by Nicholas Warren **GSC Professional Development Fund Recipient**
Thousands of chemists from across the world and dozens of specialties converged in Boston, MA this week for the 256th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Themes ranged from nanoparticle formation, to making batteries safer and more efficient, to designing non-addictive pain medications, to sending probes to other star systems, and even a keynote speech on “the Power of Procrastination” by PhD comics creator, Jorge Cham. The meeting showcased how intertwined chemistry is with every aspect of our daily lives and provided glimpses of technological leaps soon to benefit our society.
Dr. Harry Atwater presented a Keynote speech on “Light as Fuel” to discuss advances in solar power and fuel generation. The existential threat of global climate change to most life on Earth requires urgent attention, but it is not an impossible challenge to address. Dr. Atwater provided several examples of how solar panels are becoming more efficient at trapping solar energy, thus decreasing cost and promoting green energy adoption. Solar power may soon be the cheapest source of electricity. One new innovative method is to take advantage of materials like Germanium-based semiconductors which re-emit photons instead of completely capturing them. This seems counter intuitive, but the properties of Germanium allow photons to be emitted and re-absorbed almost 100 times. Each time the photon is absorbed a small amount of electricity is generated, allowing for a greater conversion of the overall energy. Better yet, Germanium semiconductors are as flexible as a plastic sheet. Perhaps the greatest challenge of converting our infrastructure to renewable energy is the storage of energy when the sun isn’t shinning. New N-acyl-pyridine based cells are capable of converting sunlight directly into chemical reductive energy to convert CO2 into hydrocarbons like ethanol and ethylene. Some versions are even approaching energy conversion efficiencies similar to traditional solar panels in use today. Artificial photosynthesis of hydrocarbons could readily replace fossil fuels in transportation and power generation while removing CO2 from the atmosphere. These break throughs show great promise for tackling climate change in ways that will decrease the price of energy in the long term.
Solar fuel generation is still likely a decade or more away from wide-spread use, in the meantime there is a need for smaller, incremental advances in energy storage. Rechargeable lithium batteries are currently seeing large advances in efficiency and safety. New formulations of lithium anodes will greatly increase the capacity of batteries. However, there remains a large safety issue with packing all of that chemical energy into a smaller space; lithium battery fires have been well publicized in the media. Dr. Zheng Chen’s strategy to enhance battery safety was to engineer a nickel nanoparticle embedded plastic to create a temperature controlled barrier inside the battery. This thin layer of plastic expands when it heats up, which causes the nanoparticles to move away from each other and cuts off the flow of electricity. If the battery gets too hot it will automatically turn itself off instead of degrading and catching fire! This technology will be ready to incorporate into commercial practices in a matter of years.
The opioid crisis is another great challenge that is hitting New England especially hard. Nationwide, there are an estimated 42,000 opioid overdose deaths each year. The majority of people who overdose started their addiction with legally prescribed medications. The medicinal chemistry session on “Novel Treatments for Chronic Pain” showcased several strategies to design pain medications without neither the addictive nor physiologically harmful effects of current therapies. Dr. Laura Bohn presented her work on teasing apart the molecular actions of the μ opioid receptor (MOR). MOR has two discreet functions: shutting down neural transmission of pain signals and activating a protein called β-arrestin. She found that β-arrestin is responsible for most of the bad effects of opioids like brain stem depression and increasing opioid tolerance. Using new drugs that only activated the pain cessation signaling, but not β-arrestin, was able to treat pain in mice with a greatly enhanced therapeutic window. Dr. Roger Kroes presented work on targeting a different receptor in the brain, NMDA. NMDA is a master regulator of creating new synapses in the brain. He designed a new drug to activate NMDA to modulate neuropathic pain signaling, treating pain for up to two weeks following a single dose. The NMDA activator had a few novel side effects in mice: increased memory and learning. Not all side effects need to be bad! These new chemical approaches will hopefully bring safe and effective pain relief to millions of Americans that struggle with pain on a daily basis.
In addition to scientific talks, ACS organized several professional development workshops such as how to lead organizational change, improve interviewing skills, write grants, and find jobs in various career paths. If you are a member, a number of these workshops and other resources can be found online at ACS.org!