at the University of Warwick with data from up to 4.4 million adult participants showed that those born preterm are 28% less likely to ever be in a romantic relationship.

A meta-analysis conducted by researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick has published Association of Preterm Birth/Low Birth Weight with Romantic Partnership, Sexual Intercourse and Parenthood in Adulthood: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis’ in JAMA Open today, 12th of July. They have found that adults who were born pre-term are less likely to form romantic relationships than full-term peers.

In the analysis 4.4 million adult participants those born preterm were 28% less likely to form romantic relationships and 22% less likely to become parents, when compared to those born full term.

Those studies that looked at sexual relations of pre-term children found that they were 2.3 times less likely to ever have a sexual partner when compared to full terms.

Those adults who were born very (<32 weeks gestation) or extremely preterm <28 weeks gestation) had even lower chances of experiencing sexual relationships, finding a romantic partner or having children at the same age as those born full term, with the extremely pre-term born adults being 3.2 times less likely to ever having sexual relations.

Close and intimate relationships have been shown to increase happiness and well-being both physically and mentally. However, studies also show that forming those relationships is harder for pre-term born adults, as they are usually timid, socially withdrawn and low in risk-taking and fun seeking.

Despite having fewer close relationships, this meta-analysis also revealed that when preterm born adults had friends or a partner, the quality of these relationships was at least as good in preterms compared to full term born adults.

First author of the paper, Dr. Marina Goulart de Mendonça from the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick comments:

“The finding that adults who were born pre-term are less likely to have a partner, to have sex and become parents does not appear to be explained by a higher rate of disability. Rather preterm born children have been previously found to have poorer social interactions in childhood that make it harder for them to master social transitions such as finding a partner, which in turn is proven to boost your wellbeing.”

The senior author, Professor Dieter Wolke, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick adds:

“Those caring for preterm children including parent’s health professionals and teachers should be more aware of the important role of social development and social integration for pre-term children. As preterm children tend to be more timid and shy, supporting them making friends and be integrated in their peer group will help them to find romantic partners, have sexual relationships and to become parents. All of which enhances wellbeing.”

Materials provided by University of Warwick

Illustration of the rogue planet

The ‘Forbidden’ Planet has been found in the ‘Neptunian Desert’

The Neptunian Desert is a region close to stars where large planets with their own atmospheres, similar to Neptune, are not expected to survive, since the strong irradiation from the star would cause any gaseous atmosphere to evaporate, leaving just a rocky core behind.

This is a very rare planet, and it’s the first time that such a small planet has been detected by a wide-field ground-based telescope

–Ed Gillen

However, NGTS-4b, nicknamed the ‘Forbidden Planet’, still has its atmosphere intact and is the first exoplanet of its kind to be found in the Neptunian Desert. The results are reported in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

NGTS-4b is smaller than Neptune and three times the size of Earth. It is dense and hot, with a mass 20 times that of Earth and an average surface temperature of 1000 degrees Celsius. The planet orbits its star very closely, completing a full orbit in just 1.3 days.

The planet was identified using the Next-Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) observing facility at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert. NGTS is a collaboration between the Universities of Warwick, Leicester, Cambridge, and Queen’s University Belfast, together with Observatoire de Genève, DLR Berlin and Universidad de Chile.

When looking for new planets, astronomers use facilities such as NGTS to look for a dip in the light of a star, which occurs when an orbiting planet passes in front of it, blocking some of the light. Usually, dips of 1% and more can be picked up by ground-based searches, but the NGTS telescopes can pick up a dip of just 0.2%.

This sensitivity means that astronomers can now detect a wider range of exoplanets: those with diameters between two and eight times that of Earth, in between the smaller rocky planets and gas giants.

“This is a very rare planet, and it’s the first time that such a small planet has been detected by a wide-field ground-based telescope,” said co-author Dr Ed Gillen from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, who led the data analysis of the system to determine the mass, radius and orbit of NGTS-4b.

The researchers believe the planet may have moved into the Neptunian Desert recently, in the last one million years, or it was very big and the atmosphere is still evaporating.

“This planet must be tough – it is right in the zone where we expected Neptune-sized planets could not survive,” said lead Dr Richard West from the University of Warwick. “It is truly remarkable that we found a transiting planet via a star dimming by less than 0.2% – this has never been done before by telescopes on the ground, and it was great to find after working on this project for a year.

“We are now searching our data for other similar planets to help us understand how dry this Neptunian Desert is, or whether it is greener than was once thought,” said Gillen.

The research was supported in part by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council

The full paper: https://academic.oup.com/mnras/article/486/4/5094/5475662

Materials provided by the University of Warwick