Fuel cells from plants

Using elements in plants to increase fuel cell efficiency while reducing costs

Researchers from the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, Québec are looking into reeds, tall wetlands plants, in order to make cheaper catalysts for high-performance fuel cells.

Due to rising global energy demands and the threat caused by environmental pollution, the search for new, clean sources of energy is on.

Unlike a battery, which stores electricity for later use, a fuel cell generates electricity from stored materials, or fuels.

Hydrogen-based fuel is a very clean fuel source that only produces water as a by-product, and could effectively replace fossil fuels. In order to make hydrogen fuel viable for everyday use, high-performance fuel cells are needed to convert the energy from the hydrogen into electricity.

Hydrogen fuel cells use platinum catalysts to drive energy conversion, but the platinum is expensive, accounting for almost half of a fuel cell’s total cost according to Qiliang Wei, a PhD student in Shuhui Sun’s group from the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique – Énergie, Matériaux et Télécommunications who studies lower-cost alternatives to platinum catalysts.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Research shows how to improve the bond between implants and bone

Research carried out recently at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) in Saskatoon has revealed promising information about how to build a better dental implant, one that integrates more readily with bone to reduce the risk of failure.

“There are millions of dental and orthopedic implants placed every year in North America and a certain number of them always fail, even in healthy people with healthy bone,” said Kathryn Grandfield, assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at McMaster University in Hamilton.

A dental implant restores function after a tooth is lost or removed. It is usually a screw shaped implant that is placed in the jaw bone and acts as the tooth roots, while an artificial tooth is placed on top. The implant portion is the artificial root that holds an artificial tooth in place.

Grandfield led a study that showed altering the surface of a titanium implant improved its connection to the surrounding bone. It is a finding that may well be applicable to other kinds of metal implants, including engineered knees and hips, and even plates used to secure bone fractures.

About three million people in North America receive dental implants annually. While the failure rate is only one to two percent, “one or two percent of three million is a lot,” she said. Orthopedic implants fail up to five per cent of the time within the first 10 years; the expected life of these devices is about 20 to 25 years, she added.

“What we’re trying to discover is why they fail, and why the implants that are successful work. Our goal is to understand the bone-implant interface in order to improve the design of implants.”

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Synchrotron researchers uncover lost images from the 19th century

Art curators will be able to recover images on daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography that used silver plates, after scientists learned how to use light to see through degradation that has occurred over time.

Research published today in Scientific Reports includes two images from the National Gallery of Canada’s photography research unit that show photographs that were taken, perhaps as early as 1850, but were no longer visible because of tarnish and other damage. The retrieved images, one of a woman and the other of a man, were beyond recognition. “It’s somewhat haunting because they are anonymous and yet it is striking at the same time,” said Madalena Kozachuk, a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry at Western University and lead author of the scientific paper.

“The image is totally unexpected because you don’t see it on the plate at all. It’s hidden behind time. But then we see it and we can see such fine details: the eyes, the folds of the clothing, the detailed embroidered patterns of the table cloth.”
The identities of the woman and the man are not known. It’s possible that the plates were produced in the United States, but they could be from Europe.
For the past three years, Kozachuk and an interdisciplinary team of scientists have been exploring how to use synchrotron technology to learn more about chemical changes that damage daguerreotypes.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source (CLS) website

Image: A mounted daguerreotype resting on the outside of the vacuum chamber within the SXRMB (a beamline at CLS) hutch.
Credit: Madalena Kozachuk.

Canadian researchers unlock how seaweed is digested

Cattle on the Prairies are hundreds of kilometres from the coast and yet it’s possible that seaweed could make its way into their diet as an additive.

“Seaweed is an incredible opportunity. It is a sustainable feedstock. It grows rapidly, it doesn’t require arable land or fresh water to grow,” said Wade Abbott, research scientist at Agriculture and Agi-Food Canada’s Lethbridge Research and Development Centre.

It may seem like a leap to go from the human gut to that of cattle, but Abbott explained that by understanding the human gut microbiome, or microorganisms, and the microbiome’s ability to use the sugars found in seaweed in its symbiotic relationship with the host, he sees potential to expand what is now a limited use of algae products.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Culturing gut bacteria in the lab (shown in these test tubes) allows researchers ‎to determine which genes in the genomes of bacteria are activated and discover new enzymes that digest rare substrates like agarose.
Credit: Wade Abbott

UBC scientists break down tuberculosis structure

Scientists from the University of British Columbia have taken a crucial step towards starving out tuberculosis, following research into how the infection grows in the body.

Tuberculosis, a bacterial infection which generally affects the lungs, is a global threat; worldwide, it kills more people than HIV and malaria combined. In Canada, there are around 1,600 new cases of tuberculosis reported every year, with about 20 per cent of those cases affecting First Nations peoples, according to the Government of Canada. Researchers using the Canadian Light Source have investigated how the bacteria grow in lungs in an effort to better understand how tuberculosis can be treated.

Lindsay Eltis, a UBC professor of Microbiology and Immunology and Canada Research Chair in Microbial Catabolism and Biocatalysis, has spent the last 25 years studying bacteria and determining how they grow on different compounds. In 2007, Eltis’ group discovered that tuberculosis bacteria grow on cholesterol and that this is important for causing disease.

“Many bacteria, like humans, grow using glucose, a type of sugar. They derive energy from it, converting it to water and carbon dioxide, and use it to make building blocks essential to life. The tuberculosis bacterium is a bit unusual in that it can grow on cholesterol, deriving energy and essential building blocks from it,” explains Eltis. “This ability to grow on cholesterol helps the bacterium establish infection in our lungs.”

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Crystal structure of the newly imaged carbon-ring cleaving enzyme from the tuberculosis bacterium, IpdABMtb.
Credit: Lindsay Eltis

One size does not fit all when exploring how carbon in soil affects the climate

Scientists from Stanford University are opening a window into soil organic carbon, a critical component of the global carbon cycle and climate change.

“We have to know what kind of carbon is in soil in order to understand where the carbon comes from and where it will go,” said Hsiao-Tieh Hsu, a PhD student in chemistry at Stanford University and a member of a Kate Maher’s research group.

The natural fluxes of soil organic carbon, the exchange of carbon moving from vegetation to the soil and recycled by microorganisms before being stabilized in the soil or returned to the atmosphere, is 10 to 20 times higher than human emissions. Even the smallest change in the flux of soil organic carbon would have a huge impact on the climate.

Soil organic carbon occurs naturally and is part of the carbon cycle. Through photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As plants and their roots decompose, they deposit organic carbon in the soil. Microorganisms, decomposing animals, animal feces and minerals also contribute to the organic carbon in the soil. In turn, plants and microorganisms “eat” that carbon, which is an essential nutrient.

All of this results in different “flavours” or compounds within the soil, say Hsu and Maher, who is also a faculty member of the Stanford Center for Carbon Storage.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Members of the research team at the East River, Colorado, field site (left to right): Hsiao-Tieh Hsu; Grace Rainaldi, Stanford undergraduate; Corey Lawrence, research geologist at United States Geological Survey; Kate Maher; Matthew Winnick, Stanford postdoctoral fellow.
Credit: Kate Maher.

Scientists explore how slow release fertilizer behaves in soil

Testing soil samples at the Canadian Light Source has helped a University of Saskatchewan soil scientist understand how tripolyphosphate (TPP), a slow release form of phosphorus fertilizer, works in the soil as a plant nutrient for much longer periods than previously thought.

Jordan Hamilton says the research also has implications for ongoing efforts by U of S soil scientists to use phosphorous-rich materials to clean up contaminated petroleum sites.

Hamilton, now a post-doctoral fellow working within U of S professor Derek Peak’s Environmental Soil Chemistry group, had a chapter of his PhD thesis, “Chemical speciation and fate of tripolyphosphate after application to a calcareous soil,” published earlier this year in the online journal Geochemical Transactions.

TPP needs to break down into a simpler form of phosphate in order to be used as a nutrient by plants. In most types of soil, the belief was that TPP would break down right away, says Hamilton.

“I would definitely say the biggest surprise is how quickly the TPP adsorbed (attached itself) to mineral sources, especially in these calcium-rich soils,” he said. “For the longer term, it was surprising to see it persist.”

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

Tungsten accumulation in bone raises health concerns

McGill University scientists have identified exposure to tungsten as problematic after they determined how and where high levels of the metal accumulate and remain in bone.

“Our research provides further evidence against the long-standing perception that tungsten is inert and non-toxic,” said Cassidy VanderSchee, a PhD student and a member of a McGill research group headed by chemistry professor Scott Bohle.

Tungsten is a hard metal with a high melting point and, when combined with other metals and used as an alloy, it’s also very flexible.

Because of these properties and under the assumption that tungsten is non-toxic, it has been tested for use in medical implants, including arterial stents and hip replacements, in radiation shields to protect tissue during radiation therapy, and in some drugs. Tungsten is found in ammunition as well as in tools used for machining and cutting other metals.

Tungsten also occurs naturally in groundwater where deposits of the mineral are found. Exposure to high levels of tungsten in drinking water in Fallon, Nevada, was investigated for a possible link with childhood leukemia in the early 2000s. This investigation lead scientists to question the long-held belief that exposure to tungsten is safe and prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. to nominate tungsten for toxicology and carcinogenesis studies.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Cassidy VenderSchee

Gold protein clusters could be used as environmental and health detectors

Peng Zhang and his collaborators study remarkable, tiny self-assembling clusters of gold and protein that glow a bold red. And they’re useful: protein-gold nanoclusters could be used to detect harmful metals in water or to identify cancer cells in the body.
“These structures are very exciting but are very, very hard to study. We tried many different tools, but none worked,” says Zhang, a Dalhousie University professor.

Peng Zhang and his collaborators study remarkable, tiny self-assembling clusters of gold and protein that glow a bold red. And they’re useful: protein-gold nanoclusters could be used to detect harmful metals in water or to identify cancer cells in the body.

“These structures are very exciting but are very, very hard to study. We tried many different tools, but none worked,” says Zhang, a Dalhousie University professor.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: The protein-gold structure. The protein, which both builds and holds in place the gold cluster, is shown in grey.

Climate change and its effects on Rocky Mountain alpine lakes

Alpine lakes in the Rocky Mountains are important biological hot spots of that ecosystem. These lakes do not have enough nutrients to support large amounts of aquatic life because of the cold climate in the surrounding watershed. Rather, the lakes are home to oligotrophs, organisms that grow slowly and can survive in harsh aquatic environments. The lakes also host a variety of cold-water fish, such as trout, that are preyed upon by birds, including osprey and bald eagles.

Researchers from University of Wyoming, U.S. Geological Survey, and the Canadian Light Source conducted experiments at the CLS on the fine dust that is deposited to the Rocky Mountains to learn more about how the alpine lakes could be affected by climate change. They looked specifically at phosphorus in dust and how it is made available to the organisms in the cold lakes and streams, because phosphorus is one of the major limiting nutrients, and its availability could affect the functions and properties of alpine lake ecosystems.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

Scientists map important immune system enzyme for the first time

Biochemists from McGill University are getting a good look at just how a specific enzyme that is part of the human immune system interacts with a certain group of bacteria that are described as gram-negative.

Researchers around the world “have been studying the enzyme, known as AOAH, for more than 30 years. This is the first time anyone has been able to see exactly what it looks like,” according to Bhushan Nagar, an associate professor of biochemistry at McGill University in Montreal.

More than that, the 3D images captured a moment in time which shows just how AOAH inactivates a toxic molecule that is commonly part of various gram-negative bacteria. The research was conducted at the Canadian Light Source.

Numerous types of gram-negative bacteria exist throughout the environment. While some are harmless, many cause a variety of human illnesses, says Nagar. For example, several species such as E. coli and Salmonella, cause food borne illness. Others cause infections such as pneumonia, meningitis, bloodstream infections or gonorrhea.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source

Image: Bhushan Nagar (principal investigator), Alexei Gorelik (first author of paper) and Katalin Illes (research assistant at Nagar lab) at their McGill University lab.
Credit: Bhushan Nagar.

Scientists work toward new canola varieties

Scientists are in a race against a disease that threatens canola, one of Western Canada’s most important crops, and they are looking to the Canadian Light Source to learn more about the genetic resistance to this disease.

Clubroot causes swelling on the canola roots eventually killing the plant. Finding a way for those roots to resist this soil-borne disease is the cornerstone of the strategy for managing the disease, says Gary Peng, a scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Saskatoon Research and Development Centre.

“The consequences of clubroot in a canola field can be devastating. It can wipe out the whole crop,” said Peng.

The first case of clubroot in canola was reported in 2003 in several fields in the Edmonton area. The infestation spread rapidly to fields north of the city and the disease is now found in more than 2,000 fields in a wide band across Alberta. In Saskatchewan, it was first detected in 2008, but significant evidence of the disease attacking the roots of canola plants wasn’t identified until 2011, according to the Canola Council of Canada.

>Read more on the Canadian Lightsource website

Study reveals mechanism in spruce tree that causes growth

While it’s common knowledge that trees grow when days start to become longer in the springtime and stop growing when days become shorter in the fall, exactly how this happens has not been well understood.

Now, scientists using the Canadian Light Source are offering insights into the mechanisms of how certain cells in the winter buds of Norway spruce respond to changes in seasonal light, affecting growth. The research was published in Frontiers in Plant Science.

Such knowledge allows for better predictions of how trees might respond to climate change, which could bring freezing temperatures while daylight is still long or warmer temperatures when daylight is short.

Professor Jorunn E. Olsen and YeonKyeong Lee, plant scientists at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, along with colleagues from the University of Saskatchewan investigated winter bud cells from Norway spruce and how they differ with respect to the amount of daylight to which they were exposed.

>Read more on the Candian Light Source website

Image (from left to right, extract): plant with terminal winter bud after short day exposure for three weeks; plant with brown bud scales after short day exposure for eight weeks; plant showing bud break and new growth three weeks after re-transfer to long days following eight weeks under short days. Entire picture here.

A first look at how miniscule bubbles affect the texture of noodles

The texture of a noodle is a remarkably complicated thing. When you bite into a spoonful of ramen noodles, you expect a bit of springiness (or a resistance to your bite) on the outside and a pleasantly soft give on the interior. These variations are so tiny as to be often overlooked, but they matter to noodle quality.

There are many factors in play in making a good noodle. For a wheat noodle, the structure of the gluten affects the overall quality. How a noodle dough is stretched, folded, and rolled out matters. And in between all of this, there are miniscule air bubbles that are part of the mix and influence texture.

Until recently, no one had ever looked at the bubbles in noodle dough.

“There was absolutely nothing in the literature indicating that the bubbles were there or that they were important at all. We did have some indirect evidence for bubbles from our ultrasonic experiments, but CLS (Canadian Light Source) microtomography was in some ways a hail Mary experiment: OK, let’s just sheet some dough and see what we find,” said Martin Scanlon, U of M professor in the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences, and the project’s lead researcher.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

The future of energy storage with novel metal-oxide magnesium battery

Move over, lithium-ion; now, there’s a better battery on the horizon.

A multi-institution team of scientists led by Texas A&M University chemist Sarbajit Banerjee has discovered an exceptional metal-oxide magnesium battery cathode material, moving researchers one step closer to delivering batteries that promise higher density of energy storage on top of transformative advances in safety, cost and performance in comparison to their ubiquitous lithium-ion (Li-ion) counterparts.

“The worldwide push to advance renewable energy is limited by the availability of energy storage vectors,” says Banerjee in the team’s paper, published Feb. 1 in the journal Chem, a new chemistry-focused journal by Cell Press. “Currently, lithium-ion technology dominates; however, the safety and long-term supply of lithium remain serious concerns. By contrast, magnesium is much more abundant than lithium, has a higher melting point, forms smooth surfaces when recharging, and has the potential to deliver more than a five-fold increase in energy density if an appropriate cathode can be identified.”

Ironically, the team’s futuristic solution hinges on a redesigned form of an old Li-ion cathode material, vanadium pentoxide, which they proved is capable of reversibly inserting magnesium ions.

“We’ve essentially reconfigured the atoms to provide a different pathway for magnesium ions to travel along, thereby obtaining a viable cathode material in which they can readily be inserted and extracted during discharging and charging of the battery,” Banerjee says.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

Scientists develop process to produce higher quality fuel from biowaste

Researchers have found a way to produce a higher quality, more stable fuel from biowaste, such as sewage, that is simpler and cleaner than existing methods.

“This puts biofuel closer to being a good substitute for fossil fuels,” said Hua Song (picture), an associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary. Song and his research team recently published the results of their research conducted at the Canadian Light Source in the journal Fuel.
“The world energy market is currently dominated by fossil fuels. With increasing concern surrounding climate change and dwindling resources that are associated with the use of fossil fuels, renewable energy sources are becoming increasingly desirable and are currently the fast growing energy source,” wrote Song in the research paper.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website