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The Alchemist learns this week how phosphorus atoms might be perfectly placed to build a quantum computer and how fluorescent gel and filter paper might put explosive sniffer dogs out of work. In environmental remediation the reverse of gold-digging could be used to remove toxic mercury ions from contaminated water while across the universe it could be that Earth-like planets are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to chemical composition. In elemental discoveries, the possibility of making a pure, metastable "arsenic black" could be possible thanks to energetic calculations. This week's award comes from Pittcon and is awarded posthumously to father than son Genzo Shimadzu, Sr. and Genzo Shimadzu, Jr. founders of the Shimadzu company famed for its analytical instruments.

A working transistor based on a single phosphorus atom precisely placed in a silicon crystal is not only an incredible feat of engineering, but could represent another step towards the building blocks of a so-called quantum computer. According to a team at the University of New South Wales, Australia, the tiny transistor uses as an individual phosphorus atom patterned between atomic-scale electrodes and electrostatic control gates as its active component. The electronic characteristics of the device match theoretical predictions made by Gerhard Klimeck’s group at Purdue University in the US.

A fluorescent gel added to filter paper could make a quick and easy detector for the explosive trinitrotoluene, TNT, according to a team led by Ayyappanpillai Ajayaghosh of the National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology in Trivandrum, India. The approach which uses OPVPF, a perfluoroarene based gelator known to form arene-perfluoroarene, could be a less costly alternative to ion mobility spectroscopy detection or sniffer dogs in certain security-conscious settings.

Gold nanoparticles can be used to strip mercury ions from contaminated water in a twenty-first century process that resembles the centuries-old method for extracting gold from its ore. Victor Puntes at the Catalan Institute of Nanotechnology in Barcelona, Spain, and colleagues recalled that recalled that gold miners exploit mercury-gold amalgams to extract the precious metal from its ore and leave behind mercury salts. The team has now reversed this process to pull the mercury from samples of contaminated water. The team used 9-nanometer gold nanoparticles coated with sodium citrate. The coating not only allows the nanoparticles to disperse in solution, but the citrate reduces any dissolved mercury to elemental mercury, which is much more readily separated from the water.

Astronomers have found that the chemical composition of superficially "Earth-like" planets outside our solar system may be very different in bulk composition to the Earth. The team based at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, in the Canary Islands, suggests that the discovery may have dramatic consequences for finding extraterrestrial worlds that have environments akin to those on Earth that might theoretically support life. Theoretical studies show that the ratios of C:O and Mg:Si are the most critical elemental ratios in the determination of an Earth-like planet's mineralogy. The new work shows that the elemental abundances in proto-planet forming stars can vary wildly from that seen in the Earth.

Phosphorus is something of a chemical chameleon changing color to suit its environment with white, red, black and purple structural forms. Arsenic, on the other hand, just one below P in the Periodic Table is less colorful with well-known gray and yellow forms. A black form of arsenic has never been proven. Now, Tom Nilges at the Technical University of Munich and colleagues have combined quantum chemical computations with experimental investigations of phase formation and suggest that metastable black arsenic could very well exist in a pure form based on its energetics. The work could lead to a better understanding of metastable elements and the development of novel compounds.

Genzo Shimadzu, Sr. and Genzo Shimadzu, Jr. have been selected as this year's recipients of the 2012 Pittcon Heritage Award. The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy (Pittcon) and the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) will be bestow the award posthumously on the founders of Shimadzu Corporation at Pittcon 2012 on March 11 in Orlando, Florida. Japan’s modernization in the second half of the nineteenth century was enabled by the vision of people like Genzo Shimadzu who recognized that the growing interest in Western science and technology could lead to new opportunities in Japan and kick start a whole new industry.

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This week The Alchemist learns that boron most certainly is not boring, it now being a record-breaker in a chemical flat land. For medical science, we now have nanoparticles that shimmer and change color as a butterfly wing and in the world of bioanalysis, an easy to stick together microfluidic device for testing toxicity. Thermodynamics, we learn, could be crucial to the successful use of smart materials and memory alloys in making structures better equipped to resist earthquakes. In organometallic supramolecular chemistry a team in Germany has constructed a bronze Matryoshka from copper and tin cages. Finally, this week's award goes to British chemist Peter Bruce who is working on lithium-air batteries that could last up to thirty times as long as current technology without bulking up or gaining weight.

Alexander Boldyrev and colleagues at Utah State University, Logan, working with Lai-Sheng Wang and colleagues at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island have synthesized a planar boron compound that has the highest coordination number of any flat molecule, squeezing ten spoke-like bonds to boron atoms into a wheel. This astounding feat of engineering not only breaks previous records for such compounds but offers new insights into bonding, coordination and the development of boron chemistry. Theoretical chemist Pekka Pyykkö of the University of Helsinki, Finland, is impressed. "At a deeper, quantum mechanical level, I find the electronic structure entirely logical and a pretty example on the eighteen-electron (18e) rule," he says.

Metallic nanoparticles that have some of the photonic characteristics of a butterfly's wing could be used as simple color-change components of a new approach to medical diagnostic tests, say researchers from Attophotonics Biosciences GmbH in Austria and at the University of Applied Sciences, in Wiener Neustadt. The team has demonstrated proof of principle for the detection of a model compound, interleukin-6 an important biomarker for acute sepsis. The sensitivity is high and the nanoparticles can readily be incorporated into a lab-on-a-chip device, the team reports.

Javier Atencia and colleagues at the US National Institute of Standards & Technology have taken a few sheets of plastic, a glass slide and some double-sided sticky tape to quickly and easily construct a lab-on-a-chip device for carrying out cell assays. Their "diffusion-based gradient generator" can be used to rapidly assess how changing concentrations of specific chemicals affect living cells. The microfluidic device could be used to carry out toxicity testing inexpensively on a range of chemicals.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are investigating whether or not shape-memory alloys might be useful construction materials for seismic-resistant structures. Reginald DesRoches and colleagues have developed a computer model to study how these materials respond thermodynamically and mechanically to loading from strong motion. Their calculations could help determine the viability of using smart alloys made from combinations of copper-zinc-aluminum-nickel, copper-aluminum-nickel or nickel-titanium in cables, bars, plates and helical springs for engineering applications. For standard materials, mechanics is usually sufficient for engineers, but with smart materials thermodynamics becomes an important component of the equations.