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This week The Alchemist is focusing on an Ebola antiviral, moving solids, arsenic filters for safer water, and synthetic collagen, and inexpensive semiconducting polymers. Finally an award for green, firefighting foam.

The US Food & Drug Administration, FDA, has fast-tracked approval of trials for the antiviral brincidofovir, which the drug's makers Chimerix (Durham, North Carolina) hope will prove efficacious in Ebola patients. Ebola, a virus that causes often fatal hemorrhagic fever, has been the subject of much tabloid scaremongering in recent weeks. But, irrespective of the hyperbole, an antiviral drug is an important target in the battle against this disease. “We are developing brincidofovir for a number of life-threatening viruses, and Ebola is one of those,” explains Chimerix's Joseph Schepers. “There is a high medical need right now." Tests began on patients in October and will roll out to around 50 patients until January 2016. The drug is already known to be active against cytomegalovirus (CMV), adenovirus and smallpox.

Jamming fluid materials into confined spaces can make them behave like solids, think of vacuum-packed coffee before you snip open the bag - solid - once you make the first cut though the grounds can flow fluid-like. Heinrich Jaeger of the University of Chicago, Illinois, USA, and colleagues writing in the journal Soft Matter explain this "jamming" of soft matter that gives rise to emergent behavior in which disordered, amorphous materials might be switched between a rigid state and fluid-like plasticity. The phenomenon occurs on the microscopic and macroscopic scale. "Jamming not only provides a means to transform matter quickly and reversibly from a fluid-like into a solid-like state, but the resulting rigid structures can be robust and highly defect tolerant, reconfigurable and adaptive to external load changes", Jaeger explains. Once more applications are limited only by the imaginations of materials scientists, engineers and others with physical problems to solve.

The topic of arsenic-contaminated water has been an important one in many parts of the developing and developed world for decades. Now, a team at the University of Florida, Gainesville, USA, has at last developed an inexpensive and cheap filter for extracting this toxic ion from water. Writing in the journal Water Research, Bin Gao and his colleagues explain how iron-enhanced carbon cooked from hickory chips, biochar, can remove arsenic effectively. Current arsenic removal methods involve precipitation, the addition of lime or coagulants to the water, or complicated membrane or ion exchange systems. A simple biochar filter would benefit from ease of operation and low cost.

Discovering the secrets of collagen, a major component of connective tissue in mammals could lead to improved tissue engineering and cosmetic and reconstructive medicine. Now, Jeffrey Hartgerink and his team at Rice University building on many years work into synthetic collagen are looking at twisting together three distinct peptide strands into triple helical bundles that might be used as blood clotting agents or as scaffolding materials for regenerative medicine, or tissue engineering. "A number of biomaterials use natural collagen, and there are advantages to replacing them with synthetic collagens," Hartgerink explains. "One of the main advantages is that we move away from health and regulatory problems associated with using animal sources."

Researchers at the University of Cambridge, UK, have made a new class of inexpensive semiconducting polymers that are easily processed and have electron transport efficiencies almost as high as costly crystalline inorganic semiconductors, despite the apparent amorphous internal structure of the polymers. “What is most surprising about these materials is that they appear very disordered at the microstructural level while at the electronic level they allow electrons to move nearly as freely as in crystalline inorganic semiconductors,” explains team member Mark Nikolka of the University’s Cavendish Laboratory. The materials or their chemical cousins might one day be exploited in tough but flexible portable device displays for smart phones, tablets and other gadgets.

A non-toxic fire-smothering foam has picked up a green award from the US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. RE-HEALING, manufactured by the Solberg Company, sidesteps conventional halogen-based firefighting materials with a formulation containing a blend of non-fluorinated surfactants and sugars. The halogen-free foam concentrates took several years of research and develop