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The Alchemist admits this week that it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it, especially when making polymer films. He learns that size does matter when it comes to liquid crystals and you can teach old drugs new tricks. Those clichés are almost as old as the dinosaurs of which we learn that their gaseous emissions could have been to blame for Jurassic global warming. And, speaking of gas, it turns out that graphene can detect gases by noise alone. Finally, the US army is hoping scientists can lighten their load.

When it comes to polymer films, it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated that the method use to produce thin polymer films can significantly affect the structure of the resulting film. The findings have important implications for a wide range of products from high-tech mirrors to computer memory devices, according to NIST's Jack Douglas. Flow coating and spin casting produce rather different final films, for instance, with self-assembling block copolymers. Manufacturers need to know more about controlling the stresses present as a film forms to ensure that it behaves in a predictable way. "It's an important question because some proposed applications intend to take advantage of these effects," Douglas says.

Computational studies on liquid crystals at the small scale by Juan de Pablo and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have revealed unexpected interactions that could lead to entirely new classes of materials. On the smallest of bulk scales it is very difficult to "pattern" materials, explains de Pablo. However, calculations show that liquid crystals can induce spontaneous nanoscale morphologies in materials that have not been seen before. The team modeled rod-shaped liquid crystals packed into nano-sized liquid droplets and found that the confined molecules undergo self-organization as the droplets cool. It was previously known that interfaces affect morphology, this new work suggests that the reverse might also be true. "Now you can think of forming these ordered nanophases, controlling them through droplet size or surfactant concentration, and then decorating them to build up structures and create new classes of materials," says de Pablo.

A new National Institutes of Health (NIH) pilot scheme will give researchers access to dozens of drugs that made it to an advanced clinical stage but were not brought to market by the pharmaceutical companies that owned them. The program will allow the compounds to be investigated for novel medical indications and the NIH will back the research financially. Researchers will be provided with "template" agreements to establish a commercial relationship with the owner of the drug. “To accelerate our nation’s therapeutic development process, it is essential that we forge strong, innovative, and strategic partnerships across government, academia, and industry,” Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said at the launch of the program.

Today, we worry about the belching of beef cattle and the effect of all that methane release on atmospheric carbon levels and climate change. However, back in the day (and The Alchemist means, way, way back in the day) dinosaur "emissions" may have been just as much to blame for the greenhouse effect. 150 million years ago, the Earth was warm and wet and sauropods stomped around producing methane as methanogenic gut microbes helped digest the giants' food. Dave Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University in the UK has calculated that that these dinosaurs - which included the Brachiosaurus, Diplodocus, and Apatosaurus (sometimes known as the Brontosaurus) - may have made more methane than all modern sources, natural and anthropogenic put together. The study's conclusions not only show "just how strange and wonderful the workings of the planet are" but also serve as a useful reminder for the importance of microbes and methane for global climate, Wilkinson and colleagues conclude.

Graphene can be used to detect various gases simultaneously by exploiting one of the wondrous materials more mundane properties, its low-frequency electronic noise. Researchers at the University of California Riverside, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, The Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute of The Russian Academy of Sciences and workers at the GE Global Research Center have developed a detector that needs no modification nor or functionalization of the graphene but can be used to quickly and easily obtain a fingerprint of gases to which it is exposed. The detector side-steps many of the issues of instrumentation associated with simultaneous gas analysis. The team also plans to use the technology to detect biological species such as viruses.

An award of $15 million from the US Army Research Laboratory to a collaboration led by researchers at the University of Utah will facilitate the development of new, lightweight materials for military use. “We want to help the Army make advances in fundamental research that will lead to better materials to help our soldiers in the field,” says Martin Berzins, principal investigator among five faculty members working on materials for new batteries. Researchers from Boston University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Pennsylvania State University, Harvard University, Brown University, the University of California, Davis, and the Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy, will also work on the projects from the nanoscale to the soldier scale.