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The Alchemist alights on several metaphysically related research projects this week. In the first we see NMR spectroscopy of confined helium-3, with the second a study of ice in freezing confined water droplets, and colloidal particles confined to a curved surface do a square dance. Confining chiral crystals has also now been shown to allow spontaneous enantiomeric resolution with implications for the origins of life on earth and the pharmaceutical industry. And, speaking of life, in the materials world, 3D printing becomes an infantile, surgical lifesaver, we hear. Finally, once you reach the age of 55, you're eligible for a major award from the Royal Society of Chemistry, The Alchemist announces this year's winner.

The NMR spectra of atoms of the rare isotope helium-3 have been obtained by an international research group from Royal Holloway University of London, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt, PTB's Berlin Institute, Germany, using a SQUID, a superconducting quantum interference device. Measurements were made possible by confining the superfluid material to an extremely thin, quasi two-dimensional, liquid film at 4 Kelvin. There is fundamental scientific interest in this material. The team explains that controlled confinement of nanofluidic samples provides a new laboratory for the study of topological superfluids and their surface- and edge-bound excitations. Helium-3 is candidate for a second-generation fuel for, still hypothetical, nuclear fusion reactors.

Direct computational evidence that explains how the nucleation of ice in small droplets is strongly size-dependent could help scientists explain one of the most peculiar of water's properties at the nanoscale. Exactly how ice forms the tiniest of crystals as water begins to freeze is a scientific problem not only of fundamental importance but with implications to atmospheric science and climate research. Tianshu Li of George Washington University and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Germany and a team at the University of California, Davis, hoped to reveal water’s properties below -35 but above -123 degrees Celsius. The chemists refer to this temperature range as a no man's land because of the difficulty of maintaining water in the liquid state experimentally. The team's findings suggest that it is possible if the droplets are confined on the nanoscopic scale and that the tiniest of ice crystals can form on the surface of such droplets.

Hexagonal packing is common as it represents the bottom of the energy curve when packing spheres together, so to speak, but researchers at Wageningen University in The Netherlands have shown how square packing can occur when colloidal spheres are spread on an anisotopric curved oil-water interface because of capillary actions that would on a larger scale cause clumping, akin to that seen with pieces of breakfast cereal forming clumps on the surface of milk in the bowl. The discovery has implications, not for the breakfast table, but for controlling the self-assembly of microscopic and sub-microscopic structures.

There were two news stories this week about chirality, the first showed how microwave spectroscopy might be used to discriminate between enantiomers. The second showed how symmetry might be broken in a deliberate way. Susanne Olsson of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, has developed a novel crystallization technique that can allow left and right enantiomers to be separated using reverse solubility without the need for an asymmetric auxiliary or a chiral external influence. She points out that while the deceived wisdom is that spontaneous chiral separation is usually considered to be impossible, it is nevertheless possible to generate optical activity from achiral or racemic precursors if the compounds in question can form chiral crystals and are stereochemically labile in solution. She asserts that her technique shows that all crystals in a batch can crystallise as a single enantiomer via total spontaneous resolution. The work has implications for the pharmaceutical industry, organic synthesis in general and the origins of the chiral bias seen in biology.

3D printers have truly reached the mainstream when they start saving babies' lives. Researchers at the University of Michigan have printed a bioresorbable splint to allow a baby with the life-threatening condition, tracheobronchomalacia, to breathe easy again. Glenn Green and colleagues were granted emergency clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration to create and implant a polycaprolactone tracheal splint for the baby based on a high-resolution body scan and a computer-aided design to drive the printer. By the time the child reaches his third birthday, he should be in good health and the polymer splint will have been degraded naturally by his body.

Oxford University's John Brown will be the recipient of the 2013 RSC Robert Robinson Award given by the Royal Society of Chemistry's (RSC) Organic Division. The award recognizes Brown's key contributions to the understanding of the mechanisms of organometallic catalysis, and the resulting practical applications through the introduction of new catalysts for organic synthesis. The Robert Robinson Award is for contributions to organic chemistry from a researcher over the age of 55.