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Testing urine for rubber vulcanisation additive, understanding the origins of life, heating your home with graphene, discovering that chimps might like to take cookery classes, and a man doing what a spider can, all on The Alchemist's radar this week. And an award for youthful and dynamic chemist who just happens to be a a Chabad Chassid.

The seemingly endless quest to understand how life on Earth began takes another step closer to a chemical answer as scientists at the University of North Carolina show how the genetic code developed in two distinct stages to help primordial chemicals evolve into living cells 4 billion years ago. The new work flies in the face of the "RNA world" theory, suggesting that RNA alone was no more likely to catalyze the emergence of peptides and proteins from the so-called primordial soup as peptides were to catalyze the formation of RNA. “Our work shows that the close linkage between the physical properties of amino acids, the genetic code, and protein folding was likely essential from the beginning, long before large, sophisticated molecules arrived on the scene," says Charles Carter.

A new type of heating system to replace domestic and other radiators uses a thin graphene sandwich to generate far-infrared light rather than simply radiating heat from hot water inside or circulating warm air. The developers of the system suggest that up to 70% energy savings might be possible with their system. Moreover the fact that the technology is flexible means it can be wrapped around a water cylinder and so act as both insulating and heating element. The high surface area to volume ratio of graphene makes it a very efficient IR emitter, it can be incorporated into polymers or inks for screen printing allowing it to be used in a wide range of devices and form factors. Moreover, it can take an AC or a DC current so can utilize sustainable electricity from wind turbines or photovoltaic solar panels and so avoid the inherent efficiency reducing of needing an electrical inverter.

Apparently, chimpanzees get the Maillard reaction and other chemical changes that take place when food is cooked and made tastier in the process. At least that is an assumption one might read into research that shows chimps, when given a choice, will opt for a cooked sweet potato rather than the raw vegetable. Moreover, the chimps will observe the "cooking" process happening and opt for the cooked food each time as well as placing pieces of raw sweet potato into the receptacle that "cooked" the food in the initial experiments. The researchers allude to the cognitive ability to enjoy cooked food rather than raw as being associated with the common ancestor of chimps and humans and emerging early in our evolution when we learned to control fire to actually learn cookery skills.

Researchers in Canada have produced an ultra-tough polymer fibre directly inspired by spider silk. Spider silk has remarkable elongation and stretch-resistance properties, pound for pound five to ten times tougher than steel or Kevlar it is the perfect target for biomimetic materials research. Now, Frédérick Gosselin and Daniel Therriault and their colleagues at the Polytechnique Montréal have investigated the origins of spider silk's mechanical strength and now developed microstructured polymer fibers that contain sacrificial bonds to allow them to spin their own artificial silk. They used a robotic deposition technique to create a coiled fibre of poly(lactic acid) (PLA) from dichloromethane solution.

Binyomin Abrams of Boston University is known for his energy and dynamism in lab and lecture, he's also a rare breed in that he's an under-35 winner of the Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching. Abrams is also a Chabad Chassid who proudly sports a long, thick beard, as well as the distinguishable dress code of black hat and black coat. "Some students go to a university to get an education; some go to observe the world around them,” Abrams says. “Just walking around with my beard, jacket and hat has a tremendous impact. Some people think I’m Amish, at first, until they realize I’m teaching chemistry."

The rubber vulcanisation accelerator, 2-mercaptobenzothiazole (MBT), which has been used for many years to strengthen rubber used for vehicle tires and much more, can be detected in human urine, according to researchers in Germany. MBT has been demonstrated to be neither mutagenic nor carcinogenic and yet the German Federal Ministry for the Environment and the German Chemical Industry Association are keen on biomonitoring of this and many other products. Wolfgang Gries, Katja Küpper and Gabriele Leng from the Institute of Biomonitoring at Currenta GmbH & Co. OHG, have now devised a liquid chromatography coupled mass spectrometric (LC-MS_ procedure that can detect MBT in human urine. "By developing this method for MBT, full-scale studies on human exposure from industrial and environmental sources can be instigated to establish background and occupational levels with some confidence," says a SeparationsNOW report from Steve Down.