2012: The Year in Chemistry
2012 was a big year for the world of science, with plenty of new discoveries and breakthroughs, ranging from the discovery of a new element here on planet Earth, to chemical analyses on Mars. Without a doubt, 2012 truly has been a remarkable year for science.
Graphene had an exciting year, with numerous new developments, but two discoveries have really stood out. In January a team of scientists reported how membranes made of graphene oxide is able to selectively filter gases, which they used them to seal a bottle of vodka. They found that these membranes can be completely impermeable to dissolved ions and gases, whilst allowing water to permeate. In July, other researchers at the University of Manchester found that graphene was able to absorb loose carbon atoms in its near vicinity in order to repair holes in its structure, where the carbon atoms would quickly fill the gaps and repair the sheet. This self-healing property is incredibly useful as graphene, a one-atom thick layer of carbon, is very easily damaged.
For discoveries truly out of this world, we turn to NASA’s Mars mission. In August, Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars, to begin its exploration of the planet. At the beginning of December, NASA reported that the Mars rover had performed its first extensive soil analysis, revealing the presence of interesting organic molecules in the Martian soil known as perchlorates. The soil sample, which came from a site called “Rocknest” in Gale Crater, is just the beginning of the chemical testing Curiosity will perform on Mars.
In the September of 2012, the search for Element 113 was finally concluded. Researchers in Japan obtained clear-cut data on the element with the temporary name Ununtrium (Uut). The search for superheavy elements such as Uut is a very difficult and thorough process; they do not occur naturally in the environment, but instead, must be produced through nuclear experiments. The scientists were studying the decay of an Uut nucleus, where a series of six alpha decays was observed. Unlike previous chains studied, the team discovered element 113 takes an alternative decay route, which after 9 years of study proved that the element had been created. This ground-breaking discovery will give the team to naming rights for the 113th element, the first time a Japanese team has done so.
Dominating a large chunk of science news last year was the success of the Higgs boson. In July, particle physicists announced that the elusive mass-giving particle had been found with a mass of 125GeV. In particles physics, elementary particles and forces give rise to the current world around us, and physicits explain the behaviour of these particles using the Standard Model. This framework is believed to explain almost fundamental particles and forces in the universe, aside from gravity. It was this universal framework that led to the prediction of the Higgs boson more than forty years ago. Its properties are still being studied, and if the particle proves to be the Higgs boson, this would answer the most important questions of fundamental physics.
A remarkable breakthrough in the medical world was the demonstration of a nanotechnology-based drug treatment that can reverse paralysis. The study shows that an anti-inflammatory drug administered by a nanodevice can effectively improve the symptoms of cerebral palsy in newborn rabbits. Cerebral palsy is a disorder of the developing brain that affects muscle coordination and movement. The work shows that early identification of neuro-inflammation allows postnatal treatment, and so, suggests that the prevention of cerebral palsy could be possible. Unusually, the rabbit strain of congenital CP replicates the neuro-inflammation found in human brains that causes the disorder in the suffering children. The specific drug is known as NAC, and the rabbits treated with it, on the first day of life showed a dramatic improvement in their motor skills, and in fact, within five days were able to walk and hop normally. This is truly an exciting breakthrough and certainly points toward a positive outlook for those affected by cerebral palsy, which currently has no cure.