17 Feb 2014

Editor's choice: whales, sloths, polymers, CO2, nanomotors

A round-up of discoveries from the scientific and technical journals.

Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) mother and young calf, Cape Agulhas, South AfricaCredit: Richard Du Toit/Minden Pictures/Corbis

Counting whales from space

Monitoring whale numbers, traditionally done by manually counting them at sea level, is an expensive and time consuming, but necessary, part of marine conservation science. Peter Fretwell from the British Antarctic Survey and his colleagues have now shown that it is possible to automate the count, using computers to process high resolution satellite images that capture the creatures at their breeding grounds. A report here.

Sloth hair may hold key to fighting cancer

The sloths that live in the trees of Panama sound an unlikely place to start looking for a cure for cancer but researchers say their fur may be the source of new drugs to combat it and a number of other diseases. The research led by Sarah Higginbotham and Liliana Iturrado of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama found that fungi in the sloths' hair fought various strains of bacteria, parasites and cancer in the laboratory.  The researchers discovered 84 different types of fungi holding hopes for treatments for malaria, Chagas disease and breast cancer. The report can be found here.

New polymer stops batteries catching fire.

The lithium ion battery in your phone is tiny. The banks of lithium ion batteries needed to power the latest electric cars and aeroplane systems are far larger – as are the risks should the battery catch fire. But safer batteries could be on the horizon, with the discovery of a potential replacement for the only inherently flammable part of today’s lithium-ion batteries: the electrolyte, the medium through which ions inside the battery flow. US chemist Joseph DeSimone at the University of South Carolina at Chapel Hill discovered that an industrial polymer called PFPE – which was being investigated as a potential anti-foul for ship hulls – was an efficient electrolyte as well as being non-flammable. DeSimone and his collaborators have now demonstrated a working prototype incorporating PFPE. The report of the discovery can be found here

Putting carbon dioxide to good use

CO2 is not a chemical in short supply, as climate-watchers know. Now two chemists working on ways of capturing it from power plant chimneys to bury underground are trying to put it to good use. Their team, led by Matthias Beller at the Leibniz Institute for Catalysis in Germany, have shown that an industrial process using the toxic gas carbon monoxide to make many basic chemicals can be modified to use carbon dioxide instead. Their modified reaction works better than the original. A report of their work in Nature can be found here.

Nanomotors rev up inside human cells

Scientists working on introducing nanomotors to living cells appear to have made a breakthrough. For the first time they have been able to control the tiny motors, moving them around and spinning them, within the cells' walls. The devices, which are hoped one day to be able to perform "surgery" and the manipulation of cells, were placed inside human cervical cancer cells. The study was published in a paper by the Angewandte Chemie International Edition and can be read here.