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This week The Alchemist learns of novel multifunctional materials, frost-free glass for clearer driving and better cell phone signals, shape-shifting liquid metals, how to measure ultra-weak interactions between proteins and a different kind of nuclear power. Finally, we have a pharmaceutical award.

Stephen O'Brien of City University New York and colleagues have discovered a new group of complex oxides, known as hollandites, based on barium, titanium and manganese that exhibit both magnetic and ferroelectric properties. Combining both phenomena allows a coupling that might be exploited in future computer memory devices or in the emerging field of spintronics, where the electron's spin and its magnetic moment are used in logic circuits rather than simply the charge. The findings confirm a prediction dating back almost twenty years regarding the ferroelectric nature of such inorganic substances and now open up the prospect of being able to control charges using magnetic fields and spins by applied voltages, for novel sensors, four-state logic circuits and the aforementioned spintronics.

The perennial de-icing of one's windshield on a freezing winter's morning is a common enough problem for those who live well outside The Tropics, but ice forming on glass in cryogenic laboratories and elsewhere is an all-round problem regardless of where your laboratory is. Now, researchers at Rice University have extended work for protecting radar domes from ice to find a way to coat glass with an anti-ice material. Last year the same team used overlapping nanoribbons and polyurethane paint to keep water liquid on military radar domes so that they perform optimally, the material could replace bulky and energy-hungry metal oxide frameworks. Now, the materials have been made more consistent and substantially radio transparent, which prevents them melting on the radar domes but also extends their use to glass windows for buildings and cars where getting a radio signal in and out is important for mobile phone communications, for instance.

Controlling the surface tension of liquid metals by applying a very low voltage, is now possible thanks to work by a team at North Carolina State University. The research could lead to a new generation of reconfigurable electronic circuits, antennae and other technologies, although worries about a shape-shifting, time-traveling metal Terminator-1000 of movie science fiction fame is probably still a few decades away, to say the least. The researchers used a liquid metal alloy of gallium and indium which normally has a remarkably high surface tension of about 500 millinewtons per meter, this causes the alloy to form spherical beads. When Michael Dickey and colleagues applied a positive charge at less than 1 volt, however, an electrochemical reaction creates an oxide layer on the surface of the alloy, that causes the surface tension to plummet to just 2 mN/m. "We can use this technique to control the movement of liquid metals, allowing us to change the shape of antennas and complete or break circuits," says Dickey. "It could also be used in microfluidic channels, MEMS, or photonic and optical devices."

The fleeting and ultra-weak interactions between proteins in our body allow countless biochemical processes to take place. When the systems go awry we see misfolding problems and aggregation that gives rise to the symptoms of diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and Parkinson's disease. Now, Jens Jørgen Led of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and his colleagues have demonstrated how nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy can reveal the details of these interactions and help explain how it is that proteins can "scan" each other so rapidly and "know" which ones to work with in healthy biochemical processes. The team exploited the contrast agent gadodiamide from the well-known medical sibling of NMR, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). "It was already acknowledged that proteins find one another via ultra-weak interactions, but no one knew how to measure them. Now we can," says Led. He hopes that other researchers will now take this work and use it to develop our models of proteins perhaps even in living systems too.

Betavoltaics is an alternative energy source in which the beta decay of a radioactive element, such as strontium-90, is used to generate a cascade of free radicals in aqueous solution and platinum-coated titania nanoparticles are used to tap an electric current from the process. Researchers at the University of Missouri suggest that such a device might have applications in space exploration in circumstances when solar-powered photovoltaics are inadequate or in longer-lasting batteries for electric vehicles.

Doctoral chemistry student Khaja Muneeruddin of the University of Massachusetts Amherst is one of the promising young scientists to receive this year's Global Fellowship Award from the United States Pharmacopeial Convention to the value of $30000. The award aims to advance research in quality standards that manufacturers must follow in making pharmaceutical products. Working under Igor Kaltashov, Muneeruddin develops new analytical methods using liquid chromatography and gas phase chemistry in mass spectrometry to characterize pharmaceuticals.