From A P Malozemoff

In a recent letter (Chemistry World,  March 2008, p44), Jeremy Hodge characterised as ’wildly optimistic’ the commercial prospects for cables for the electricity grid based on current technology superconductors. He is right that if one considers only transmission loss savings as the driver for these superconductor cables, the economics do not stack up.  

But superconductor cables offer much more. Because of their ability to carry great amounts of power in a small cross-section - and because they emit no heat or electromagnetic fields - they can be installed in small ducts in close proximity to other underground infrastructure such as gas and telecommunications, or even through borings deep under this infrastructure. Avoiding or reducing the costs of digging up city streets is a major economic driver in itself for superconductor cables. It’s also a major need, since underground real estate in cities like London, New York and Shanghai is already filled to capacity, as local utilities struggle to meet the 100 per cent increase in power demand that is expected over the next 25 years.  

Furthermore, with their ability to carry high currents, superconductor cables can transmit power at lower voltages (reducing the need for special permits to lay the cable) and in some cases, as in the Department of Energy’s planned Energy Project in New Orleans, avoiding the construction of new substations in city centres. In addition, the recent development of superconductor fault current limiting cables in the Hydra Project for Con Edison in New York provides a major benefit to utilities suffering from rising fault currents which threaten to damage existing grid infrastructure.  

These aspects, more than just efficiency, are the main economic drivers creating a heightened commercial interest among utilities worldwide in superconductor cables. 

A P Malozemoff, Chief Technical Officer, American Superconductor Corporation
Devens, US


From Geoff Glasby

Brian Innes posed a question about Chaim Weizmann on your letters page (Chemistry World, April 2008, p42).  

In 1904, Chaim Weizmann came to Britain as a senior lecturer in chemistry at Manchester University and, in 1910, he became a British subject. Prior to the first world war, TNT was made from whale oil from the South Atlantic. At Manchester, Weizmann became the first to discover how to use bacterial fermentation to produce large quantities of organic chemicals. In particular, he used the bacterium, Clostridium acetobutylium  (the Weizmann bacterium), to produce butanol and acetone from starch. His professor, W H Perkin, laughed at the idea.  

However, with the advent of the First World War, the Royal Navy became desperate for cordite. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, commandeered a gin company to manufacture acetone. Later in the war, the bacteria were sent to Canada where two factories were set up to manufacture acetone from maize using the ABE (acetone-butanol-ethanol) process. Acetone was also used in the manufacture of TNT, which was critical to the British war effort. Without abundant supplies of cordite and TNT, it is doubtful if Britain could have won the war. From 1916 to 1919, Weizmann was Scientific Director of the British Admiralty Laboratories.  

In return for Weizmann’s discoveries, Lloyd George told Weizmann to name his price. Rejecting personal gain, Weizmann requested that Palestine be declared an international homeland for the Jews, which led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917. 

Weizmann was also an active politician serving as leader of the Zionist movement in Britain (1917-1946) and became the first President of Israel (1948-1952). At Rehovoth in Israel where he lived, Weizmann founded the Weizmann Institute of Science. Weizmann is nowadays considered to be the father of industrial fermentation.  

G Glasby CChem FRSC 
Sheffield, UK 

Ed: Another reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, points out the following paragraph from the ’War Memoirs of David Lloyd George’ (Vol 1, p349. London, Odham, 1938) [Around the time Weizmann solved the acetone problem, Lloyd George was Minister of Munitions, and later Prime Minister.]

’When our difficulties were solved through Dr Weizmann’s genius, I said to him: "You have rendered great service to the State, and I should like to ask the Prime Minister to recommend you to His Majesty for some honour." He said: "There is nothing I want for myself." "But is there nothing we can do as a recognition of your valuable assistance to the country?" I asked. He replied: "Yes, I would like you to do something for my people." He then explained his aspirations as to the repatriation of the Jews to the sacred land they had made famous. That was the fount and origin of the famous [Balfour] declaration about the National Home for Jews in Palestine.’  


From Robert Crabtree

John Mullin (Chemistry World, April 2008, p43) regrets that Gibbs now-classic 1876 paper on the phase rule appeared in the obscure Transactions of the Connecticut Academyand was thus ’lost’. For many years, Gibbs was not even paid a salary by Yale College and he probably carried out his research for pure pleasure, so any historical assessment should take account of the very different situation of those years before the US appeared on the world scientific stage. It is quite possible that his work would have been rejected by a European journal. The Transactions  are said to have published his work without referee review because he was regarded locally as something of a genius. 

R H Crabtree CChem FRSC Yale Chemistry Department
New Haven, US


From Stephen King

Your editorial ’Sweating the small stuff’ (Chemistry World, March 2008, p2) and subsequent news piece (’Doubts over US and EU nanosafety drives’, ibid, p12) rightly highlight the different paces with which different countries are assessing the safety of nanotechnologies and the fate of nanomaterials. However, neither article details what is happening in the UK on this issue, though ’procrastination’ is mentioned. 

In fact, one of the core themes of the new Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) science strategy released in 2007 is ’Environment, Pollution and Human Health’. Within this are two dedicated research programmes: the Environmental Nanoscience Initiative (ENI) and the Environment and Human Health Programme (EHH). The former, a partnership with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Environment Agency (EA), is funding a range of one-year, directed, research grants aimed at generating a better understanding of the behaviour and fate of nanoparticles in the environment.  

The latter is a more wide-ranging three-year capacity-building programme in partnership with the EA, Defra, the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Economic and Social Research Council, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Health Protection Agency and the Ministry of Defence. The project will look at how environmental pollutants affect people’s health, to inform the development of more effective policy.  

From personal experience I can assure readers that chemists do have an important role to play in all this, and that there are funding opportunities out there. But it does require a willingness to look beyond the traditional funders of chemistry in the UK and to work with colleagues in disciplines such as the environmental and medical sciences, and ecotoxicology. Chemists need to be involved in these programmes: to explain how and why nanomaterials are made, where they are used, what their properties and reactivites are, how they may be detected and characterised and, of course, to make them in the first place. In some of this there is clearly also a role for industry. 

The UK may not yet be committing anything like the same level of funding as some other countries, but surely it is better for our government to attempt to build policy and regulation on a foundation of sound science than to rush to a clarion call? 

S M King CChem FRSC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
Didcot, UK


From Roger Davey

I was so pleased to see your article on malaria (Chemistry World, April 2008, p50), as this is such an important target in world health. However, you were clearly not aware of some very significant developments in understanding how current antimalarials work. Haemozoin is indeed the by-product of the parasite’s dinner, and it is toxic to the parasite. However, it is only in the last decade that it has become clear that the old idea that the haemozoin is removed from the food vacuole by polymerisation is in fact incorrect. It is much simpler: the haemozoin actually crystallises within the food vacuole and hence is rendered ineffective as a toxin to the parasite. The antimalarial drugs apparently stop the haemazoin from crystallising, leaving it solubilised and available to kill the parasite (see S Pagola et al, Nature, 2000, 404, 307; R Buller et alCryst. Growth Des., 2002,2, 553; 
I Solomonov et alJ. Am. Chem. Soc.,  2007, 129, 2615). 

R Davey CChem FRSC
University of Manchester, UK