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There's a strong materials flavor to the Alchemist's picks this week: 3D carbon theoretically behaves as a metal, an aluminum alloy can soak up hydrogen, while hydrogen itself is behaving as an alkali metal, and in Finland, light is being used to manipulate solutions. In the world of pharmaceutical science, peptides reveal some of the superbug-busting potential. Finally, a triple celebration for chemists at Queen's University Belfast.

A new form of carbon revealed by theoretical chemistry could have a three-dimensional structure that makes it metallic at room temperature and pressure. Researchers from Peking University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics employed state-of-the-art theoretical methods to show that it is possible to manipulate carbon to form a three-dimensional metallic phase with interlocking hexagons. The interlocking of hexagons provides two unique features - hexagonal arrangement introduces metallic character, and the interlocking form with tetrahedral bonding guarantees stability, explains VCU's Puru Jena.

Finding a safe way to store large quantities of hydrogen gas for portable fuel cells of the kind that might be used in cars of the future will rely on the development of lightweight materials with a vast internal surface area for a given volume. Now, collaborators from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, in Hyogo and Tohoku University, in Sendai, Japan have developed an aluminum-based interstitial alloy with several of the desirable properties of a future hydrogen storage material not least low density and a simple structure. The compound, Al2CuHx, was synthesized by hydrogenating Al2Cu at an extreme pressure of 10 gigapascals and a high temperature of 800 degrees Celsius.

There has always been a tentative suggestion that hydrogen should rightly sit atop the alkali metals in the Periodic Table because it shares certain chemical characteristics with that group. Now, Matthew Davidson and colleagues at the University of Bath, UK, have devised an organometallic synthetic strategy to make pseudocubane motifs of ammonium tris(phenol) ligands and lithium or sodium atoms, where one of the metals has been replaced by a hydrogen atom, according to a report in Chemistry World. He explains that the real interest lies in understanding how ligands can be used to control reactive metal centers but also in confirming hydrogen's position in the Periodic Table.

Szymon Wiktorowicz and colleagues in the Laboratory of Polymer Chemistry at the University of Helsinki, Finland, have manufactured photochemically active polymers which can be dissolved in water or certain alcohols. The new soluble, photosensitive polymer can then be written to using a 365 nanometer wavelength laser beam. Aiming the laser at the mixture in which the polymer is partially dissolved flips it to the cis conformation, which dissolves completely, leaving a clear form which is visible in the otherwise cloudy solution. The discovery could lead to applications in optics and electronics, the team says.

A research team led by the UK's National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is homing on how antimicrobial peptides bind with bacterial membranes and punch holes in them that lead to their disgorging the contents and dying. The team has gained new insight into AMP behavior by modeling a de novo AMP and a supported lipid bilayer model and using atomic force microscopy to obtain a clear view at the nanoscale. AFM provides topographical imaging of the peptide-treated membrane while chemical analysis is done with high-resolution nanoscale secondary ion mass spectroscopy (NanoSIMS). Team leader Paulina Rakowska says that these observations provide the first-ever evidence of antimicrobial pore expansion from nano-to-micrometer scale to the point of complete membrane disintegration. This should allow chemists to figure out the bare essentials of active AMPs and perhaps to design optimal versions with activity against multiple-resistant bacterial strains.

Chemists at Queen’s University Belfast have won three international awards for their pioneering work on removing mercury from natural gas. The project by Queen’s University Ionic Liquid Laboratories (QUILL), in collaboration with Malaysian oil and gas giant PETRONAS, was the major winner at the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) Awards. As well as collecting the award for Outstanding Achievement in Chemical and Process Engineering, the team won the Sustainable Technology Award and Chemical Engineering Project of the year, marking it out as the best chemical engineering project for innovation in waste reduction.