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This week, The Alchemist learns of a promising technology for almost simultaneously producing electricity and desalinating seawater and discovers that nicotine is more like cocaine when it comes to first exposure offering important clues as to how addiction develops. In environmental news a new biosensor can cheaply and accurately detect oil and other pollutants in water while uranium hard drives might be on the horizon thanks to British chemists. Meanwhile, quantum drums suggest new ways to study electromechanics. Finally, President Barack Obama finds time at the beginning of May to honor the 2011 National Teacher of the Year, with high school chemistry Michelle Shearer being the recipient.




A novel device based on an aluminum-gallium-indium-tin alloy can split fresh and salt water, releasing hydrogen ions that could power a fuel cell for electricity production. At the same time, the water vapor released as a byproduct of the latter process is essentially desalinated. Jerry Woodall of Purdue University explains that because it works with salt water, the device could have widespread marine applications, such as powering boats and robotic underwater vehicles. The low cost of the primary material, aluminum, means it could also have application for local power production and water desalination in the developing world. Corrosion issues might be a problem given the juxtaposition of active elements, steam and salt water.





Nicotine affects the same parts of the brain as cocaine on first exposure, according to a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. A single 15-minute exposure to nicotine caused a long-term increase in the excitability of neurons involved in reward, in a similar manner to cocaine. The finding suggests that memory-like effects in the brain's reward pathway could contribute to drug addiction. Danyan Mao of the University of Chicago Medical Center points out that, "for smoking it's a very long-term behavioral change, but everything starts from the first exposure."





A new biosensor based on an antibody system has been designed and tested by researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The sensor can detect marine pollutants, such as oil, much more quickly and at lower cost than current technologies, the developers say. They add that the device is small and sturdy enough to be used from a boat. "Our biosensor combines the power of the immune system with the sensitivity of cutting-edge electronics," explains VIMS' Mike Unger. "It holds great promise for real-time detection and monitoring of oil spills and other releases of contaminants into the marine environment."





Stephen Liddle of the University of Nottingham, UK, works with molecules containing depleted uranium, the weakly radioactive residue of uranium enrichment for the nuclear industry. He and his colleagues have now synthesized a novel uranium-containing compound that retains its magnetic properties even at low temperatures. The discovery could take us a step closer to magnetic memory devices with capacities thousands of times denser than current high-end hard drives. Of course, marketing a uranium hard drive would be difficult, so analogs that use alternative heavy metals are now under investigation.





National Institute of Standards and Technology researchers have improved the coupling between electrical and mechanical oscillations in an electromechanical device by more than two orders of magnitude. The system uses an aluminum membrane suspended above an electrode to produce a capacitor that vibrates like the skin of a drum. A microwave drive signal is used to push the coupling between the natural 11 MHz resonance of the "drum skin" and the 7.5 GHz frequency of the electrical cavity, the drum itself. The work holds promise for studying mechanical motion on the quantum scale, which is important both for the behavior of lab-on-a-chip devices and micro-force sensors and in fundamental research into vibration.





President Barack Obama presented chemistry teacher, Michelle Shearer of Ijamsville, Maryland, with the US 2011 National Teacher of the Year. The Urbana High School teacher was honored by the President on May 3, making her the second Maryland teacher in five years to receive the national award. Shearer was named winner of the Maryland regional finals in October 2010 and became a national finalist in January to compete against teachers from Florida, Illinois and Montana. Shearer has been a teacher for 14 years having taught at the Maryland School for the Deaf for four years followed by a decade teaching chemistry at Urbana. Her husband teaches Advanced Placement physics at the same school and several former students have returned as fellow members of staff. "She embodies the best in American education. She is the teacher you don't forget," said Urbana principal Kathy Campagnoli.