Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The adventures of a young speed mad delinquent

As young lads, me and my brother Mike (3 years younger, less intelligent and really rather ugly) were obsessed by speed.  Both of us finished up in A&E on various occasions, following perambulatory accidents.  On one occasion, he staggered home with the remains of his bicycle handle bar embedded into his left thigh.  A couple of months later I came unstuck attempting to tow a glider down Tempest Avenue on the back of my bike.  Whilst swerving to avoid colliding with an elderly and rather smelly old lady – yes I was that close -  I mounted the curb and temporarily lost my memory on impact with the pavement.  When I came round I found myself in the old ladies smelly house, covered in blood with several teeth missing, two burst eyes and a black lip.  I’m not sure whether these injuries were due to the impact, or the wrath of the smelly old geriatric.

Anyway, I never did see the glider again, but it was last seen heading over the fields to Houghton Main muck stack!  I was guided home to me mum and dad by my mates, Terry Norman and someone else who I never did remember, but I think he was in the glider. Mum and dad took me straight off to hospital where they confirmed that I did indeed have two burst eyes and a black lip.  They X-rayed me for brain damage and confirmed concussion but were not able to foretell what my intellectual future held for me.
After I had recovered, my dad thought I would be safer on 4 wheels so he made a fantastic two seater trolley for the both of us.  Upon completion we went for a ride on it.  It was fantastic, it had a really elegant steering mechanism and it even had brakes.   I drove it  several times round the block, with Mike pushing as we went up the hills and him jumping into the back seat on the way down.  The short downhill section on the way down Doncaster road to the junction with Edderthorpe Lane was really good and we were able to get up to about 30 MPH on the footpath.  Anyway, one time Mike wanted to drive so being the kindly older brother I gave him a go.  I got a massive turn of speed up and then jumped into the back seat whilst he steered.  I forgot to mention that this machine had iron wheels and sounded like thunder once you got it going.  Anyway, as we came over the brow of the hill a little old lady (this one was quite fragrant) heard us and set off running. Now, if she’d kept on in a straight line she would have been a little out of breath, but otherwise unhurt.  Sadly for the lady this was not the case.  She was probably the fastest 80 year old on the planet that day, but alas only for a few seconds.  Tragically, the inevitable happened.  As we zig-zagged towards Edderthorpe Lane, she zag – zigged along approximately the same trajectory (I later became interested in mass spectrometry and the image of this was to serve me well in visualizing the trajectory of ions in the field of a quadrupole but that’s for another blog).  At the bottom of the hill we collided.  The old dear sailed through the air and landed with a sickening crunch and a prolonged exhalation of air where she remained motionless and covered in gravel.  Obviously we realised we had done something terrible.  When my dad arrived home from work he went round and collected her.  He wouldn’t let us see her but I think he broke her up for fire wood and that was the end of that.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The plight of the African Vulture

Foundation for Analytical Science & Technology in Africa (FASTA) became a registered charity in 2006 and since then, we’ve set up a centre of excellence in analytical chemistry at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology in Nairobi.  The University is now teaching mass spectrometry to graduates and post graduates. We are also collaborating with a researcher and conservationist who has recently completed her doctoral work in the area of wildlife forensics at Cambridge.  We are looking for the reason for the vvery worrying mass decline in the African vulture population.
Our lab in Nairobi is currently analysing the feathers and bones of dead vultures using GC Mass Spectrometry - a very powerful technique for analysing and identifying trace amounts of chemicals. 
We are hoping to gather enough evidence and data to show the reason for the decline which we think is due to the rise in veterinary drugs used in cattle, especially Diclofenac, as well as deliberate poisonings, aimed at large mamals such as lions and tigers.  The objective is to get enough evidence based on sound science, to beetter control the use of these drugs in veterinary use.
We hope that the lab can become self sustaining, and that we will quickly be able to educate farmers that there are better and more sustainable ways to run their businesses.

Its a gas

The simple things are often the most challenging.  There is no such thing as a daft question.  For example, what is a fluid? This seems a simple, even  naive  question, but when you begin to think about it the science gets really interesting.

A fluid is simply a substance which has the ability to flow, so fluids can be either gases or liquids.  A phase diagram shows the different phases (in other  words, gas, liquid or solid) in which a substance will exist as a function of temperature and pressure.
If you look at a phase diagram, you will notice that the boundary between liquid and solid is almost vertical and this shows that a massive increase in pressure of a liquid is required before it will solidify. Water actually works in the opposite way as the solid occupies more volume than the liquid, which is why frozen pipes burst. Have a look at a phase diagram for water.
Now, onto gases. The pressure of a gas is due to the gas atoms or molecules colliding with the walls of the container. The distance gas molecules travel before they collide with another molecule is relatively large, thus any forces acting between the molecules will be small. In fact, at pressures of less than 10 psi, intermolecular forces are not really significant, and at these low pressures all gases behave to a good approximation as an ideal gas. In an ideal gas the relationship between pressure, volume and temperature is shown by the following equation:
Where p is the pressure, V is the volume, n is the amount of gas and T is absolute temperature. R is a constant called the gas constant. So, for perfect or ideal gases, or any gas at less than around 10 psi, they are all equally as compressible because there is no intermolecular interaction.
In the real world however, many gases do not behave in this ideal way, and may be more easily compressible if the molecules have an affinity for each other, or more difficult to compress if the molecules repel each other. At high pressures, forces of repulsion will dominate and ideal behaviour will fail for all gases. There are several equations which attempt to predict the behaviour of real gases but the most common one is the Van Der Waals equation. 

Foundation for Analytical Science & Technology in Africa

FASTA is a registered charity comprised of chemical scientists from the UK and other countries, including Kenya and Canada. It was founded by me and a group of colleagues from BP and Barrie Nixon from Mass Spec UK on September 20, 2006 to support scientific education and the preservation of the environment in Africa via capacity-building and technology transfer.

As scientists with a passion for chemistry and a dedication to the preservation of our environment, we have made an enduring commitment to provide participating laboratory facilities and collaborators with the tools they require to establish themselves and succeed.  Several organisations, especially The British Mass Spectrometry Society, The Royal Society of Chemistry, Mass Spec UK and Perkin-Elmer, amongst others have been very supportive by providing generous grants and lots of moral support for us and this was instrumental in allowing us to set up the first GC-MS facility at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology in Nairobi.  To this end, we purchase and install laboratory equipment and offer training, ongoing maintenance, and technical and professional support