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This week The Alchemist learns about a hydrogel scaffold that can act as an artificial ovary, how to sample selenium, how we can avoid a massive Ebola outbreak using pharma and vaccination, adding silver to gold nanoparticle chains for future optical computers, and how nanotechnology might also give us the ultimate sun protection. Finally, Elsevier gives out its green chemistry awards.

A nanoscopic capsule might be used to deliver pharmaceuticals at a specific disease site in the body. The self-powered capsule would wend its way to the site and on entering a cell exploit the specific redox chemistry it encounters in a diseased cell self-destruct releasing its payload. The research undertaken by a team at the Institute for Molecules and Materials at Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, uses hydrogen peroxide as fuel to propel the capsule through a concentration gradient. It is held together by disulfide bridges which are broken in the presence of raised levels of the redox molecule glutathione found in a tumor cell.

Crystals are regular and can be largely understood with regular mathematics. Glasses on the other hand are disordered and rarely succumb to conventional analysis. Now, Duke University postdoctoral fellow Sho Yaida and his advisor Patrick Charbonneau have built on thirty years of phase transition science to see through the equations and lay to rest a mystery about glass that has vexed scientists for years. Yaida has found evidence of a phase transition that only existed theoretically until now. The insight opens up the possibility that some types of glassy materials may exist in a new state of matter at low temperatures, which affects how they respond to heat, sound and stress, and how and when they break. The transition is known as the “Gardner transition” and is named for pioneering physicist Elizabeth Gardner.

US researchers have developed a near-instantaneous charging method for electric and hybrid vehicle batteries. The approach involves replacing a battery electrolyte solution rather than electrically charging the battery as is the current approach. The spent electrolytes would be collected from charging stations and "recharged" using sustainable electricity, from a solar or wind plant. “Instead of refining petroleum, the refiners would reprocess spent electrolytes and instead of dispensing gas, the fueling stations would dispense a water and ethanol or methanol solution as fluid electrolytes to power vehicles,” team leaders John Cushman explains.

That great English tradition, tea drinking, has been shown to cause epigenetic changes in women who partake. Writing in the journal Human Molecular Genetics a team from Uppsala University, Sweden, has demonstrated that consumption of tea triggers changes in genes that are known to interact with cancer and estrogen metabolism. Earlier research has hinted at a connection between drinking both tea and coffee and the modulation of disease risk in humans. The mechanism was purportedly through suppression of tumor progression, reducing inflammation and influencing estrogen metabolism. All such mechanisms might themselves be mediated by epigenetic changes. The team is yet to demonstrate whether tea drinking is beneficial, they have simply shown that there is a putative mode of action in epigenetics.

The fourth Tsinghua University Press-Springer Nano Research Award this year goes to Yi Xie, professor of chemistry at the University of Science and Technology of China. Xie’s research into inorganic functional solids with modulated electron and phonon structures has had an important impact on inorganic solid state nanochemistry. In particular, Xie has made groundbreaking advances in our understanding of thin unconventional semiconductors.

A way to process metals that avoids toxic solvents and oxidants has been developed by chemists at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Their proof of principle involves processing germanium without chlorine compounds and uses less energy than conventional techniques. Preliminary tests show that the same approach could be used to refine cobalt, copper, manganese, and zinc. The team's work uses an organic co-factor modeled on the pigment melanin and mechanochemistry where stainless steel milling balls are shaken with the mixed germanium ore at high speed rather than relying on hot solvents