Tag Archives: ethanol

Credit: Pixabay.

The dangers of mixing alcohol and drugs

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Alcohol is commonly used at the same time with over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs, and illicit drugs. However, doing so can have unpredictable and unwanted consequences — and some of these are extremely dangerous. Here’s a brief description of the general effects that can occur by combining alcohol and various classes of drugs.

Alcohol and antidepressants

Antidepressants are medications that can help relieve symptoms of depression, social anxiety disorder, anxiety disorders, seasonal affective disorder, and dysthymia, or mild chronic depression, as well as other conditions. An increasing number of people are turning to such drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of people aged 12 years and over using antidepressant in the United States rose from 7.7 percent in 1999-2002 to 12.7 percent in 2011-2014.

There are many classes of antidepressants and the effects of the use of alcohol, also known as ethanol (ETOH), in conjunction with these drugs will depend on their class.

Generally, the symptoms of using alcohol in conjunction with most antidepressant drugs include:

  • Inhibiting the medicinal effect of the antidepressant drug (Zoloft, Prozac, Lithium, etc.);
  • Drowsiness, dizziness, and even an increase in depression; alcohol itself is a depressant and can exacerbate the symptoms of the condition.
  • Amplification of alcohol’s effects, particularly on motor function, coordination, and reduced reaction time.
  • Increase potential for damage to organs, such as the liver.

Alcohol and medication for diabetes

There are various prescription medication designed to control diabetes, such as insulin for type I diabetes and metformin for type II diabetes. Drinking alcohol in such a situation can lead to all sorts of serious consequences due to the high sugar content of many alcoholic beverages. When combined with diabetes medication, alcohol can lead to effects such as:

  • Rapid heartbeat and increased blood pressure;
  • Fatigue, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea, and/or vomiting;
  • Potentially dangerous alterations in blood sugar levels;

Alcohol and opiates

The most dangerous combination of alcohol and drugs is with opiates, such as heroin or painkillers.

Opiate painkillers like OxyContin, Hydrocodone and Vicodin depress the central nervous system to dampen pain, as well as inhibit breathing. When mixed with alcohol, the risk of overdose spikes. About 22% of prescription painkiller fatalities involve alcohol.

Alcohol and stimulants

While alcohol suppresses the functions of the central nervous system (CNS), there are numerous drugs that stimulate CNS functions. Some examples of such stimulants include:

  • Amphetamines;
  • Prescription medications for the treatment of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), such as Ritalin and Concerta (methylphenidate) or Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine);
  • Caffeine and several drugs classified as antihistamines or decongestants;
  • Illicit drugs, particularly cocaine and methamphetamine (crystal meth).

People mix alcohol with stimulants in order to ‘take the edge off’ of the stimulant. This practice is particularly common among college students who abuse ADHD medication to help with studying and people who use cocaine at parties. The main problem is that stimulants conceal the effects of alcohol, which means people can no longer gauge their level of intoxication, leading to overconsumption. Some common problems associated with mixing stimulants and alcohol include:

  • The effects of stimulants are negated by alcohol.
  • Taking stimulants and alcohol in combination leads to a significant reduction in the overall effects of both drugs. This makes it easier to overdose on one or both drugs.
  • Higher risk of developing seizures, psychotic behavior, hallucinations, or delusions.
  • Emotional problems, such as increased symptoms for depression, anxiety, loss of motivation, etc.
  • Damage to organs such as the liver, gastrointestinal system, and cardiovascular system if alcohol and stimulants are mixed chronically.

Alcohol and over-the-counter medication

Just because some medication doesn’t require a prescription, that doesn’t make it harmless. Tylenol, for instance, contains acetaminophen which can cause liver damage if a user takes too much or combines it with alcohol. Other medications, such as cough syrup and laxatives, already contain as much as 10% alcohol, which can interact with just a drink or two.

In conclusion, the safest thing is to avoid combining drugs and alcohol. Always contact your doctor or local pharmacist before you mix any kind of drugs, legal or not, with alcohol.

The catalyst is made of copper nanoparticles embedded into tiny carbon spikes. Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Cheap catalyst reverses combustion and turns CO2 into ethanol fuel

co2 to ethanol

Credit: Pixabay

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory found a low-cost solution to turning CO2, a byproduct of combustion, into ethanol. The one-step reaction operates at room temperature and is set off by a novel catalyst made from readily available materials. The ‘secret sauce’ was the nanofabrication of the catalyst.

From CO2 to alcohol

Adam Rondinone and colleagues were investigating a multi-step reaction process to turn CO2 into a fuel but they soon found out that their catalyst was doing the entire reaction on its own.

“We discovered somewhat by accident that this material worked,” Rondinone said.

The serendipitous catalyst was made of carbon, copper, and nitrogen. However, the novelty lies in the way these materials were used on the nano level. Specifically, copper nanoparticles were embedded in carbon spikes to create a texture that drives and facilitates the CO2 to ethanol reaction. In doing so, this method enabled the creation of a powerful catalyst without the need for rare metals like platinum which are typically used for such purposes and are prohibitively expensive.

“They are like 50-nanometer lightning rods that concentrate electrochemical reactivity at the tip of the spike,” Rondinone said.

The catalyst is made of copper nanoparticles embedded into tiny carbon spikes. Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The catalyst is made of copper nanoparticles embedded into tiny carbon spikes. Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

In the presence of this catalyst and a voltage, the solution of carbon dioxide dissolved in water turned into ethanol with a yield of 63 percent, scientists reported in their paper. Remarkably, this whole process took place at room temperature.

“We’re taking carbon dioxide, a waste product of combustion, and we’re pushing that combustion reaction backwards with very high selectivity to a useful fuel,” Rondinone said. “Ethanol was a surprise — it’s extremely difficult to go straight from carbon dioxide to ethanol with a single catalyst.”

Given the low-cost nature of this solution, the researchers envision an industrial scaled-up version of their catalytic converter that might one day turn thousands of tons of CO2 captured from the atmosphere into ethanol. The process could also work well as a storage medium for renewable energy, where the excess energy that can’t be fed to the grid is used to drive the reaction instead.

Of course, pulling CO2 — a greenhouse gas that warms the planet — from the air to turn into ethanol so it can be burned again doesn’t sound like the best environmental solution. Nor does using clean renewable energy to make a combustible fuel with greenhouse gasses as a byproduct. However, the United States is already making ethanol from corn and other crops. In the short term, this catalytic conversion of CO2 ought to be beneficial by offsetting the amount of net CO2 that ends up in the atmosphere. In the long run, we’ll have no need for such solutions because society should be sufficiently technologically advanced to make liquid fuels, or any combustible material for that matter, obsolete. Until then, the global energy problem needs to be met with a mix of solutions. There is no such thing as a one size fits all approach in this case.

Liquid droplets on a very cool surface look more like a ring, then a pancake as most modules assume. Image: University of Twente

Scientists image levitating water droplets on very hot plates

If you sprinkle water on a hot plate, it will evaporate. Basic physics, really. If the plate is really hot (well above the boiling point of water) something very interesting happens, which the untrained eye might discard as uneventful. The droplets will dance around the plate on a cushion of its own vapor — this form of levitation is called the Leindenfrost effect. This layer is about 100 nanometers wide, and for the first time a team of researchers has imaged it.

Liquid droplets on a very cool surface look more like a ring, then a pancake as most modules assume. Image: University of Twente

Liquid droplets on a very cool surface look more like a ring, then a pancake as most modules assume. Image: University of Twente

Researchers of the Physics of Fluids group of the University of Twente (MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology) used high speed cameras and a new technique called internal reflection imaging based on lasers. These lasers can tell if a very small era is wet or dry, in other words if the water droplet is floating above the surface of a pan or on it.

Ethanol droplet behaviour under various temperature regimes. Image: University of Twente

Ethanol droplet behaviour under various temperature regimes. Image: University of Twente

For the experiment, ethanol was used instead of water (makes no difference) under three temperature regimes: contact boiling, transition boiling and Leidenfrost boiling. For each regime, scientists were able to distinguish the incident angle the spreading radius of the droplets. For instance, while transitioning towards Leidenfrost the center part of the droplet will still be in contact with the surface, while oddly the outer ring levitates.

This means that the droplet is not flat, as assumed by most models. Applications where there’s heat transfer from solids to liquids, say in an engine, will benefit the most out of this kind of research. Besides that, it’s always incredible to witness how particles behave at the nanoscale. You don’t see levitation everyday.

It’s important to note that the Leidenfrost effect doesn’t necessarily work at extra boiling point temperatures. The phenomenon works at extremely low temperatures too, as long as there’s a great temperatures difference between the fluid and the other surface. For instance, in the video demonstration below a daredevil sprinkles his hand with water and then dips it in liquid nitrogen for a few seconds. In normal conditions, the hand would have been frozen stiff, but the intense temperature difference between the water at room temperature and liquid nitrogen (-346°F and -320.44°F or 63 K and 77.2 K) creates a thin film barrier protecting the hand. Don’t try this at home!

Reference:  ‘Dynamic Leidenfrost Effect: Relevant Time and Length Scales’, by Minori Shirota, Michiel van Limbeek, Chao Sun, Andrea Prosperetti en Detlef Lohse, was published in Physical Review Letters 116 6.


‘Sprite’ and soda water best cures against hangover

Drinking until the early hours of dawn may be exhilarating for some, however the next day everything seems to tumble over as the mind is assaulted by a barrage of hangover attacks. There are a number of popular home-brewed remedies against hangover: eating eggs, sipping a bit of castor oil, Vitamin B effervescent pills, tomato sauce, work (or anything that keeps you distracted from the pain) or even more alcohol. Anthony Burgess, famous writer known as the author of A Clockwork Orange,  liked to beat his hangovers to the finish line with a homemade cocktail that rarely left him feeling weary – a concoction known as Hangman’s Blood. “Into a pint glass, doubles of the following are poured: gin, whisky, rum, port and brandy. A small bottle of stout is added and the whole topped up with Champagne … It tastes very smooth, induces a somewhat metaphysical elation, and rarely leaves a hangover,” he instructs.

soda_water_cure_hangoverScientists however warn that drinking more alcohol, even beer, doesn’t help with hangovers. More alcoholic drinks will only boost the existing toxicity of the alcohol already in one’s body, and may lead to further drinking, according to previous research (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism). With a hangover, you’re most likely suffering from dehydration and a deficiency of important minerals like magnesium and potassium. Symptoms of dehydration include headache, cottonmouth, lightheadedness, and thirst.  Drinking water is an obvious first step anyone should take following a night out drinking. Often than not that’s not enough, so what would be effective against hangovers?

A recent research performed by Chinese researchers found that what you drink following alcohol consumption can have a significant effect on one’s hangover symptoms – that is to say, you can alleviate or worsen it. The researchers made tests on several beverages, including teas and various carbonated drinks. According to their findings the carbonated drink Sprite, as well as soda water, helped cure hangovers the most.

Curing a hangover

It’s important to understand what causes hangovers or better said what are the mechanisms that lead to a hangover. A popular assumption is that the adverse effect of consuming alcohol is caused by ethanol. In reality, ethanol’s first metabolite –  acetaldehyde – is what causes the dreaded feeling. The compound is metabolized by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and then into acetate by aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). Acetate is actually thought to be responsible for some of the positive health benefits of alcohol consumption, so the key to alleviating post-alcohol consumption hangover is to control acetaldehyde through the dehydrogenase enzyme.

University in Guangzhou researchers tried various drinks which based on their chemical content they hypothesized these might interact with dehydrogenase in some way – either promoting or inhibiting its use. Some of the drinks tested, including a herbal infusion known as Huo ma ren, were found to increase the activity of ADH, accelerating the metabolization of ethanol into the toxic acetaldehyde. Therefore consuming these drinks will actually increase your hangover.

Other drinks, however,  markedly increased ALDH activity, thus promoting the rapid break-down of acetaldehyde and could minimise the harmful effects of drinking alcohol. These drinks include Xue bi and Hui yi su da shui or the carbonated drinks known in English as Sprite and soda water, respectively. According to the paper, soda water consumption reduced alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) activity by 5.7% and also increased acetaldehyde dehydrogenase activity by 49.3%. This minimises the exposure to acetaldehyde.


The same organisms that make pandas effective at digesting bamboo may help turn plant waste into biofuels, according to researchers. (c) Keren Su, Corbis

Panda poop might help biofuel production take a turn for the better

The same organisms that make pandas effective at digesting bamboo may help turn plant waste into biofuels, according to researchers. (c) Keren Su, Corbis

The same organisms that make pandas effective at digesting bamboo may help turn plant waste into biofuels, according to researchers. (c) Keren Su, Corbis

Biofuels are very ‘hot’ at the moment, as they’ve started to gain traction. Production as increased about 400% since 2000, and that’s a good thing. Right? After all, anything that can replace fossil fuels is a better option. Well, not necessarily. A while ago, I wrote a piece for ZME Science in which listed some of reason why biofuels aren’t that ‘green’ as most people would like to think. In short, unsustainable biofuel production can be hazardous to the environment creating deforestation, erosion, loss of biodiversity, and impact on water resources. People shouldn’t forget that biofuels produce greenhouse gas emissions as well, albeit not in the same degree as fossil hydrocarbons.

Another important downside to biofuel production is that an important chunk of them are made from food crops, affecting food supply. For instance, ethanol made from corn is the most common alternative fuel in the U.S. Engineers tried developing fuels from non-edible corn stalks, corn cobs, and other plant material not meant for food production, however these require special processing to breakdown their tough cellulose fibers. Typically this translates in an energy intensive process that requires high temperature and pressure. It’s simply not feasible. Not impossible, though.

Scientists at Mississippi State University, led by Ashli Brown, think they may have found a method to work-around the energy intensive process and derive biofuels from non-edible crops much easier. And they have two of Memphis Zoo’s giant pandas to thank: Ya Ya and Le Le. The secret lies in their super panda feces.

“The giant pandas are contributing their feces,” explained Ashli Brown, a biochemist at Mississippi State University who heads the research. “We have discovered microbes in panda feces might actually be a solution to the search for sustainable new sources of energy. It’s amazing that here we have an endangered species that’s almost gone from the planet, yet there’s still so much we have yet to learn from it.”

Pandas’ diet mainly consists of bamboo and their small intestinal tract is perfectly adapted to digest them. Since bamboo is similar to the tough cellulose fibers non-edible crops have been given scientists so much headaches, the Mississipi researchers were on to something. Closer inspection showed 40 microbes living in the guts of the giant pandas with unusually potent enzymes.

“The time from eating to defecation is comparatively short in the panda, so their microbes have to be very efficient to get nutritional value out of the bamboo,” Brown notes. “And efficiency is key when it comes to biofuel production – that’s why we focused on the microbes in the giant panda.”

In addition to identifying bacteria that break down lignocellulose into simple sugars, the researchers also found bacteria that can take those sugars and transform them into oils and fats – which could be used for biodiesel production. Brown said that either the bacteria themselves or the enzymes in the bacteria could be used in the production of biofuels.

“These studies also help us learn more about this endangered animal’s digestive system and the microbes that live in it,” said Brown. “Understanding the relationships between the microbes and the pandas, as well as how they get their energy and nutrition, is extremely important… as fewer than 2,500 giant pandas are left in the wild and only 200 are in captivity.”

Next, the researchers have to work on a way to use these bacteria and enzymes themselves to produce biofuels in the lab.

via Nat Geographic

(c) Ikiwaner/Wikimedia Commons

Origins of alcohol consumption traced back to 10-million-year-old common ancestor

Now, I’m not advocating alcohol consumption, but truth be told most of us take alcohol for granted, and I’m not referring to abusing either. Millions of years ago, our ancestors and primate relatives had a very poor ability of metabolizing ethanol — the alcohol in beer, wine and spirits — and were it not for their pioneering “work”, we humans might have not been able to enjoy alcoholic spirits the way we do today.

(c) Ikiwaner/Wikimedia Commons

(c) Ikiwaner/Wikimedia Commons

Chemist Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Fla believes that our first ancestor capable of metabolizing ethanol may have lived 10 million years ago, after him and colleagues reconstructed  alcohol-metabolizing enzymes of extinct primates.

To break down ethanol, humans like most primates use an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase 4 or ADH4, for short. Since the enzyme is fairly common through out the esophagus, stomach and intestines, it is the very first line that meets alcohol when a person drinks, and thus is the most important component in breaking down ethanol. However, not all primates have the same working ADH4, as some can’t even effectively metabolize ethanol – poor fellows.

Alcohol consumption: a tradition worth million of years

The researchers analyzed the stretches of DNA referring to ADH4 in 27 modern primate species, including lemurs, monkeys, apes and humans. In the meantime estimates of extinct primates’ enzyme genetic code was made; enzymes that were then rebuilt in the lab and analyzed in order to gain a better understanding of how these work. Equipped with this new found data, the researchers mapped the DNA sequences on a primate family tree in order to see how the genes changed in key points of the tree, like the branching points, typically corresponding to extinct primates.

Their results show that most primate ancestors wouldn’t have been able to metabolize ethanol, however at a certain branching point that lead to the evolution of modern day primates like gorillas, chimps or humans – corresponding to an ancestor that lived roughly 10 million years ago – the enzyme became capable of digesting alcohol. The jump is rather staggering since the enzyme is believed to have been 50 times more efficient than those in earlier ancestors.

Obviously, a catalyst was required and the scientists hypothesize that it was during that time that our tree dwelling ancestors began to explore the ground level more. It is here they might have found fruit fallen from the trees that fermented its sugars into ethanol. Individuals that could metabolize the alcohol in these fruits better than those who didn’t had a better chance at surviving, and thus the enzyme became stronger in generations to come.

But it may be too soon to link metabolizing ethanol with living on the ground, said Jeremy DeSilva, a biological anthropologist at Boston University. “There’s very little fossil evidence from the general time period when humans, gorillas and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor.”

Benner exposed his idea during a talk at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting. In the meantime, I can’t help myself posting this incredibly hilarious video that shows what effects alcohol has on primates and other animals. Not surprisingly, they don’t behave too differently from our own human debaucheries.

Seaweed farmer Nyafu Juma Uledi tends her crop in a tidal pool on Zanzibar Island in Tanzania, which exports thousands of tons of the greenery to Asia annually. (Photo: Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

Genetically engineered microbe turns seaweed into biofuel

US-based scientists have successfully managed to engineer a microbe that reacts with seaweed to produce ethanol, and thus making it a new source of biofuel, an alternative to coal and oil. If the research can be applied at an economically feasible scale, it could finally set biofuels usage on an exponentially growth path, as seaweed doesn’t compete with food crops for arable land.

Most of today’s biofuels are extracted from crops like corn, sugar or oil palms, which are turned into ethanol. However, to reach today’s production mark of tens of billions of gallons worth of biofuel the industry had to use an immense amount of arable land, which directly interferes with actual food production and provides interest for companies to deforest rain forests and wood lands to make way for more crop land. Also, a entire arsenal of chemical fertilizers are used in the crop cultivation process. The last point has lead many climate experts to state that biofuels aren’t that green at all.

Since seaweed doesn’t compete with arable land, turning it into a biofuel energy source is an extremely interesting prospect, and scientists at Bio Architecture Lab, Inc., (BAL) have managed to accomplish just that. The Berkley, Ca. researchers used a genetically engineered form of E. coli bacteria that can digest the seaweed’s sugars into ethanol. They were inspired by the Vibrio splendidus bacteria, which brakes down alginate, the predominant sugar molecule in the brown seaweed. They then took the genetic machinery responsible for this process and split it into the E. coli. The scientists involved in the research claim that the engineered microbe gives 80% of the theoretical maximum yield, converting 28% of the dry weight of the seaweed into ethanol.

“Natural seaweed species grow very fast – 10 times faster than normal plants – and are full of sugars, but it has been very difficult to make ethanol by conventional fermentation,” said Yannick Lerat, scientific director at Centre d’Etude et de Valorisation des Algues. “So the new work is a really critical step. But scaling up processes using engineered microbes is not always easy. They also need to prove the economics work.”

Man has been harvesting seaweed for centuries as a food source. In China and Japan, there are farms that are the equivalent of the midwest cornfields in the US. It is believed that around 15 million metric tons of kombu and other seaweeds are grown and harvested as a food source. So the basis and mechanics for a biofuel centered farms is more or less already in place, but a lot of investment and work needs to be put in order to make seaweed produced biofuels economically feasible.

BAL currently has four aquafarming sites in Chile where it hopes to “scale up its microbe technology as the next step on the path to commercialization” in the next three years. A Carbon Trust official said seaweed biofuels are “still five times higher than they need to be to get to a reasonable fuel price” and that “the use of genetically modified microbes could be a concern in Europe – where the perception of negative impacts can be quite harmful – but less so in the US and elsewhere.”

Still, there’s a huge potential, considering most of the planet is covered in water. Also, the researchers claim that the microbe can used for making molecules other than ethanol, like plastics or sobutanol.

“Consider the microbe as the chassis with engineered functional modules,” or pathways to produce a specific molecule, synthetic biologist Yasuo Yoshikuni, a co-founder of BAL says. “If we integrate other pathways instead of the ethanol pathway, this microbe can be a platform for converting sugar into a variety of molecules.”


Turning waste material into ethanol

Biofuels seems to be the word on everybody’s lips today, and for good reason. It’s necessary that people understand the benefits and importance of this development, as it could be a huge step in protecting our resources and planet. Fortunately, some breakthroughs have been made which give us confidence that things are moving (slowly, but pretty sturdy) in the right direction.

However, it’s not only towards the future that we have to look at; the past is pretty important too. Scientists are trying to revive and older technology, called gasification. It was abandoned about 30 years ago, but due to the development of nanotechnology it could prove to be very useful. The benefit of this technology is that it can be used in a variety of applications, virtually everywhere.

Gasification is a process in which carbon-based feedstocks in an oxygen controlled atmosphere at a high temperature and pressure are transformed into synthesis gas, or syngas. This syngas is made of mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen and a smaller amount of carbon dioxide and methane. It’s a technique that’s almost similar to that used to extract the gas from coal.

“There was some interest in converting syngas into ethanol during the first oil crisis back in the 70s,” said Ames Lab chemist and Chemical and Biological Science Program Director Victor Lin. “The problem was that catalysis technology at that time didn’t allow selectivity in the byproducts. They could produce ethanol, but you’d also get methane, aldehydes and a number of other undesirable products.”

“The great thing about using syngas to produce ethanol is that it expands the kinds of materials that can be converted into fuels,” Lin said. “You can use the waste product from the distilling process or any number of other sources of biomass, such as switchgrass or wood pulp. Basically any carbon-based material can be converted into syngas. And once we have syngas, we can turn that into ethanol.”
The research is funded by the DOE’s Offices of Basic Energy Sciences and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Major advanced in biofuels: trash today = ethanol tomorrow

biofuelResearchers from the University of Maryland started researching some characteristics of bacteriae from Chesapeake Bay that could lead to a process of converting large quantities of all kinds of plant products (including leftovers and trash) into ethanol and other biofuels. This sounds pretty dreamy but it’s quite possible as the technology is not at all far away from us.

This process was elaborated by University of Maryland professors Steve Hutcheson and Ron Weiner, professors of cell biology and molecular genetics; they set the basis for their incubator (with help from Zymetis).

“The new Zymetis technology is a win for the State of Maryland , for the University and for the environment,” said University of Maryland President C.D. Mote, Jr. “It makes affordable ethanol production a reality and makes it from waste materials, which benefits everyone and supports the green-friendly goal of carbon-neutrality.”

This process can make biofuels from virtually anything, such as waste paper, brewing byproducts, leftover agriculture products, including straw, corncobs and husks, and energy crops such as switchgrass. When fully operational, the device is believed to lead to the production of 75 billion gallons a year of carbon-neutral ethanol.

The secret to this is as natural as it can be: a Chesapeake Bay marsh grass bacterium, S. degradans. Hutcheson found that the bacterium has an enzyme that quickly breaks down plant materials into sugar which afterwards turns into biofuel.