Getting a Grip on Hydrogen Fuel: Metal-Organic Frameworks

Hydrogen is  considered as one of the most volatile elements known to man. Yet, if this explosive hydrogen gas can be safely stored it can instead be used as a new fuel source, which would benefit the world at large. Recent advances in chemical engineering have produced a family of materials,  with the ability to efficiently adsorb (store) hydrogen gas. These materials, known as Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), are a molecular structure that allows us the opportunity to take advantage of hydrogen as a fuel source. There are several benefits to using hydrogen as an energy source, one being that it can be readily produced for domestic use. For example, hydrogen can be generated from natural gas and biogas sources, as well as through the electrolysis (splitting) of water. This is favourable because the sources required to produce hydrogen are renewable, thus there is no need to worry about production shortages. Another advantage is that hydrogen is eco-friendly, in that using it in a fuel cell does not produce any greenhouse gases or air pollutants, and is not contributing to the effects of global warming.

In the following video, the basis of metal-organic frameworks in hydrogen gas storage is discussed, along with the associate research published by UBC graduate student Angela Crane:

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With so many potential benefits, you may wonder why MOF technology is not currently being utilized in hydrogen-fueled vehicles, to provide a viable green alternative. The problem lies with the MOF’s mechanism of hydrogen adsorption and desorption (release), where the flow of hydrogen in and out of the structure is, for the most part, only through methods involving extreme cooling and heating. This system of temperature-regulated gas delivery enables precise control over hydrogen flow and greater storage capacities, however it is an impractical system to adopt in vehicles.

Source: Animated

To remove the need of temperature for driving gas regulation and improving overall storage in the MOF structure, scientists are actively searching to optimize the material. They do this by increasing the available hydrogen binding sites and encouraging optimal pore-size, meaning hydrogen is better able to enter and remain in the MOF. In her research, Angela Crane investigats triptycene and pentiptycene, two large organic linkers with the potential for optimal pore size and orientation, thus being favourable in adsorbing hydrogen. When the MOF’s were tested for gas adsorption, however, she discovered that the complexity of the structure led to blockage of the pore-openings. This finding illustrates how the mechanics behind metal-organic frameworks are more complex than what one would expect from its relatively simple molecular structure.

Source Wikipedia:

Hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to revolutionize how we power the world. These devices lack all the liabilities associated with more conventional fossil fuels; most importantly pollution, and even other, less recognized concerns such as global conflict and of the depletion natural resources.  The current state of hydrogen fuel cell research has some significant drawbacks that will have to be addressed in order for this technology to become a viable alternative energy source. Currently, conventional methods for producing hydrogen gas relies on the use of methane, a fossil fuel, making this process inherently unsustainable. There is hope, however, in the way of MOFs, which may one day provide an effective storage medium for hydrogen gas, if a sustainable method of hydrogen synthesis can be found.

Information on the drawbacks of hydrogen fuel is available below:

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While the focus of metal-organic frameworks has been primarily based on hydrogen storage,  MOFs have shown potential in various other applications as well. MOFs are currently being implemented for a variety of uses; acting as filtration systems, drug delivery components, fluorescent-imaging vectors and catalytic systems, to name a few. Due to the relatively simple production process, MOFs have now become commercially mass-produced. With their basic structure and efficient manufacture, the future for metal-organic frameworks is not limited to hydrogen gas storage, and its broad spectrum of use gives these frameworks unprecedented potential.

-Natasha Smyrnis, Sungbin Choi, Gurneet Kalra



The New Chemistry of MOFs, Metal Organic Frameworks

Plants – A Better Way to Fuel

Long line-up at the US Costco gas station for cheaper gas. Credit: Paul Sakuma

It is that time of the year again, when your neighbours brag about all the cheap items that they bring back from the south. But believe it or not, the one common thing that all these Canadian shoppers who pass the border for the US Black Friday sale come back with is neither discounted clothing nor electronics. Rather, it is gas.

The price of fuel has been skyrocketing over the past few years, compelling the Canadian industry to seek alternatives to fossil fuels. One of the most popular alternatives lies in the area of biofuels, a renewable and economical energy source derived from the products of living organisms such as the sugar secretions of plants. However, the problems with production efficiency and environment sustainability affiliated with biofuels have hindered their general adaptation in the industries.

Arabidopsis Thaliana secretes sugars which can be processed for biofuels. Credit: Thomas Meyer

Last year, an attempt to resolve the problem was done when Gabriel Levesque-Tremblay and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia conducted a research on the role of vesicle transport of sugars from the Golgi Apparatus to the cell wall of a small flowering Arabidopsis plant.

With prior knowledge of the functions of a particular plant gene, which encodes proteins that play a significant role in cellular secretion, Gabriel’s research team inhibited the expression of this gene, namely the ECHIDNA gene, in plant seeds to study the changes in the activity of secretory vesicles containing the polysaccharides, or sugars.

Granule accumulation inside the cell. Credit: content/early/2013/09/20/pcp.pct129. full.pdf+html

They found that without the expression of the ECHIDNA gene, the cells are still able to transport sugars across the Golgi apparatus. However, the secretory vesicles are unable to fuse with the cell wall of the plant, resulting in clusters of vesicles accumulating near the cell membrane. In other words, without the proper functioning of this ECHIDNA gene, the plant is unable to secrete the sugar products that the industry needs to extract to use as biofuels.

The following podcast introduces the two novel techniques that Gabriel’s study used to knock off the gene of interest in order to study the genetic effect of proteins on the plant’s vesicular transport and subsequently the secretion of sugars.

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Gabriel’s study suggests that the ECHIDNA gene, as well as perhaps other unidentified genes in plants, plays a critical role in controlling the vesicular fusion with the cell wall. Consequently, the ECHIDNA gene also regulates the efficiency of plant secretion. This opens window into increasing the secretion yield of plants. Engineers may be able to modify the genes to improve the fusion of cellular vesicles with cell walls and enhance the efficiency of cellular secretion. Ultimately, this could allow more sugar extractions from the plants to be used as biofuels and potentially lower gas prices

For more details about the experiment and more examples of the industrial applications of biofuel, check out the following video:

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Ziharrphil Magnaye, Connie Lee, Nick Hsieh (Group 3)



More Than Meets the Eye

      Everyday we are constantly surrounded by different types of screens. For example: our computer screens, our TV screens, and our cell phone screens. However, the images we see are not comparable to what we see in reality. Being aware of such a difference can be dissatisfying, especially when we look at pictures of: the sunset, the mountains, and the beach. Jakob Emmel, a Ph.D Candidate from the Physics Department at the University of British Columbia, was not an exception.

Jakob Emmel. Image source: still shot of raw footage

      The first time he saw high dynamic range (HDR) displays that can show huge contrast, he described it as an “eye-opening experience.” HDR refers to the ratio of the maximum darkness to the maximum brightness that a screen can show. The higher the ratio, the better we can distinguish the “black” parts of the screen compared to the “white” parts. For comparison, a common non-HDR display may show a contrast ratio of 1000:1 while average human eyes can see a contrast of 100,000:1. HDR displays can show a contrast in the range of the human eyes or even higher.

      Nonetheless, there are still drawbacks with these awesome displays. In the video below, Jakob describes how current displays can be improved in projecting more uniform brightness across the screen as well as the contrast:

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      Although Jakob’s research was successful, the first prototype he made was not as effective. To control the light coming from each light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for better contrast and uniformity, he had used black filters on top of each LEDs. However, due to the nature of these filters, they absorbed some of the light rather than allowing the light to brighten the screen.

First Prototype with Black Filters. Image source: still shot of raw footage

      In his second prototype, Jakob made white filters with special reflective coatings. This allowed the spreading light from each LEDs to be reflected back to its source rather than be absorbed, preserving the light more efficiently. This way, dark areas can be dark and bright areas can be bright in the displays.

Second Prototype with White Filters. Image source: still shot of raw footage

      This technology can be applied in many areas. The most prominent source for its effective use is in medicine. With a better display, doctors can see images more clearly and be able to differentiate them more effectively since even the smallest irregularity can be a sign of a deadly tumor.

      Specified in the podcast is the technology’s application in movie post editing. As doctors could examine x-ray or MRI images better, movie editors can take advantage of this as well for spotting inequalities in the raw footage.

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      It is adequate to say that Jakob Emmel’s technological innovation is a step forward in grasping reality into the pocket screens of our phones and more. Contribution in the fields of medicine and movie production may only be the tip of an iceberg of vast technological advances to be uncovered.

Group 1
Jina Choi, Matthew Hong, and Angelica Reyes

Cellulose, Why Does It Matter?

Imagine a world without cellulose, what would you see on land? Nothing. There would be no plants, meaning there would be no oxygen in the atmosphere and therefore nothing on the planet would survive. Cellulose is an organic compound, which means that it contains carbon and oxygen, bound together through a strong cell-cell interaction between the oxygen molecules. This interaction is so strong that the human body cannot break it down if ingested. Furthermore, cellulose is used in many different products, such as paper, clothes and food.

Arabidopsis thaliana plant at its flowering stage. Image taken from Flickr.

Dr. Miki Fujita and her team investigated the effects of a certain mutation in plant has on the cell wall crystallinity, which can have huge implications for all of us. Although published this year, the research initiated in Australia seventeen years ago. The research group at Australian National University obtained the genetically engineered plants and conducted the biochemical studies. Dr. Fujita carried out the microscopy work and cellulose analysis of crystallinity at the Biology Imaging Facility shared by the Botany and Zoology Departments at the University of British Columbia. This work was done at these two different locations.

Racks of Petri dishes of Arabidopsis thaliana growing in a growing chamber. Image taken from Miki Fujita.

To produce the transgenic, genetically modified, plants to work with, Miki Fujita and her team introduced and inserted genes from another organism to the Arabidopsis thaliana plant, which was used because of its ability to grow quickly. Using the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machine, the specific sequence of the gene that will be inserted is amplified, creating a vast quantity of the sequence. The first step is to amplify the Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). DNA fragments are mixed with an enzyme solution in a tube, and placed in a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machine. This technique allows scientists to create a great quantity of a specific sequence of DNA. The PCR machine starts with a denaturing step where samples of DNA are heated for several minutes. The temperature on the PCR is then cooled for several minutes, allowing the left and right primers to base pair to their complementary sequences. Lastly, the temperature on the PCR is raised again for one minute, allowing polymerase to attach and synthesize a new DNA strand. The recombinant DNA produced by the PCR machines is put into plants to make transgenic plants.

Dr. Fujita using the specialized microscope at the Biology Imaging Facility. Image taken from Miki Fujita.

This research has great implications, whether economical or environmental, cellulose can make life better. Enhancing the cell wall crystallinity will increase the amount of cellulose, which will lead to an increase in the availability of our everyday products, such as paper, clothes and eventually biofuels.

The significance of this research is highlighted in the audio podcast below:

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For more information about the experiment, please watch the video below: YouTube Preview Image

Prezi in-class presentation.

By Amna Awan, Steven Cheema, Cherry Lo (Group 4)

Deadly virus potentially carried by camels?

Camel Source:Wikipedia

The fact that animals possess the ability to spread and give diseases to humans is universally known; a general example being the transmission of HIV from non-human primates to humans, a virus which has now infected millions worldwide. In the past year it is believed that the outbreak of the recently discovered MERS disease, too has an, albeit unusual, animal origin. MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) was first detected in September of 2012, yet only in the past months have researchers been able to suggest that the source of this new virus is in fact camels.

Despite its recent appearance, MERS has quickly become a global concern as the disease is seen to have a high mortality rate, where nearly 50% of all 150 infected individuals have died. MERS patients generally display symptoms of fever, coughing and shortness of breath, which eventually can progress to pneumonia and/or renal (kidney) failure. MERS is caused by a species of virus known as the coronavirus, a type of virus that was also responsible for the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak nearly ten years ago, a disease which displays similar symptoms to the of MERS.

Coronavirus Source:Wikipedia

Researchers have been working tirelessly to gather more information on the source and viral characteristics of this potentially devastating disease, and their efforts have not been in vain.  As August of this year, scientist were able to locate and isolate antibodies (proteins selectively produced by the body to remove the virus) in numerous camels within Oman region of Saudi Arabia. Despite this not being a definitive proof of that camels are the true source of the virus, it does strongly suggest the possibility that the virus was first infecting camels and then was passed to human in close proximity. Scientists have also been able to determine that the disease itself is relatively difficult to catch. The virus has very poor person-to-person transmission, which means as of present, we have little to fear of this disease becoming an epidemic. Still, health and government organizations should not dismiss the potential threat of MERS, as viruses such as these can mutate and gain the ability to spread easily throughout a population, much like the SARS outbreak seen 10 years earlier.

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Natasha Smyrnis


Camel tests positive for Mers virus, Coronavirus

Cellphone Radiation: Harmful?

image source: flickr

In modern times, especially in developed countries, it’s safe to say that the majority of people own a cellular device. In fact, Statistics Canada declared that in 2010, a whopping 78% of Canadian households owned a cellphone. According to the US National Cancer Institute (NCI), cellphones emit radio waves, which tissues closest to the source can absorb. As part of our daily lives in this booming technology-dependent world, it’s worth noting any possible harm caused by cellular phones.

Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) is a measure of how much radio energy is absorbed by the body. In Canada, the limit is a maximum of 1.6 watts per kilogram and a cellular company must meet this requirement to get certified. The cellphone you currently have should have a lower SAR value than this; however, if you’re curious, a list of SAR values is available online. Furthermore, the SAR value can change depending on the distance of the phone from the closest contact. CNET’s Kent German explained that cellphone manuals of brands, like the iPhone and Blackberry, advise the users to keep the phone a certain distance from the ear. These are the same manuals disregarded by the users. Lastly, he added, “What’s more, though science hasn’t proven that cell phones can cause brain cancer or other ailments, it hasn’t proven definitively that they aren’t harmful, either”

image source: wikipedia commons

More studies conclude that cellphone use doesn’t have an adverse effect on our health and safety; however, there are reviews reporting that some studies found an increased cancer risk affiliated with cellphone  use. A number of prominent, peer reviewed studies indicating that cell phone radiation can cause genetic damage, brain and blood cell dysfunction and a host of health problems including cancer“,  Dr. George Carlo said.

 There is a lot of uncertainty involved with the research regarding the negative impacts of radiation emitted by cellphones. Moreover, there are no absolute repercussions in using a cellphone nor a statement that says it’s completely harmless.

In the following video, Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks about the possible effects of exposure to radiation, adult and children’s susceptibility, and safety guidelines.

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In addition to Dr. Gupta’s safety advice, the Natural Health News has provided 10 ways to minimize our exposure to the harmful radiation of cellphones.

The Environmental Working Group announced that the World Health Organization made associations between cellphone use and brain cancer, sperm damage, and behavioural changes. Despite all of these possible harmful effects, why are we not conducting more research that can lead us to a more definite answer? A recent Vancouver Sun article states that Health Canada is allegedly manipulating reports on cellphone radiation. Why is this happening? What impedes further study regarding the topic?

-Ziharrphil Magnaye


MobileSyrup, National Cancer Institute, cnet, SAR Values, cnet, Taylor and Francis Online, Mobile Phones and Cancer,, Environmental Working Group, Vancouver Sun