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This week, The Alchemist learns of encapsulated capsules that could emulate cells, a new glassy material for preventing debilitating leaks in solid oxide fuel cells, and a computer model that might help us develop a vaccine for H1N1 type A influenza. Also, under his gaze are ionic liquids developed to dissolve wood and the cancer drug that worryingly wipes away travelers' fingerprints. Finally, the Royal Society of Chemistry has drawn structure database Chemspider into its web.

Room temperature ionic liquids that can dissolve wood have been developed by UK chemists. The solvents could pave the way for exploiting otherwise intractable wood resources in making biofuels, textiles, clothes, paper, and even perfumes, without resorting to inefficient processing that produce lots of waste. Héctor Rodríguez and Robin Rogers at Queen's University Belfast worked with colleagues at The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, to develop the cost-effective and efficient approach to processing wood. "The discovery is a significant step towards the development of the biorefinery concept, where biomass is transformed to produce a wide variety of chemicals. Eventually, this may open a door to a truly sustainable chemical industry based on bio-renewable resources," says Rodríguez.

US immigration officials held a cancer patient for four hours before they allowed him to enter the country because he had no fingerprints. The problem arose because the patient, Mr S, is on long-term chemotherapy to prevent a relapse of his condition. The drug in question is the anti-metabolic agent capecitabine, Xeloda. This drug has the unfortunate side effect of causing hand-foot syndrome in some patients. This leads to chronic inflammation of the palms and soles, peeling skin, bleeding, and ulceration. Ultimately, the problem can cause the eradication of the patient's fingerprints. Immigration officials and oncologists are now advising all cancer patients being treated with the drug to carry a doctor's letter with them if they want to travel to the USA to avoid problems with the biometric identification system., the chemicals search site, has been acquired by the Royal Society of Chemistry. ChemSpider is a free database of almost 21.5 million unique chemical structures sourced from over 200 different data sources, including PubChem, and integrates this information with other services. The RSC says its acquisition complements its work on semantic mark-up technology for chemistry and the release of the InChI chemical structure resolver, which was developed in partnership with ChemSpider. "What originally started as a hobby project to give back something to the chemistry community has become one of the primary internet resources for Chemistry," says Chemspider founder Tony Williams. An RSC news release explains that, the "RSC has acquired ChemSpider to fulfil its strategic objective of disseminating knowledge to the chemical community and advancing the chemical sciences."

Liposomes equipped with enzymes that have been embedded in polymer capsules could act as a novel biomedical transport system, according to a team led by Frank Caruso at the University of Melbourne, Australia. The team's microcontainers, which they dub capsosomes, can hold thousands of individual "carrier units" and might be used to allow synthetic systems to carry out simple cellular activities with the aid of a biological cell. "Because the capsosomes are biodegradable and nontoxic," says Brigitte Staedler, a senior researcher in the group, "they would also be suitable for use as resorbable synthetic cell organelles and for the transport of drugs."

Solid oxide fuel cells represent a possible highly efficient alternative to conventional power supply for mobile and static applications. They can also be operated in reverse to split water and so release hydrogen as a fuel. However, current technology suffers from a serious problem - leaky seals. "The seal problem is the biggest problem for commercialization of solid oxide fuel cells," explains Peizhen "Kathy" Lu at Virginia Tech. Lu's team has invented a new glass that can be used to seal the energy-producing modules in a SOFC stack. The self-healing seal glass will provide strength and long-term stability to the stack, adds Lu. The new seals are also free of barium oxide, calcium oxide, magnesia, and alkali oxides, and contain negligible amounts of boron oxide.

A new structural model of the neuraminidase enzyme in the type A influenza virus H1N1, previously referred to by the media as "swine flu", has been revealed by Sebastian Maurer-Stroh, and his colleagues at the Bioinformatics Institute (BII) in Singapore's Biopolis. It is a mere two weeks since the first patient virus samples were made available to researchers and Maurer-Stroh's team has quickly developed an interactive model that could help medicinal chemists and molecular biologists understand the evolving nature of this enzyme. It might also assist with the search for novel antiviral drugs or in the development of a vaccine. The World Health Organisation is currently set to raise the alert status of the H1N1 virus to pandemic status, depending on whether rates of infection continue to increase in the coming days.