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The Alchemist is always fascinated by systems that mimic life and this week, microscopic beads that behave like living bacteria have been showcased by UCSD researchers. There is also a fungal flavor to the news this week with a black fungus being used to generate hydrocarbons for aviation fuel while wormwood-treated silver nanoparticles turn about to be an effective antifungal agent against a species that kills plants and trees. The Alchemist also learns about the lifecycle of perovskite solar cells this week and how phosphorus might be recovered from waste water more effectively. Finally, an award for making molecules and materials.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have created microscopic polymer beads that respond to their environment in ways not dissimilar to the movement of bacteria undergoing a persistent random walk. The beads are a polymer layer wrapped around a tiny cube of hematite. Under blue light, the hematite will conduct electricity and if submerged in hydrogen peroxide will catalyze the splitting of the oxygen from the hydrogen leading to the establishment of chemical gradients within the water in which the beads are suspended. Jérémie Palacci demonstrated how they can make the beads go against a fluid flow as might infectious microbes

Aviation biofuels derived from the common leaf mould fungus Aspergillus carbonarius ITEM 5010 might be commercially viable within five years thanks to research at Washington State University. Birgitte Ahring and colleagues have demonstrated how they can use the fungus to make hydrocarbons similar to those used in jet fuel by feeding the fungus oatmeal. The fungus can also efficiently generate hydrocarbons when fed waste products such as wheat straw or the inedible leftovers from corn production. The team suggests that the fungus generates hydrocarbons as antibacterial compounds as production rises when the fungus is under attack from bacteria. They are now using genetic engineering to optimize the hydrocarbon biosynthesis process.

A research team at the University of Florida led by Shad Ali and colleagues at the University of Central Florida and the New Jersey Institute of Technology have discovered that silver nanoparticles produced with an extract of the wormwood can kill the fungus phytophthora. This plant pathogen affects more than 400 different species of plant and tree. “The silver nanoparticles are extremely effective in eliminating the fungus in all stages of its life cycle,” Ali said. “In addition, it had no adverse effects on plant growth.” The silver nanoparticles have many ways of inhibiting fungal growth and so there is a greatly reduced chance of resistance emerging in the fungus.

An international collaboration has measured the first ionization energy of the heaviest actinide lawrencium - the synthetic radioactive element 103. Led by researchers from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) in Tokai, the team obtained a value of 4.96 electronvolts. "We found that the energy required to remove the outermost electron in lawrencium was the lowest among all the actinides," explains team member Christoph Düllmann of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), Germany. The measurement confirms the position of lawrencium as the last actinide and also vindicates the structure of the periodic table of elements.

Phosphorus is an essential element for plant growth, including food crops. It can be sourced from mined phosphate minerals, but there are growing concerns that security of supply may be limited as demand rises and so approaches to recycling it from waste water and other materials are needed. Much of the phosphorus we lose simply flows out of waste water treatment plants. Now, modeling work by Rolf Halden of Arizona State University, and colleagues published in the Journal of Environmental Quality suggests how we might implement chemical or biological phosphorus extraction from WWTPs. "Nearly 367 500 tons per year of phosphorus could be generated with combined enhanced biological phosphorus removal and struvite production," suggests Halden based on his WWTP case study.

This year's Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences goes to Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, the J.C. Warner University Professor of Natural Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. This year’s prize, $250 000, a medal and a citation, is award this year for excellence in "Making Molecules and Materials". "Krzysztof Matyjaszewski’s work in polymer chemistry follows in the tradition of Camille and Henry Dreyfus, who were major innovators in their day in making polymer materials. We are proud to recognize his immense accomplishments with the Dreyfus Prize," said Henry Walter, president of the Dreyfus Foundation.