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This week, The Alchemist is intrigued by a molecular optical illusion and learns of a new catalyst for making aromatic compounds from their unsaturated hydrocarbon counterparts. A new gel has been developed by chemists in China for delivering anticancer drugs while bubbles could be key to remediating oil spills at sea even in stormy conditions. A spot of modern alchemy reveals how steel can be toughened without adding weight by 7 percent in just a few seconds. Finally, Canadian chemists sweep the board when it comes to awards.




Hiroyuki Isobe and colleagues at Tohoku and Tsukuba Universities in Japan have recreated the illusion of the so-called "Penrose steps" on the molecular scale. The optical illusion was the inspiration of the famous sketch by artist M C Escher - Ascending and Descending. The Japanese team constructed their spiraling [4]helicene molecule and showed that when projected from its space-filling 3D form to the commonly used 2D molecular structure format it seems to ascend and descend simultaneously as one's eye traces a path around its cyclic form. The molecule is not only of esthetic interest. Isobe and colleagues suggest that its combination of covalent and non-covalent bonding as well as the intriguing topology might be useful in developing novel liquid crystals





Chemists in the US have devised what might be referred to as an environmentally friendly way to make substituted aromatic molecules that can be customized for different industrial needs. Shannon Stahl of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and colleagues have a new palladium dehydrogenation catalyst incorporating an unconventional ortho-dimethylaminopyridine ligand and demonstrated to work well on substituted cyclohexanones to produce phenolic compounds. Aromatics are important building blocks for pharmaceuticals and other products although optimization for industrial use is now required if the new palladium catalyst is to shine.





A hybrid hydrogel comprising an Fmoc-diphenylalanine (Fmoc-FF) peptide and konjac glucomannan (KGM) has been developed and characterized by researchers in China. They have now successfully described the material's ability to take up and release a drug molecule, the cancer chemotherapy agent, docetaxel. Uptake and release rates could be tuned by starting with different concentrations of KGM, the team says. They used electron microscopy to study the morphology of the hydrogels and this allowed them to describe in detail the uptake and release processes pointing them towards a way to optimize the hydrogel for further tests and ultimately clinical trials.





A "curtain" of air bubbles could be the key to future oil-spill cleanup as the approach works even in the face of strong winds and currents "pooling" together spilled oil for retrieval. The curtain of bubbles is generated by a 12 by 1.5 meter grating covered in perforated rubber air-hoses that release bubbles generated by a compressor. The system developed by SINTEF, an independent research organization in Scandinavia, in conjunction with industrial partners, including Statoil has been demonstrated to be effective even in gales and where strong currents are present in the Skarnsundet Sound in the Trondheim Fjord.





A novel heat treatment for toughening up steel takes just seconds to give the alloy a 7% boost in strength, according to Detroit entrepreneur Gary Cola. Suresh Babu of Ohio State University is now working to develop further the process known as Flash Bainite. The process generates the well-known martensite microstructure within steel but also generates another form, bainite, scattered with carbides that endow it with a potentially 30% strength increase over conventional martensitic steel. The technology, which rapidly heats and cools the steel, presumably avoiding dissolution of the carbides, could lead to stronger, but lighter and more fuel efficient, vehicles, military equipment.





Chris Le, Xingfang Li and Jonathan Martin of the Division of Analytical and Environmental Toxicology at the University of Alberta, Canada, have all been recognized by the Canadian Society of Chemistry for their unique blend of research. The division is the only one in Canada to apply the basic science of chemistry and toxicology to study human health and environmental factors that affect human health, the University says. Le, the Division's director said: "This is particularly gratifying considering that our department is not a traditional chemistry department. People are recognizing this unique interdisciplinary program we have built here." Le's work focuses on arsenic contamination of rural water supplies.