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The Alchemist muses on methane this week as well as criminal sweat. Bionic implants also roll into view as do new thermal storage materials. We learn of a self-healing piezoelectric and conductive composite that could be used as a skin for prosthetic limbs and other applications. Finally, researchers at Scripps in Florida are set for two ACS awards.

Marine microbes metabolize methane and mitigate the greenhouse effect of this gas by deactivating much of the gas formed on the ocean floor by anoxic processes before it can bubble up to the surface and be released into the atmosphere. Now, researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Bremen, Germany, have proven that the marine microorganisms involved in methane deactivation are quite choosy about their diet. Researchers had previously assumed that methane was simply acting as a carbon source for these microbes and that they were heterotrophs. But, the Bremen team has now shown using labeling studies that the methane-derived carbon atoms never end up in the cellular material. Instead, the carbon they use is derived from carbon dioxide as is common with chemoautotrophs. The finding suggests that science still knows very little about marine methane deactivation and new insights are now needed.

Criminals are one print less secure in their crime thanks to developments in forensic science that allow fingerprints to be lifted from paper very easily. Researchers in Israel have developed a way to obtain a negative fingerprint from paper that does not depend on the chemical composition of the residue left behind. In countless criminal and fraud cases knowing who handled specific documents or folding money can be the crucial evidence on which a conviction hinges. Daniel Mandler and Joseph Almog at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have used gold nanoparticles to first develop a latent print where the nanoparticles stick to the paper rather than the print residue, thus producing a negative of the print, which is then developed further with silver to blacken the paper and expose the fingerprint.

US researchers have developed an electrode ten times smaller than conventional electrodes that could be hooked up to a single neuron, pointing the way towards better studies of neural activity. The electrode comprises a thread of highly conductive carbon fiber coated in plastic to block out signals from other neurons. An ionically conducting gel pad at the end of the electrode faces up to the sensitive neuronal cell membrane. Its biocompatibility means it is not attacked by the immune system.

A thermal energy storage system has been developed by at team at the University of Arkansas. The team has developed a special concrete mix that can be set as vertical panels as a replacement for packed rock or molten salt systems. The concrete plates mimic the behavior of a thermocline system, such as a lake, in which different regions can exist at different temperatures. The approach could facilitate the efficient and inexpensive storage of thermal energy generated by solar power. Tests show that the system can survive temperatures as high as 600 Celsius.

Stanford University researchers have developed a new self-healing polymer skin that could one day be used in prostheses. The material not only heals itself at room temperature but is also touch sensitive. Zhenan Bao and colleagues report in Nature Nanotechnology how a scalpel cut in the material will repair itself within 30 minutes. The material is a composite of a supramolecular organic polymer within which are embedded nickel nanostructured microparticles to form a conductive and piezoelectric substance.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) is to honor the early-career research of two Scripps chemists who work in the fields of biological and enzyme chemistry. Matthew Disney and Kate Carroll who work at the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute. Disney will receive the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry, first awarded in 1934, which goes to scientist under the age of 38. Carroll wins the Pfizer Award in Enzyme Chemistry, which was established in 1945 to reward achievements by scientists under the age of 40. The awards will be presented at the fall 2013 ACS symposium, which will be held in Indianapolis.