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This week: a carbon dioxide sponge, improving supercapacitors, helical antifreeze for aircraft and organs, and a fat hormone. The Alchemist also learns how ALS occurs and how we might develop drugs to treat it. Finally, an award for wide-ranging analytical science.

An iron-based synthetic compound that mimics the antifreeze effect of natural proteins made by fish that dwell at the poles could be used to halt the formation of ice crystals on airplane wings and perhaps even allow organs for transplant to be frozen for storage without them being damaged by the ice. Matthew Gibson of The University of Warwick, UK, and his colleagues have developed the amphipathic metallohelices and demonstrated their antifreeze effects in the laboratory at concentrations as low as 20 micromolar.

A recently discovered hormone in the brain, NPGL (Neurosecretory protein GL) has been found to increase fat storage in the body even when on a low-calorie diet. It also increases appetite in response to high caloric food intake. Kazuyoshi Ukena of Hiroshima University, Japan, first identified the hormone in chickens, but it is now thought to be a regulator of fat storage in mammals too, including humans. The findings suggest a role in how our ancestors coped with famine and feast but perhaps also points to a possible better understanding of the growing obesity epidemic in North America, Europe, and elsewhere.

Research that reveals the fundamental cellular malfunction that underlies amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, known as motor neurone disease outside the US) and the related disease frontotemporal dementia could lead to pharmaceutical interventions that preserve neurones. The presence of a genetic mutation is the first discovery of its kind in that rather than harming enzymatic and protein pathways, an abnormal version of a protein involved in cellular phase separation occurs. Paul Taylor of St Jude's Children's Research Hospital and colleagues write in the journal Neuron how their findings could point to a way to restore the ability of neurons to disassemble the organelles when their cellular purpose has ended.

The 2017 Talanta medal is awarded to Purnendu "Sandy" Dasgupta of the University of Texas at Arlington in recognition of his world-leading research in the field of analytical chemistry. "This is a tremendous honor and I'm very grateful for this recognition by my peers," Dasgupta said. "By recognizing me, they are also honoring several generations of my students from all over the world, who are so involved and committed to my work and form a cornerstone of my success." Dasgupta's work covers many areas of science from blood tests to detecting arsenic in water. He is currently working on the rapid analysis of trace heavy metals in the atmosphere, iodine nutrition in women and infants as well as developing ion chromatography for testing materials on other planets, such as soil on Mars.

Freeze-dried boron nitride foam can adsorb large volumes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere according to research from a team at Rice University. The foam comprises layer upon layer of "two-dimensional" hexagonal boron nitride sheet. The addition of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) to the preparation makes a robust material that does not disintegrate in liquids. Team leader Pulickel Ajayan suggests that the material can be fine tuned for particular applications, such as exhaust scrubbing or air filters. In computer simulations, the foam can adsorb 340 percent of its own mass in carbon dioxide, the team reports in the journal ACS Nano.

Supercapacitors can be thought of as rapid-charging batteries. It can take just seconds to fully charger a supercapacitor whereas a conventional battery will take hours and sometimes a whole day to charge. But, the current supercapacitors lack something most rechargeable batteries have - capacity. They can be charged rapidly but they don't last long in use. Moreover, each discharge-charge cycle leads to degradation that means supercapacitors have much shorter lives than conventional batteries. Now, a team at Queen Mary University of London and the University of Cambridge, UK, have exploited a property of some polymer and composite supercapacitors known as pseudocapacitance. This property allows more charge to be packed in and side-steps the premature degradation. The UK team has developed an interpenetrated double polymer layer that allows them to rapidly charge and boost capacity to much greater levels than previous carbon-based supercapacitors.