Science Spot Physical Science

This is the new home of my physical science news column originally to be found on PSIgate as Spotlight and then as Hot Topics on the Intute site. There’s everything from the 2002-2010 archive providing a snapshot of cutting edge science during that period in Archaeology, Astronomy, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Environment, Geology, Physics and more.

Although Spotlight and its successor Hot Topics have now been deprecated, this site is not purely an inactive archive, a cobWeb site, but will be updated periodically, especially if readers are keen to see new content.

Please let me know if you’d like to offer a guest blog post or if you spot a missing page or other error.


David Bradley Science Writer

A radical approach to understanding polymers

Polymerization is used to make a whole range of materials but understanding exactly what happens during synthesis when it involves free radicals is difficult. Now, New Zealand chemists have uncovered important clues by following the rates of reaction and the termination steps involved.

Radical polymerization is commonly used to make half the world’s polymers and now Greg Russell and his colleagues at the University of Canterbury have investigated the kinetics of the process that shuts off polymerisation, the termination rate coefficient, for some very common reactions. They have revealed that the diffusion behaviour of short polymer strands, oligomers, in the reaction system is the critical factor.

“The majority of chemists simply try to bring about reactions by mixing different chemicals together under different conditions,” Russell explains. “However it is also important, especially for those who make chemical products on a large scale, to have precise quantitative descriptions of the speeds at which reactions occur. Chemical kinetics is the field of work that develops such descriptions. It is therefore an area where chemistry and mathematics intersect.

Greg Russell
Greg Russell

He adds that the most difficult problem in radical polymerization is the termination step that stops the polymer growing longer. Diffusion of the growing polymers is affected by their size, concentration, temperature and so on, which makes termination a complicated process to study, one that even after 60 years of intensive investigation is still not fully understood.

Russell, who is on sabbatical at the University of Goettingen, Germany, worked with Philipp Vana there and have found that although highly specialized techniques for measuring termination rate coefficients under precisely controlled conditions have been employed the results they found on attempting to replicate earlier studies were inconsistent. “I have taken this information and attempted to see whether it is consistent with systems where many different termination reactions occur at once, as is the case in commercial processes,” Russell says. “For the monomer styrene [used to make polystyrene] I find there is consistency, but for methyl methacrylate [used for polymethylmethacryalate, PMMA] there is not.”

In trying to explain this result, he eliminated most of the conventional views, and came to the conclusion that the answer lies with the oligomers in each system, which seem to have slightly different diffusional behaviour.


Macromol. Chem. Phys. 2010

Greg Russell

Philipp Vana

Tubes in space

Carbon nanotubes form in space but use a metal-free chemistry until now unavailable to chemists on Earth. The discovery is a surprising outcome of laboratory experiments designed by Joseph Nuth at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, and his colleagues. They were hoping to understand how carbon atoms are recycled in stellar nurseries, the regions of space where stars and planets are born, but the finding could have applications in nanotechnology, as well as help explain some characteristics of supernovae.

Writing in the journal Astrophys J Lett, Nuth and colleagues explain how astrochemistry makes carbon nanotubes without requiring a metal catalyst. Nanotubes are produced, they say, when graphite dust particles are exposed to a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gases, conditions that exist in interstellar space.

The finding corroborates the discovery of graphite whiskers, bigger than nano nanotubes, in three meteorites. The meteoric discovery hinted at why some supernovae appear dimmer and farther away than they ought to be based on calculations using current models. Nuth’s approach is a variation of a well-established way to produce gasoline or other liquid fuels from coal. It’s known as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, and researchers suspect that it could have produced at least some of the simple carbon-based compounds in the early solar system. Nuth proposes that the nanotubes yielded by such reactions could be the key to the recycling of the carbon that gets released when carbon-rich grains are destroyed by supernova explosions.

Stellar Nursery
A stellar nursery could be home to carbon nanotube factories (Credit: NASA,

The structure of the carbon nanotubes produced by Nuth and colleagues was determined by materials scientist Yuki Kimura, of Tohoku University, Japan, using transmission electron microscopy. He observed particles on which the original smooth graphite gradually morphed into an unstructured region and finally to an area rich in tangled hair-like masses. A closer look with an even more powerful microscope showed that these tendrils were in fact cup-stacked carbon nanotubes, resembling a stack of disposable drinking cups with the bottoms removed. If further testing indicates that the new method is suitable for materials-science applications, it could supplement, or even replace, the familiar way of making nanotubes, explains Kimura.

Researchers might also now evaluate whether graphite whiskers absorb light. A positive result would lend credence to the proposition that the presence of these molecules in space affects the observations of some supernovae.


Astrophys J Lett, 2010, 710, L98-L101