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This week The Alchemist learns how to use graphene foam to grow artificial muscle, a way of speeding up geology to make synthetic talc and the problem of heavy metal cigarette butts. We also hear that chemicals in marijuana might lead to a new approach to Alzheimer's disease while software can extract more information from mass spectra of ancient organic samples. Finally, a carbon award.




US researchers have shown how well graphene foam might be suited to tissue engineering and specifically as a scaffold for growing functional muscle tissue. Graphene foam is a 3D counterpart of the familiar 2D graphene carbon monolayer material. The team demonstrated that extracellular matrix proteins on graphene foam can boost the differential of stem cells to form muscles with the graphene foam itself acting as an electrode to stimulate the process. “We think we can build on these results to investigate the fundamental chemistry of life while advancing towards clinical applications,” David Estrada of Boise State University explains. “Graphene has just begun to flex its muscles in the bioengineering domain."





Hydrated magnesium silicate, better known as talc, forms underground over geological time periods, but a rapid hydrothermal synthesis has been developed by researchers in France. Their approach could open new applications for a consistent, high-purity form of this material in paper making, plastic, paint and coatings, rubber, food, electric cable, pharmaceuticals, ceramics, and cosmetics. Angela Dumas and colleagues used supercritical water to speed their synthesis.





Smoke and flick, it's what many a cigarette user does, but those butts contain toxic heavy metals after the burning tobacco has been drawn into the users lungs and represent an important source of metal contaminants leaching into the marine environment and ultimately entering the food chain, according to researchers published in the journal Tobacco Control. Almost 5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded nonchalantly by smokers every year containing small amounts of cadmium (Cd), iron (Fe), arsenic (As) nickel (Ni), copper (Cu), zinc (Zn) and manganese (Mn). These metals end up in the top 100 millimeters of sediment and deposited at the tidal mark on beaches, according to Sina Dobaradaran of the Bushehr University of Medical Sciences, Bushehr, Iran, and colleagues.





The proteins that form neurodegenerative plaques in brain cells can be removed by the active chemical found in marijuana, according to preliminary studies by researchers at the Salk Institute. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other compounds found in marijuana apparently promote the cellular removal of neurotoxic amyloid beta in laboratory-grown neurons. “When we were able to identify the molecular basis of the inflammatory response to amyloid beta, it became clear that THC-like compounds that the nerve cells make themselves may be involved in protecting the cells from dying,” says team member Antonio Currais. Whether or not this discovery proves useful clinically remains to be seen, but the suggestion is that the way in which these compounds reduce inflammation may have a role to play in designing new treatments for this debilitating disease.





Mass spectrometric analysis of a sample of bitumen in an ancient Greek amphora by Russian scientists reveals a precise age for the vessel the MS data having been interpreted using new software designed to extract information on organic compounds. Bacterial degradation of the organic compounds present in ancient bitumen samples can be used to date a sample as older components are more oxidized. "The analysis of ancient bitumen has already revealed much about the transformations that petroleum undergoes over the course of millennia. Thanks to mass spectrometry, we might be able to obtain new information about the goods traffic and trade routes in the ancient world," explains team member Yuri Kostyukevich.





The SGL Carbon (Skakel) Award will, this year, go to Rodney Ruoff, Director of the Center for Multidimensional Carbon Materials (CMCM) at the Institute for Basic Science (IBS), and Distinguished Professor in the School of Natural Science at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in South Korea. The award, sponsored every three years by SGL Carbon Group and the American Carbon Society, recognizes an individual whose overall contributions and achievements have significantly influenced the progress of the science and/or technology of carbon materials.