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Molecules/Matter & Energy

Fuel from gator fat, cube-shaped neutrons and more in this week's news

1:14pm, August 28, 2011
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Gator fuel
While it’s unlikely to become as chichi as gator skin purses or shoes, fuel made from alligator fat could one day fill the gas tanks of Jaguars and BMWs. A new analysis finds the fat is a good starting material for biofuels: Its biochemical profile is similar to those of many plants already used in biodiesel production and is relatively easy to extract, report University of Louisiana at Lafayette researchers. Currently, 15 million pounds of gator lard ends up in landfills each year, the team writes in an upcoming Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research. —Rachel Ehrenberg

Gecko tracks
Footprints left behind by gecko lizards suggest that the case of the climbing lizards isn’t closed. Geckos have become the poster lizard for scooting up walls without suction or adhesive. They’re thought to get their grip via millions of tiny branched hairs on their feet. But now researchers from the University of Akron in Ohio report that the animals leave oily tracks of water-repelling compounds in their wake. The find suggests that using stickum-free gecko adhesion as an inspiration in robotics and materials science needs to be re-examined, the researchers report online August 24 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.—Rachel Ehrenberg

How to grow a cloud
Clouds grown in a chamber on solid ground reveal new details about the formation of their counterparts in the atmosphere. Inside the CLOUD chamber at the European physics laboratory CERN, two different gases thought to govern the growth of clouds in the atmosphere were less effective at forming liquid particles called aerosols than previously thought — leaving climate scientists to wonder what other materials they should include in their simulations. Ground-level cosmic rays, on the other hand, boosted aerosol formation tenfold, and cosmic rays in the atmosphere might have a fiftyfold effect, an international team of researchers reports in the Aug. 25 Nature. The results suggest that these space particles may play a role in cloud cover and thus climate. —Devin Powell

Neutrons flatten under pressure
Neutrons, generally spherical particles found in the nuclei of atoms, may change shape out in the cosmos. The crushing pressures inside neutron stars could mold these particles into cubes, researchers in Spain and Germany suggest. This shape-shifting behavior would allow neutrons to pack together much more efficiently, like boxes instead of tennis balls. Cubic neutrons would help to explain the incredible amount of mass packed into neutron stars, some of the densest objects in the universe, the researchers report online August 9 at —Devin Powell 

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