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This week the Alchemist learns of speedy water computations, how to count molecules with a cell phone app, sees the two faces of protein nanotubes, and discovers that there is a balance to be made in biofuel pretreatment and in artificial pollen grains. Finally, the sensitive subject of making graphene condoms...

A high-speed geometric model can predict how a given biomolecule will interact with water molecules twenty times faster than previous approaches, according to researchers at the University of California, San Diego. Our research explores how water can change the shape of a molecule, how different molecules can get along well in water and, ultimately, how drug molecules can hit targets with the help of water, says team leader Bo Li. Details of this phase-field approach to implicit solvation of biomolecules with Coulomb-field approximation are reported in The Journal of Chemical Physics.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have demonstrated a method for using a so-called lab-on-a-chip device and a mobile phone to determine the concentration of molecules, such as viral RNA molecules, in a sample. This digital approach can provide accurate quantitative information despite changes in timing, temperature and lighting conditions, a capability not previously possible using traditional instrumentation. The work published in the journal Analytical Chemistry points the way towards digital diagnostics for a wide range of illness and health problems.

Scientists from the University of Warwick, UK and the University of Sydney, Australia, have created Janus protein nanotubes – nanotubes with two distinct faces. The Janus nanotubes have a tubular structure formed by the stacking of cyclic peptides resulting in a molecular channel with an internal diameter of 1 nanometer, big enough to allow ions and small molecules to pass through. Each cyclic peptides has two distinct polymer attachments that give rise to a two-faced shell for the nanotubes. In the solid state, these materials could act as molecular sieves for separating mixtures of fluids. In solution, they form bilayers that could be exploited in drug delivery.

Environmental controversy surrounds the use of biofuels as a means to mitigate climate change and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Now, $1million is to be pumped into a research project at the University of Colorado at Boulder to develop solar-thermal biomass-to-gas conversion technology. Alan Weimer's team in the chemical and biological engineering department will benefit from the three-year grant and hope, in that time, to find a way to use concentrated sunlight to heat biomass like grass, sorghum, corn stalks and leaves, wood waste, and algae to more than 1000 Celsius for fractions of a second. This will generate "syngas" - a mixture of carbon oxides and hydrogen - that can be readily turned into hydrogen or liquid fuels.

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology have created sticky, magnetic replicas of sunflower pollen grains using a wet chemical, layer-by-layer process that applies highly conformal iron oxide coatings to a natural pollen grain as a template. The work provides a unique demonstration of tunable, bio-enabled multimodal adhesion. The pollen grains' spikes lead to short-range adhesion while the magnetism has a longer range of several millimeters. Ken Sandhage explains that pollen grains evolved for adhesion but he and his colleagues have now augmented that phenomenon with a non-natural mode of adhesion.

The saying goes that a tonic can put lead in your pencil, of course pencils contain a graphite-based material, the lead, but now the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in its quest for a better condom that more people will use to have safe sex is pumping money into a project that hope to use another form of carbon, the new wonder material graphene, to make super strong and almost nano thin condoms. Aravind Vijayaraghavan and his team from The University of Manchester UK have received a Grand Challenges Explorations grant of $100,000 (£62,123) from the Foundation that will help them develop new composite nano-materials based on graphene. Graphene is the world’s thinnest, strongest and most conductive material, and has great potential in electronic, drug delivery, water purification and now safer sex. It was first isolated by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov Manchester in 2004 and earned the pair the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010.