Limitless Energy and Disease Discovery at Final TSRC’S Town Talk

Limitless Energy and Disease Discovery at Final TSRC’S Town Talk

images“The discovery of natural gas and fracking technology give us about 40 more years. Whether good or bad, these buy us enough time to make solar work,” said Joseph Hupp, Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University.

Porfessor Huff is referring to the time remaining on Earth’s non-renewable energy clock, which does not slow for scientific discovery.

At this week’s TSRC (Telluride Science Research Center) Town Talk, Professor Hupp will present “Prospects for Limitless Energy from Sunlight and Water.” He is joined by Martin Zanni, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Zanni will discuss disease-causing proteins in “Amyloid fibers: Understanding the Probable cause of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Type 2 Diabetes.” This final Town Talk of the season happens Tuesday, August 6 p.m. at the historic Sheridan Opera House (110 N. Oak Street).

Generating energy from sunlight and water has been a hot topic for over a decade. Yet scientists are still knee deep in data, attempting to optimize the process. Why? It’s not a question of raw materials; we have an infinite supply of sunlight and water. It’s not a matter of how to use the sun to split water or how to use hydrogen to fuel a vehicle; those procedures are well established.

The problem, claimed Hupp, is how to get the hydrogen efficiently.

“No laws of the universe are broken in splitting water, but people can’t do it well. It’s carried out in a way that proves it can be done, but is not useful,” he said.

Semiconductors, akin to light absorbers, are critical to the design. They capture sunlight’s photons to generate electrons that then form hydrogen gas. Hupp explained that for a water-splitting reaction to be successful, the semiconductor must pull all of the oxygens from the hydrogens in H2O. That is where the semiconductor challenge lies.

Hupp’s lab is currently investigating one of the most plentiful semiconductors – rust. They’re making it from scratch and maximizing the amount of light it collects. “We’re not going for gold, we’re going for the rust. It can’t get any cheaper or greener than that!” Hupp said. In his talk, Hupp will divulge how rust is a promising semiconductor and why previous semiconductors have failed (a critical discovery his lab made).

Professor Zanni studies proteins, not just a few puny ones, but multiple proteins clumped together into long, fibrous needles.

“There are about 20 different human diseases that are caused by proteins in our body sticking together,” Zanni explained. “Each disease involves a different protein clump, called an amyloid fiber. When the fibers stick together, they are called amyloid plaques.”

Diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Type 2 Diabetes all feature amyloid plaques.

A mystery for many scientists, but what Zanni’s lab has discovered, is what predisposes a protein to form amyloid fibers in some mammals, but not in others.

“All mammals produce a similar protein that forms the amyloid plaques in Type 2 Diabetes. However, only humans, primates, and cats get the disease. Rats and pigs don’t, because their protein doesn’t stick together.”

In his talk, Zanni will describe how his lab can “watch” amyloid folding in real-time using a one-of-a-kind infrared technique. They can then determine the intermediate configuration that is likely responsible for cellular toxicity.

“We can see amyloid fibers better than anyone else in the past,” said Zanni.

The next step is targeting the toxic intermediate configuration with a drug molecule to prevent clumping.

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