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A peptide paradox catches The Alchemist's attention this week along with dyes to highlight microplastic pollution in environmental samples, a boost for solar windows, and "felted" nanotubes. Sweat, we learn is the next biometric target, an award for a materials scientists that will boost collaboration between Asia and Germany is made.

Biological molecules with the same charge seem to be attracted to each other despite the physical concept that opposite charges attract. Researchers from Lund University and their colleagues elsewhere have observed this paradoxical phenomenon in arginine-rich cell-penetrating antibiotic peptides. "We were very surprised. These biomolecules have a high electrical charge, and the expectation was therefore that this would make them push each other away," says Mikael Lund. Ultimately, it is "salt screening" that allows the self-aggregating tendency of the arginine residues to overcome the repulsive effect of like charges. The phenomenon might be exploited in enhancing drug delivery, the team suggests.

Microplastics despite their utility in a wide range of applications are of growing environmental concern. Now, researchers in the UK have developed a dye that could be used to reveal the presence of 99% percent of hidden microplastic particles in the world's oceans. Preliminary work on the dye which bonds preferentially to polymers shows that the majority of microplastic particles found in the samples from UK shores are composed of polypropylene. This polymer is widely used in packaging and food containers, which the scientists suggests demonstrates just how our consumerism is affecting the oceans directly.

Windows that generate electrical power seem like an obvious route to sustainability. Now, researchers from the University of Cambridge, UK, have determined the molecular structure of working solar cell electrodes within a fully assembled device that works like a window. Writing in the journal Nanoscale, they explain that advance smart window technology that could enable cities to move closer to the goal of being energy sustainable. The team suggests that to be viable researchers only need to make modest improvements in the technology.

Scientists from the Functional Nanomaterials working group at Kiel University (CAU) and the University of Trento have now developed an alternative method for combining carbon nanotubes into nanocomposites. Earlier efforts to bond carbon nanotubes to other materials usually leads to a change in their properties. The team has mixed the nanotubes with water and dripped them on to an extremely porous ceramic material made of zinc oxide, which absorbs the liquid like a sponge. The dripped thread-like carbon nanotubes attach themselves to the ceramic scaffolding, and automatically form a stable layer together. The composite is 100,000 times stronger than the ceramic without the nanotubes.

Sweat is the latest target of biometrics that might be useful for security. Jan Halámek of the University at Albany, New York, USA, has proposed a better method to securing gadgets including mobile and wearable devices, such as smart phones and smart watches. The approach relies on analyzing skin secretions – or sweat – to build an amino acid profile that is unique to the device owner. The profile would be stored within the device and used for identification purposes each time an attempt to unlock is made. Of course, the downside of this is that the device would have to have a physical add-on to the device to sample the user's sweat.

Materials chemist Lei Jiang of Beihang University, China, is a recipient this year of a Humboldt Research Award. The €60000 (about $72000) award is in recognition of his accomplishments as a scientist and his influential role in Asian materials chemistry. It will allow him to strengthen his scientific ties with colleagues at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces (MPICI) in Potsdam, Germany.