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The Alchemist takes a magic carpet ride this week in the world of photonic crystals and colloids and discovers that the delicate woodland snowdrop flower has yielded drug leads to Spanish researchers for treating Alzheimer's disease and malaria. In nanotechnology, we learn that US chemists have found the drops of a different kind can be used to carry out grapheme origami. In the environmental arena, Chinese analytical scientists have demonstrated that bottom ash from medical waste incinerators is not quite ready for widespread recycling. However, polymer companies are turning to carbon dioxide as a raw material for making their products. Finally, a recovery grant to Sandia National Laboratory will improve the lab's battery testing facility and so help in the development of electric vehicles.

Low-cost batteries for electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles could emerge from the award of a $4.2 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to Sandia National Laboratories. The money will finance an upgrade to the laboratory's Battery Abuse Testing Laboratory (BATLab). Sandia's BATLab is internationally recognized as a leader in the field of battery testing to ensure they meet real-world performance requirements. The $4.2 million in funding is part of the almost $105 million economic stimulus package to further improve US efforts in clean energy and efficient technologies across seven national laboratories.

A crystalline two-dimensional colloid that hangs several micrometres above a surface has been created by UK chemists. Erika Eiser and Nienke Geerts of the University of Cambridge were trying to make 3D photonic crystals when they noticed that one of their colloids was floating above the surface. Colloids that are coated with very short DNA strands bind strongly to a surface forming an amorphous substrate, but here they assembled into a two dimensional "carpet" due to weaker adsorption of the longer DNA molecules on to the surface. Magically, the team says the system may have applications as defect-free photonic crystals.

Spanish scientists have identified 17 different chemicals with medicinal potential in the common winter-flowering snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis and G. elwesii). Of the 17 alkaloids, three were previously unknown to chemists and belong to a group with potential applications in treating diseases as diverse as malaria and Alzheimer's. The researchers found 10 alkaloids in G. nivalis, a bulbous plant that flowers in the snows of midwinter, and seven from the G. elwesii species, which originates in the Caucasus. Two obtained from G. nivalis are haemantamines, the third from G. elwesii is a licorine. Details were published in the scientific journal Planta Medica.

Petr Král of the University of Illinois at Chicago and colleagues have found a way to shape the single-atom layers of carbon known as graphene by using weak forces between nanodroplets carefully positioned on graphene sheets. Graphene promises to lead the way to a future generation of electronics devices, but is difficult to handle. The new work, published in Nano Letters, could allow the material to be folded into different shapes for various applications, says Král. The team found that they could use water droplets to roll, bend, slide and shape graphene into different complex structures such as capsules, sandwiches, knots and rings - all potential building blocks of nanodevices.

Researchers in China have used a raft of analytical techniques to investigate the nature of the "bottom" ash from inefficient medical incinerators. Their findings suggest that improvement in incinerator operation and efficiency are essential if the ash is to be recycled as an engineering material for the construction and road transport industries. Lijuan Zhao and colleagues of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing, found a range of toxic heavy metals, as would be expected in such ash, but leachate is below safety limits. However, the presence of polyaromatic hydrocarbons at high levels is troublesome and suggests that incinerator protocols should be improved to make the ash more suitable for recycling.

Green polymers are high on the agenda and now two major players have stepped up to the mark. Boston-based Novomer is working with Eastman Kodak to develop the carbon dioxide-based polymer polypropylene carbonate (PPC) for packaging applications, while Braskem is working with enzymes company Novozymes on a biologically derived polypropylene. Both NB-180 and the new PPC polymer are made by polymerizing propylene oxide with carbon dioxide using a proprietary catalyst.