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The Alchemist this week learns about unprotected synthesis, a new use for black phosphorus, making cheaper gasoline, and about the microbes that ate the Deepwater Horizon oil plume. In the world of enzymes, there are new insights into the cellular energy budget. Finally, an international prize to take a Purdue chemist to Germany.




Synthetic chemist László Kürti and postdoctoral researchers Zhiwei Ma and Zhe Zhou of Rice University have developed a new synthesis of unprotected aziridine molecules, key intermediates in making bioactive small molecules. The two-carbon, one-nitrogen three-membered aziridine ring is readily opened and so provides a useful tool to add a nitrogen atom to a growing molecular structure. Kürti and his team have focused on making unprotected aziridines which can then be further functionalized as intermediates towards more complicated compounds.





When it was first discovered, black phosphorus, the thermodynamically stable form of the element found no obvious applications. However, over the last few years scientists have recognised its potential as an ultra-thin semiconductor material. There were assumptions about the material not being tuneable, which new research published in the journal ACS Niño has now overturned. Black phosphorus can absorb and emit light in the visible through infrared spectrum, which is useful for sensors, communications and other applications. Making it stable is possible by encapsulating it in a passive insulator. The new work provides the theoretical underpinning of this principle and so could open up new avenues of exploration for this 2D semiconductor.





Biofuels, such as plant-derived ethanol could lower the price of "green" gasoline thanks to work by a team at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Michigan State University. The team has genetically engineered the enzymes used in biofuel production so that they bind less to corn stalks and other cellulosic biomass and so are available more for converting biomass to ethanol. Enzymes used to convert switchgrass, corn stover, and poplar into biofuels amount to about a fifth of the total biofuel production costs. According to team member Shishir Chundawat, enzymes cost about 50 cents per gallon of ethanol, so recycling or using fewer enzymes would make biofuels cheaper.





The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was one of the most environmentally critical spills. But, the plume of oil that spewed into the sea was eaten by hydrocarbon-degrading microbes according to a new simulation by a research team at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "We simulated the conditions of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in the lab and were able to understand the mechanisms for oil degradation from all of the principal oil-degrading bacteria that were observed in the original oil spill," says team member Ping Hu. Our study demonstrated the importance of using dispersants in producing neutrally buoyant, tiny oil droplets, which kept much of the oil from reaching the ocean surface," adds team leader Gary Andersen. "Naturally occurring microbes at this depth are highly specialized in growing by using specific components of the oil for their food source. So the oil droplets provided a large surface area for the microbes to chew up the oil."





The enzyme adenylate kinase is vital to the management of the energy budget in our cells. Now scientists from the Universities of Konstanz, Germany and Umeå University in Sweden, have investigated the closed state of this enzyme in detail using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and X-ray crystallography. They have thus constructed a structural model at the atomic level of the enzyme docked to its ligand. Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the team explains how the work is providing new insights into metabolism with potential for new avenues of research into therapeutics for metabolic disease.





Timothy Zwier of Purdue University is this year's recipient of the international Humboldt Research Award for his work in physical chemistry and molecular spectroscopy. Zwier's research covers such disparate areas as the components of individual proteins, the chemistry of combustion engines and the atmospheres of the moons of Saturn. His team uses microwave, infrared and ultraviolet spectroscopy in their pioneering work. Award winners are invited to spend a period of up to one year cooperating on a long-term research project with specialist colleagues at a research institution in Germany.