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This week, The Alchemist begins some nanoscopic discoveries, moves into outer space, delves into molecular artificial intelligence and porous polymers and then announces this year's Novartis winners.

Pablo Zavattieri of Purdue University and colleagues have demonstrated that crystalline cellulose - the material that give trees and plants their strength - can be as stiff as steel. Cellulose nanocrystals have a stiffness of 206 gigapascals, the team reports in the journal Cellulose. They suggest that these materials might be used to create a new class of biomaterials with wide-ranging applications, such as strengthening construction materials and automotive components. This is a material that is showing really amazing properties, Zavattieri says. It is abundant, renewable and produced as waste in the paper industry.

Cobalt oxide nanoparticles can catalyze the hydrolysis of water to release hydrogen and oxygen, according to research from the University of Houston, Texas, published in December in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. Lead author Jiming Bao says that photocatalytic water-splitting experiments have been tried since the 1970s, but this was the first to use cobalt oxide and the first to use neutral water under visible light at a high energy conversion efficiency without co-catalysts or sacrificial chemicals.

Compounds of noble gas elements are rare on earth, but now a team from Cardiff University in the UK has found one in space. The find was made using data from an instrument aboard Europe's Herschel Space Observatory. The molecule, argon hydride, was seen in the Crab Nebula, the remains of a star that exploded 1000 years ago. The discovery was made almost by accident during studies of the dust in the nebula. We were really concentrating on studying the dust in the filaments and out pops these two bright emission lines exactly where we see the dust shining, says team member Haley Gomez. The team had a hard time figuring out what these lines were from, as no-one had seen them before. The isotopic ratio of the argon in this new interstellar substance is different from that which is seen in terrestrial rocks and so might provide new clues as to the processes that led to the explosion and the Crab Nebula 1000 years ago.

A novel method developed by Christof Wöll from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and colleagues and a team at Jacobs University Bremen, Germany, could facilitate the manufacture of polymer layers with tailor-made properties and multiple functions. The team developed their stable porous gels (SURGEL) for biological and medical applications using a surface-mounted metal-organic framework (SURMOF) grown on a substrate. The SURMOF is cross-linked with an additive using click chemistry at room temperature and finally the copper ions from the MOF are dissolved away to leave cross-linked, organic, porous polymer.

Computer scientists at Harvard have put powerful probabilistic reasoning algorithms in the hands of bioengineers and have shown that they could be used in chemical reactions. These algorithms, which use a technique called message passing inference on factor graphs, are a mathematical coupling of ideas from graph theory and probability. They represent the state of the art in machine learning and are already critical components of everyday tools ranging from search engines and fraud detection to error correction in mobile phones. They might now be used to construct smart drugs that act as diagnostic agents and only implement their therapeutic capacity at the appropriate time and place when disease is present.

Novartis has announced the recipients of its 2013 Early Career Award in Organic Chemistry. The winners are Nicolai Cramer, of EPF Lausanne, Switzerland and Daniel Rauh, Technische Universität, Dortmund, Germany. The annual award recognizes outstanding scientists who are working within their first decade of establishing an independent academic research career. The winners each receive an unrestricted research grant. Cramer works in the field of enantioselective metal-catalyzed transformations and has pioneered selective functionalization of C–H and C–C bonds, while Rauh works on high-throughput assays for finding inhibitors and probes for cancer genes.