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This week The Alchemist learns of awards to two chemists funded by the European Science Foundation and undertaking cutting edge multidisciplinary work in solar energy and liquid crystals. It turns out that when it comes to crystallography size no longer matters, thanks to developments in how well x-ray beams can be focused and the positioning of microcrystals for analysis by diffraction. Also this week, could an extract from bilberries be effective against certain types of tumor or even prevent specific cancers developing in the first place? And, while water cannot burn, there is new evidence that a novel photocatalyst is getting solar energy experts hot under the collar in the search for the perfect hydrogen-production process. In inorganic chemistry, mercury shows its true mettle when confronted with plenty of fluorine and, finally, Raman spectroscopy can now see through even the most highly pigmented hair, revealing the secret of aging Japanese locks.

The work of two UK scientists, funded by the European Science Foundation and working in its SONS2 program, has been recognized this year by the Royal Society of Chemistry. First, Saif Haque of Imperial College London is to receive the Royal Society of Chemistry's Edward Harrison Memorial Prize for his research on developing solar cells based on self-organizing organic materials systems. Haque's work has already demonstrated how hybrid inorganic-organic systems can improve efficiency. John Goodby of the University of York has carried out research into the chemistry and applications of liquid crystals for many years. He will receive the RSC's Interdisciplinary award for his longstanding contribution to this field.

New opportunities for studying substances available only as powdered, microcrystals, have been opened up for chemists, physicists and biologists by scientists at the European Synchrotron Radiation Foundation in Grenoble, France. Researchers there have, for the first time, used X-ray diffraction to determine the structure of microcrystalline grains just a cubic micrometer in size. The new approach exploits a highly focusable x-ray beam and the use of a goniometer to position the microcrystal very precisely. Proof of principle was carried out on a microporous aluminum carboxylate and represents a thousand-fold improvement in terms of the size of crystal that can now be studied.

A commercially produced substance known as Mirtoselect, extracted from bilberries, could be the next weapon in the fight against certain forms of cancer, including colorectal and liver cancer. Dave Berry, hepatobiliary surgeon at the Leicester General Hospital, is working with Andy Gescher, of the University of Leicester, England, are carrying out tests with pre-operative patients to discern with Mirtoselect can enter cancerous tissue and if so to what degree. By comparing results with their laboratory model, the research team will have an indication as to how effective the bilberry extract is likely to be in preventing cancer.

Claims of burning water abound these days, but a shot in the arm for solar power could come from the discovery of a titanium silicide semiconductor that acts not only as a catalyst for splitting water but does its own gas separation step too. Martin Demuth and colleagues at the Max Planck Institutes for Bioinorganic Chemistry and for Coal Research, in Germany, spotted the very unusual properties of titanium silicide, which they say make it ideal for exploiting sunlight to produce hydrogen. One of the problems of hankering after the so-called "hydrogen economy" has always been that hydrogen is not so much a fuel as an energy transfer agent. This new technology could at last make producing the energy transfer agent efficient.

Mercury chemistry is usually limited to the +1 and +2 oxidation states but theory suggested that a +4 state may be accessible. Now, Lester Andrews and colleagues at the University of Virginia have used cryogenic conditions to react mercury with an excess of fluorine in an argon or neon matrix under ultraviolet irradiation. The result - mercury(IV) fluoride. At least according to the evidence of a single infra-red spectroscopic band. If proved correct, however, the discovery is likely to stimulate chemists to pursue other high oxidation mercury salts such as the putatively more stable HgF62-

Japanese researchers have developed a new approach to Raman spectroscopy that lends itself to studying even highly pigmented hair. This was previously unviable because of interference from melanin in such hair. The work could have implications for understanding how hair changes as we grow older and may even have medical diagnostics applications. Akio Kuzuhara and Nobuki Fujiwara of the Mandom Corporation, in Osaka, and Teruo Hori of Fukui University, have optimized laser power, cross slit width as well as total acquisition time, and used the technique to focus on cross sections of hair containing the least possible melanin granules.