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This week The Alchemist hears about molecular-scale pedaling, toxic toys, how to zip together nanographenes, a drug for reversing harm to the brain caused by alcohol abuse, dietary hunger pangs, and an award for polymer science.

Scientists from the University of Amsterdam's Van 't Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences (HIMS) and the University of Murcia have built a light-powered molecular bicycle in the city famed for its pedal cycle culture. The molecule functions like the nanoscopic equivalent of bicycle pedals. The structure is based on a new class of azodicarboxamide-based molecular switch; these molecules are derived from a modification of the azo-moiety in azobenzene - one of the most widely employed components in 'light switchable' materials.

British scientists have used X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry to investigate the toxic contaminants in individual second-hand plastic toys. Their data reveal worrying levels of bromine, cadmium, lead, and other chronically toxic elements in the products many of which are old and damaged and certainly pre-date modern safety regulations and yet are still being sold in charity and thrift stores. The team worries that toxic elements might leach from broken toys chewed or inadvertently swallowed by children given the toys by well meaning family or friends.

Researchers at Nagoya University, in Japan, have developed a quick and easy way to make so-called nanographenes in a controlled manner. Their approach might open up applications of the much-hyped materials to allow novel optoelectronic devices for organic electroluminescent displays and solar cells to become reality. Nanographenes, are one-dimensional nanometer-wide strips of graphene. Their properties largely depend on their width, length and edge structures and so taking control of their synthesis is important to making viable devices from these materials.

Researchers at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Australia have shown that the drug, tandospirone, which is currently only available in China and Japan, could help reverse the damage to the brain caused by heavy alcohol consumption. Studies in mice suggest that the drug reverses the harmful effects of the equivalent of fifteen weeks of binge drinking in the animals, triggering neurogenesis and replacing dead brain cells. The drug acts selectively on the serotonin receptor (5-HT1A) and seems to reduce the anxiety symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal.

If you are calorie counting to help lose weight, it is perhaps no surprise that you feel hungry while dieting, but why do people have lost weight feel hungry after they have been successful with their weight-loss plan? It seems that chemistry is to blame in that levels of one particular hormone, ghrelin, remain elevated for some time after one loses weight. Research from Norway suggests that this could mean that feeling perpetually hungry while eating less may be the price you pay for packing those extra pounds in the first place one you have undertaken a weight loss program. It is almost as if the body resists one's dieting efforts, overcoming this evolutionarily entrenched response to food may well not be possible.

The first real-time visualization of single polymer chain growth has been named "Research of the Year" by the ACS magazine Chemical and Engineering News. Scientists at Cornell University, with the financial backing of the US Army Research Laboratory's Army Research Office, have developed new tools to probe polymer dynamics and explore how they might be manipulated to control polymer microstructure and so macroscopic properties.