The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2007 Goes to Gerhard Ertl

As part of my series on this year’s Nobel Prizes, I’m highlighting the winner of each prize.

German scientist Gerhard Ertl won this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his studies of chemical processes on solid surfaces”. This is more important than you might think, but as usual, has the information you need. This is intended for laypeople, so you don’t have to have any special knowledge to understand it.

To begin with, editor-in-chief Adam Smith once again has written a wonderful “speed read”:

Exploring Chemistry at the Frontier

Like a successful dinner party, productive chemical reactions depend upon getting the right components to mingle in the right surroundings, and often the best environment for chemistry turns out to be a solid surface. From the cleaning of exhaust fumes in factory chimneys to the reduction of ozone on the outside of ice crystals in the clouds, surface chemistry surrounds us constantly. Developing ways to better understand the detailed dynamics of chemistry at these interfaces has been Gerhard Ertl’s life work.


And a six-page PDF shows us all the ways this field affects our lives. These are great resources for the public to use to stay in touch with science. Use them!

You may also enjoy videos of the announcement or the press release.

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Anti-obesity Drug for Dogs

The structure of dirlotapide, from PubChem.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration just approved Slentrol (dirlotapide), a drug intended to treat obesity in dogs. Roxanne Khamsi of New Scientist writes

A drug specifically designed to treat canine obesity has been approved for the first time by the US Food and Drug Administration.

The drug’s developer, New York-based Pfizer, says the prescription medication will slim dogs, thereby reducing their risk of diseases such as arthritis and cancer. But veterinarians stress that any weight-loss programme for pets must also include lots of exercise and restricted food intake.

(continue reading at New Scientist)

According to the article, 5% of dogs in the United States are obese; apparently, humans’ unhealthful lifestyles are starting to affect our best friend as well—dogs are getting more snacks and less exercise.

Though its mechanism of action is not precisely known, dirlotapide appears to reduce appetite and fat absorption. It’s a liquid given directly to a dog or put in his food.

And no, it’s not approved for human use.

Further Developments in Litvinenko’s Polonium-210 Poisoning

In an extensive follow-up article, the BBC discusses some of the developments that have taken place since I last discussed the apparent poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. The offices of a security and risk management company that Mr. Litvinenko had visited has traces of radiation; also, radiation has been found in the offices of Boris Berezovsky, a friend that Mr. Litvinenko had visited that day.

In addition, 1,121 people have called a helpline arranged by the health service; 68 cases were followed up and eight people have been referred for specialty testing, according to the BBC. Test results should be available in the next few days, New Scientist reports.

In a separate article, Rob Edwards of New Scientist discusses the difficulties and peculiarities of polonium-210 poisoning:

Nick Priest, an expert on polonium-210 who used to work with the UK Atomic Energy Authority, argues that it would be no easy matter to obtain enough to kill someone. “I find it difficult to believe that it was sourced in the UK or the European Union,” he said.

“All the signs point to it being a sophisticated operation,” he told New Scientist. “You would need a reactor capable of producing and irradiating materials and a radiochemical laboratory.”

However, once obtained, it appears it would be a simpler matter to actually administer the poison.

In solution as a citrate, nitrate or other salt, it could be rendered tasteless and easy to slip into a drink, [Mr. Priest] says. Up to 50% would be taken up by blood and tissue fluid, delivering serious radiation doses to different parts of the body.

Further reading

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Litvinenko Apparently Poisoned with Polonium-210

Former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko has been in the international news after suddenly falling ill earlier this month, then dying on 23 November. The cause of his illness confounded his physicians, who initially postulated that might have been poisoned with thallium. However, in a surprising twist, the cause of death now appears to be poisoning with radioactive polonium-210 (210Po). That is, the poison did not work by the usual chemical means, but instead released radiation as it decayed inside his body. Given this unusual method of toxicity, officials in the United Kingdom are now trying to determine how next to proceed. Debora MacKenzie writes in the New Scientist

“This is an unprecedented event in the UK,” said HPA [Health Protection Agency] chief executive Pat Troop. “It is the first time someone in the UK has apparently been deliberately poisoned with a radioactive agent.”

The agency is now assessing the health risks posed to members of the public who may have come into contact with Litvinenko, including family members and hospital staff who cared for him during the weeks he spent in hospital. They are also trying to decide the safest way for pathologists to conduct an autopsy of his body, and indeed whether such a procedure is safe enough to be performed at all.

Polonium on periodic table, from Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

Polonium is an extremely rare element. It has an atomic number of 84, meaning that it has 84 protons (and therefore, 84 electrons); its position in the periodic table is shown here courtesy of Wikipedia. There are 25 known isotopes of polonium; polonium-210 (with 126 neutrons) is the most common. Polonium and every element with a higher atomic number (that is, 84 and up) are radioactive; that is, they are unstable, and spontaneously decay into other elements. Ms. MacKenzie goes on to write

Polonium is a radioactive element that is used industrially as an anti-static material. It is difficult to get hold of and not used regularly by research scientists, but very small traces of it occur naturally. The metal is usually made by bombarding the element bismuth with neutrons.

“To poison someone, large amounts of polonium-210 are required and this would have to be manmade, perhaps from a particle accelerator or a nuclear reactor,” said Dudley Goodhead at the UK’s MRC Radiation and Genome Stability Unit. “Polonium has a half-life of 138 days. This means that if that was the poison it will still be in the body and in the area – which makes it relatively easy to identify.”

There are several ways for radioactive decay to occur. Polonium-210 undergoes alpha decay, emitting an alpha particle (two protons and two neutrons, essentially a helium-4 nucleus). As a result, 82 protons (and 124 neutrons) are left. This is lead-206, which is stable. Alpha particles are quite massive, so they cannot penetrate solid matter very well. Therefore, polonium-210 must be inside someone’s body to inflict much damage—so it must be ingested, inhaled, or administered through a wound, according to Roger Cox, director of the UK’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards. Mr. Cox believes that Mr. Litvinenko would have to ingest the polonium to account for the large amount found.

According to Scotland Yard, “Traces of polonium-210 were found at the Itsu sushi restaurant in Piccadilly, the Millennium Hotel, Grosvenor Square, and at Mr. Litvinenko’s home in Muswell Hill, London.” The investigation will continue—Britain’s top-level Cabinet team has met, and the country has asked Russia to assist with the inquiry, according to CNN.

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