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This week the Alchemist looks at the surface of rust's ferric relative magnetite, spots a molecular motor, catches carbon dioxide with buckyballs, sizes up nanoscopic gold polyhedra, and sniffs out a new antibiotic in horse manure. Finally, smart packaging for food safety wins an international award.

Magnetite, Fe3O4, is playing an increasingly important role in catalysis, electronics and medical applications, according to Austrian researchers. A team at the Vienna University of Technology has shown that the atomic structure of the surface of magnetite which was long thought well established is not quite what it seems. The properties of magnetite are governed by missing iron atoms in the sub-surface layer, the team says. Now, they have demonstrated that Fe3O4 is not Fe3O4 at all, instead it is Fe11O16. Metal oxides are technologically important but difficult to describe structurally in detail. "Our results show that there is no need to despair," says team member Gareth Parkinson. "Metal oxides can be modeled quite accurately after all, but maybe not in the way one might expect at first glance."

Italian chemists have demonstrated a very simple self-assembling system that dissipates the energy of a constant light source to produce directed motion. In other words, the molecular device acts as a rudimentary light-powered molecular pump; details are described in the journal Nature Nanotechnology by Alberto Credi of the University of Bologna and colleagues. The development of artificial nanomotors is of great significance both to increase our understanding of biological nanomotors and to construct a new generation of ultra-miniaturized devices capable of actively affecting cell mechanisms. The system might also lead to novel solar-energy conversion systems.

The fullerenes, commonly referred to as "buckyballs" were once described as the molecules that fell to earth by their discovery Harry Kroto. Now, they could have a quite mundane application - boosting carbon-capture technology for industrial flues and natural gas wells. Chemist Andrew Barron of Rice University and colleagues revealed a proof-of-concept study in the journal Scientific Reports in which they demonstrate that amine-rich compounds are highly effective at capturing the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, when combined with [60]fullerene molecules. The research is the subject of an open-access paper today in Nature’s online journal Scientific Reports.

Stabilizing gold clusters so that they can grow into perfectly formed nanoscopic polyhedral is now possible thanks to research in Singapore. The unique polyhedra have energy-rich surfaces that can boost the catalytic efficiency of important chemical reactions and serve as potential adsorption sites for targeted sensor devices. Yong-Wei Zhang from the Institute of High Performance Computing and Ming-Yong Han from the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering at A*STAR and colleagues report details in the journal Advanced Materials.

A fungus that grows on horse manure is the unlikely source of a novel protein-based antibiotic that might help medicinal chemists develop novel products for beating bacterial drug resistance. Microbiologists and molecular biologists at the Institute of Microbiology at ETH Zurich, Switzerland and colleagues at the University of Bonn, Germany, named the newly discovery antibiotic copsin. Mycologist Markus Aebi and colleagues unearthed copsin from the common inky cap mushroom Coprinopsis cinerea, which grows on horse manure.

Katja Heinze, a chemist at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany, and her colleague Patrick Choquet of the Centre de Recherche Public in Belvaux, Luxembourg, have received the Interregional Research Award for the development of novel, intelligent foils for food packaging. The award was established to encourage international collaborations and is worth 35000 euros (about $43000). Their three-year SURFAMINE project developed smart food packaging that displays real-time information about the freshness of the contents based on a color change from green to red generated by the release of particular gases as the contents degrade.