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In the Alchemist this week, a regal accolade reaches Nottingham, a cracking way to understand ice melts a crystal conundrum, and organic molecules do molecular pirouettes under the laser spotlight. We also discover this week how ionic liquids can be used to depolymerize waste plastics for a fundamentally new approach to recycling and find out that biomass-derived sugars can be readily converted to liquid fuel that has a far higher energy density than bioethanol. Finally, a nanoscopic laser could provide NIR insights.

A nanoscopic near-infrared laser has been constructed by scientists at Yokohama National University, Japan. The device produces a stable, continuous streams of NIR laser light but is just several micrometers across. The active laser component is just nanometers in size and uses a microwatt of power. The nanolaser could be used in future miniaturized optoelectronic circuits or in lab-on-a-chip devices incorporating NIR spectroscopy. The team used the semiconductor gallium indium arsenide phosphate (GaInAsP) to build their laser based on the principles of photonic-crystal laser technology outlined by researchers at California Institute of Technology in 1999.

The School of Pharmacy at the University of Nottingham, England, will receive the The Queen's Award for Enterprise in the category of Innovation 2007, July 3, in recognition of its world-class pharmaceutical research. The Queen's Award for Enterprise is one of the biggest corporate accolades offered in the UK and the award reflects Nottingham's breakthrough work in biophysics, surface analysis, medicinal chemistry, structural biology, molecular and cellular sciences, drug delivery and tissue engineering.

Water has always been a paradoxical compound, expanding when it should contract, contracting when it should expand, absorbing more heat than expected, and acting as an amazing solvent for a huge range of compounds. In its solid form, it present just as many puzzles to materials scientists. Now, a collaboration between scientists in the UK and Germany, published in the journal Nature Materials, has led to a breakthrough in the understanding of the formation of ice. Angelos Michaelides of the London Centre for Nanotechnology and Karina Morgenstern of Leibniz University, Hannover, have coupled experimental observations and molecular modeling to obtain a high-resolution picture of the smallest possible piece of ice formed on hydrophobic metal surface. Their findings provide a molecular view of ice nucleation and could have implications for understanding climate with respect to ice crystal formation in the upper atmosphere.

German researchers have used ultrafast spectroscopy to observe the fleeting intramolecular electronic charge separations that take place during photochemical reactions. Their observations suggest that thousands of molecules in a molecular crystal surrounding the reaction center perform pirouettes to align themselves during this fractional moment. Researchers at the Max-Born-Institute for Nonlinear Optics and Ultrafast Spectroscopy and at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, German, performed the study using short bursts of laser light. Ultrafast x-ray flashes could then freeze the action.

Ionic liquids could be used to herald the era of plastics recycling, according to work being undertaken in Japan. Akio Kamimura and Shigehiro Yamamoto of Yamaguchi University have found that they can depolymerize polyamide plastics, such as nylon and Kevlar, using an ionic liquid at 300 Celsius, and releasing the original chemical building blocks. The ionic liquid could itself be used five times in processing new batches of polymer. Such a breakthrough could revolutionize plastics recycling and make it as viable commercially and environmentally in the future as scrap steel and glass recycling is today. Writing in the July 5 issue of Organic Letters, the team describes how their lab-scale preliminary experiments could break down nylon-6 into raw caprolactam. "This is the first example of the use of ionic liquids for effective depolymerization of polymeric materials and will open a new field in ionic liquid chemistry as well as plastic recycling," the researchers say.

James Dumesic and his research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found a potentially sweet solution to compromised oil supplies that side-steps the inefficiency problem of using bioethanol for fuel. They have developed a two-stage process for turning sugar derived from biomass into 2,5-dimethylfuran (DMF), a compound that can be used in liquid transportation fuel. DMF has an energy density 40% higher than ethanol. Bio-DMF has other advantages over bioethanol, it is less volatile and insoluble in water, for instance. Moreover its production and purification for use as liquid fuel uses about one third of the energy required to distil bioethanol into a useable form.