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This week, The Alchemist hears how chemists are helping deal with the major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, that mosquitoes could be evolving a way to ignore strong formula insect repellent, and what actually killed legendary racehorse Phar Lap. In electrochemistry, flexible plastic electrodes can be printed and a remedy for stressed out poplar trees may emerge from molecular biology. Finally, a major funding award could pave the way for thermopower devices that bring us powerful, but miniaturized batteries.

Funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the National Science Foundation could lead to thermopower wave devices that could pave the way to environmentally friendly energy production using fuel cells. Wonjoon Choi of MIT and colleagues believe the waves may form the basis of new types of fuel cells that convert condensed liquid fuel into electrical energy in a continuous manner. The technology is already generating attention because it is non-toxic, saves energy and can create a significant amount of power in much smaller batteries.

An underwater dispersant technique could help clean up the oil spill that is threatening ecosystems on the US coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Commonly, planes spray dispersants on to the ocean surface to break up an oil slick, so far more than 190,000 gallons of Corexit 9500 and Corexit EC9527A, made by Nalco Company Naperville, Illinois have been sprayed. The underwater approach could prevent oil from reaching the surface. The oil spill began when the Deepwater Horizon oil exploration platform sank after an explosion on April 20; the damaged wellhead is leaking an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 barrels of oil every day into the Gulf.

Steven Lenhert now at The Florida State University, working with colleagues at Germany's University of Muenster and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, have extended so-called dip-pen nanolithography to use an atomic force microscope to lay down precise patterns of biofunctional lipid multilayers of defined height between 5 and 100 nanometres. The multilayers applied to a pre-prepared surface lead to readily characterized nano metamaterials with a wide range of applications in lab-on-a-chip science, including the possibility of developing consumer diagnostics devices that could be built into smart phones.

Legendary racehorse Phar Lap died, mysteriously in agony, on a tour of the USA following its win in the Agua Caliente Handicap in 1932 in Mexico. Investigators at the time suggested death by poisoning, but only now have Ivan Kempson of Academia Sinica, Taiwan and Dermot Henry of the Museum Victoria, Australia examined hair from the horse to show that was indeed killed by arsenic poisoning. The team used small pieces of hide and mane with the roots intact for analysis with X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. This technique detects even trace amounts of elemental contaminants and their chemical context. The team found a considerably elevated arsenic level at the same distance from the root of each hair examined. At the time of the horse's death, this part of the hair was under the surface of the skin, so was not added by the hide tanning process and indicates ingestion of a lethal dose of the poison.

A nitroxide polymer coating can be "printed" on to a flexible substrate to make an electrode for organic rechargeable batteries has been developed by Hiroyuki Nishide and colleagues at the Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. The flexible electrode could facilitate the development of flexible, ubiquitous and wearable electronic devices. Click chemistry involving Michael polyadditions allowed them team to form a cross-linked polymer network bearing nitroxide radicals with no side reactions. The resulting geometrically homogenous 3D network can stick readily to any type of current collector substrate used in battery technology while the dense population of nitroxide radicals allows rapid, high capacity, reversible storage of charge.

Trees get stressed too! Now, researchers at Michigan Technological University have identified the molecular mechanism that allows poplars, cottonwoods and aspens to adapt to stressors such as changing soil conditions. Victor Busov and colleagues at the University of Georgia, Oregon State University and the Beijing Forestry University in China, report details of their genetic analysis of thousands of genes in the only arboreal genome sequenced so far, that of Populus. Their discovery could lead to a biotech solution to making important trees, including crop trees, more stress-tolerant in the face of environmental change.