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Friday, August 4, 2017


Over the coming week I will provide a few postings bringing you up to date on the latest science.  A year ago I reported on gene editing using the CRISPR/CAS9 technique.  The concept has been around for two decades, but a key breakthrough just occurred that makes designer babies merely a social decision.

Today, however, I will articulate on the "secret" to how molecules carry out photosynthesis, a key step into the development of a more competitive biological method to produce sustainable hydrogen fuel.  Scientific American and Nature reported on some work by Petra Fromme and John Spence of Arizona State University on the use of X-ray laser pulses that last a millionth of a billionth of a second to make molecular movies.  

Sit back and appreciate this statement.  First, the timing is 1 / 1,000,000,000,000,000 of a second. How short is this?  That number in the denominator, in terms of seconds, is 32 million years.

Second, commercial cinema became popular about a century ago, with sound added in 1927.  To the left is a photo of a nanographene molecule taken by IBM five years ago.  The first photo ever taken occurred a century before the first film.  Scientists are now making movies of interacting molecules.  I don't think, though, that sound is yet part of this show.  

Of course we all took science and know something about photosynthesis.  Some even remember the chemical reaction.  But until Fromme/Spence developed serial femtosecond crystallography (SFX), we couldn't observe how chemical reactions interacted at the molecular level.

Using SFX, researchers now can see how an experimental drug regulates blood pressure, which will soon lead to better hypertension medication.  Other teams are observing exactly how a plant, using sunlight, splits water, producing oxygen and hydrogen, the key to a future Hydrogen Society.

But you need to appreciate how science sometimes works.  A decade ago Fromme/Spence submitted ten straight proposals that were rejected.  I frankly got tired of getting turned down, for this was a huge waste of time.  So forty years ago I figured out a system to maximize success:
  • Initially gain some credibility in an esoteric subject.  In my case I wrote the original ocean thermal energy conversion and hydrogen legislation when I worked in the U.S. Senate.  I was lucky.

  • Armed with this achievement, I visited with Department of Energy and National Science Foundation officials seeking a small grant to host various research development workshops where the top scholars are invited to my university to produce the document providing research priorities.  
  • Luck #2:  I lived in Hawaii, where people, especially federal program directors, liked to visit.  As I wrote the final report, I made certain our capabilities were well represented in future call for proposals.  The academicians picked to review these proposals were, of course, us, because we were the obvious experts.  We formed our own old boys and girls society to select the winners.  In other words, don't try to crack the old system...form  your own.
  • This resulted in national centers for OTEC, hydrogen and seabed resources (another bit of legislation I shepherded through Congress).  The National Sciene Foundation bestowed the Marine Byproducts Engineering Center to the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at the University of Hawaii.
Fromme/Spence did it the old fashioned way.  They persevered until the field caught up with them.  But there was more to this than that, for they're no dummies, and Spence now happens to be Director of Science at the NSF BioSFEL Science and Technology Center.  He is originally from Australia, while she came from Germany.

Above is the cover of the May issue, from which also came:
  • Who should take aspirin to prevent cancer.  Sixty genes are turned off or on in response to this common drug, but who benefits depends on the person.
  • The future is not the current lithium battery.  Liquid electrolytes could well be the solution.  I've long felt that flow batteries had more promise than the kind we now use.  Maybe the lithium-ion flow battery could well become that next generation, but fuel cells I think shows more promise as the storage of choice, especially if hydrogen someday actually becomes "cheap."  Then, of course, there is that transition bridge, the direct methanol fuel cell, for methanol is ten times cheaper than hydrogen, with 1.4 times more accessible hydrogen molecules than liquid hydrogen.
Yes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke, again, its all-time record, now up to 22,093.  Yelp, that ubiquitous web purveyor of food info, which only went public five years ago, sold off its Eat24 business to Grubhub for $287.5 million, jumping in value 28% today.

Typhoon Noru is continuing to fool the experts, as it is now appearing that landfall at close to 100 MPH will occur in Southern Kyushu east of Kagoshima, proceeding up the island west of Miyazaki.  Then, who knows what.

Here is the path history of Noru:


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