Public Release: 

Drugs, electronics, and 'green' catalysts: The chemical year in review

American Chemical Society

In fields ranging from computers to medicines to the environment, chemists published work in 2001 that opened new paths that promise to make things better -- faster, smaller, safer. Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, reviews the significant chemical advances of the year in the current (December 10) issue.

Among the research published in 2001:

  • The ever-faster computers of the last few decades were possible because engineers packed more and more information onto ever-smaller chips. Many researchers fear, however, that the silicon-based chip currently in use will soon reach its smallest size limit. Phaedon Avouris of IBM used carbon nanotubes to construct the first single-molecule logic gate. The work shows, he said, that "carbon nanotubes are now the top candidate to replace silicon when current chip features just can't be made any smaller."
  • Promising drug candidates must be abandoned sometimes because they cannot get into the target cells. Paul A. Wender and co-workers at Stanford University developed molecular transporters that are rapidly and efficiently taken up by cells and can be linked to drugs. By using molecular transporters, drug candidates buried in obscurity may now be available for clinical development.
  • A widely used industrial reaction may become less environmentally harmful, if businesses adopt a catalyst developed by chemists from the University of Valencia. The "green" catalyst produces water as a byproduct; the current catalyst produces considerable acid waste.
  • Mad cow disease — which is currently diagnosed after a patient dies -- could be identified in living patients using a technique developed by Claudio Soto and coworkers at the Serono Pharmaceutical Research Institute in Geneva. The misshapen prion molecules that cause mad cow disease are present at very low levels in living patients. Soto's technique multiplies the prions until they reach detectable levels.
  • Vancomycin is the last line of defense against many bacterial infections, but recently doctors have seen a dangerous increase in bugs that the drug can't kill. Gabriela Chiosis of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Ivo G. Boneca of the Pasteur Institute in Paris developed a technique to make vancomycin-resistant bacteria susceptible to the drug.
  • Molecular electronics came one step closer to reality when Pennsylvania State University researchers developed a technique for growing wires measuring just a few nanometers in width and positioning them with 1-nanometer accuracy. The approach could make it possible to hook up functional molecules between electrodes.
  • A type of plastic that automatically heals cracks in its structure caused by stress, corrosion, and aging was developed at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The plastic could be used in electronic circuit boards, aircraft and satellite components, implanted body parts, and sealants.
  • The smallest power source ever built was developed by scientists at the University of Texas, Austin. The enzyme-based fuel cell has enough power to run a tiny biosensor-transmitter system and could potentially be implanted in tissue.
  • After 12 years of effort, scientists at Tohoku University in Japan synthesized a complex toxin found in edible fish. The toxin can cause paralysis or death, but until now appreciable amounts have not been available for study.


—Tamara Schneider

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