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This week, The Alchemist hears of a the opening of a million-dollar green chemistry lab on the Emerald Isle to accommodate a research contract between researchers at Queen's University Belfast and Malaysian petrochemicals company Petronas. In bioanalytical news atomic spectroscopy has revealed a putative link between raised blood plasma levels of heavy metals and cancer. Chemical philosophers are looking at rebuilding the periodic table, while organic chemists have come up with a fast formula for Tamiflu. Also this week, Nobel chemist Sir Harry Kroto echoed Richard Dawkins in chastising educators who hope to relegate evolution to secondary status in schools. Finally, good news for music fans, with new molecular switches that could one day help technologists build an mp3 player to hold 300 million tunes.




Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland, inaugurated its green chemistry laboratory in April. The GBP 500,000 ($1m) laboratory will see Queen's build on world-leading research in this area and impact on people's daily lives. Sir Reg Empey MLA, UK Minister for Employment and Learning officially opened the lab, which is based in QUIL (Queen's University Ionic Liquid Laboratories). The newly refurbished lab will provide accommodation for a ?5.25 million ($10.5m) research contract from Petronas, the Fortune 500 oil and gas corporation owned by the Malaysian government.





Atomic absorption spectroscopic analysis of blood samples from cancer patients suggests that they have raised levels of a range of trace metals. Chemist Munir Shah of the Quaid-i-Azam University, in Islamabad, Pakistan, working with biochemists Qaisara Pasha and Salman Malik have focused on these qualities in an investigation of plasma trace metal concentrations in cancer patients and compared their findings with healthy controls. Whether or not this results from metabolic changes in the bodies of those with cancer or whether the presence of high levels of trace metals may itself by linked to carcinogenesis is not yet known.





Writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Chemical Education (2008, 85, 585-589), Scerri explains how the periodic table initially arose from the discovery of atomic weight triads but now suggests that chemists should recognize the fundamental importance of atomic number triads. This would enhance the periodic table by classifying the elements at a fundamental level as basic substances. He has developed a new version of the "left-step" periodic table, which looks very different from the conventional PT having a step-like pattern with actinides and lanthanides forming the first step and climbing to alkali metals and alkaline earth metals on the right. "I am modifying it to accommodate two atomic number triads which would otherwise be absent. They are He, Ne, Ar which ceases to exist as a triad in the usually encountered left-step table and H, F, Cl which does not exist either in the conventional medium-long form table or the usually encountered left-step table," Scerri explains.





The shortest synthesis yet to flu drug, Tamiflu, has been devised by Barry Trost and Ting Zhang, at Stanford University, California. Tamiflu (oseltamivir) a Roche product, is currently synthesized from shikimic acid derived from the Chinese star anise flower. However, such natural sources can be fraught with supply problems in times of crisis, so organic chemists have been hoping to find an alternative route to the drug. Trost and Zhang have now used a commercially available lactone and a mere eight reaction steps to obtain (-)-oseltamivir. Yield is 30% better than other synthetic schemes but scale-up investigations will reveal whether it is commercially viable. .





Nobel chemist, Knight of the Realm, and co-discoverer of the fullerenes, Sir Harold Kroto, has suggested that not teaching science properly in schools and giving equal footing to pseudoscience is tantamount to child abuse. Kroto who now lectures at Florida State University having left England in 2004, explained to a state Capitol audience that humans and fruit flies share the same genes. "You may not like that, but it's not my fault," he says, "It's the way it actually is." His lecture is a response to the intentions of Florida lawmakers, motivated by religious beliefs, to change the way evolution is taught so that teachers are allowed to challenge Darwin's theory.





Fancy an mp3 player with a 500,000 gigabyte capacity? With that amount of storage space you could probably store every song ever written and a whole lot more. Thanks to British research into molecular switches, this could be the future of data storage. Lee Cronin and Malcolm Kadodwala of the University of Glasgow have successfully assembled a functional nanocluster that incorporates two electron-donating groups, and positioned them precisely 0.32 nm apart. This new type of switch could form the heart of rewritable data storage media that would increase capacity to around 4 petabits per square inch, the researchers say.