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This week, The Alchemist hears how a simple-seeming substance is solved, discovers how plastics might be made to conduct away heat for electronics and engine applications, sees some precision nanocatalysts, learns that flares are no longer fashionable, and exactly how onions make the stuff that makes you cry, finally, this year's Davy Medal.

After seventy years of disparate and conflicting results from diffraction experiments and spectroscopic analyses, chemists have finally grasped the highly symmetric molecule, tetranitromethane, and obtained a definitive structure consistent with theory. The German team reports in the journal Angewandte Chemie how they have obtained structures for both the gas phase and the solid state for this unstable compound, often used to add nitro groups to other molecules.

The idea of replacing steel and other metal and alloy components in vehicles has been on the roadmap for many years, but there are obstacles to this simple way to improve efficiency by reducing overall vehicle weight. Ceramic components may be less dense than metals and have higher heat resistance but they are not good thermal conductors and suffer from brittleness. A polymer that is thermally conducting and stable to heat has been developed by a team at the University of Michigan. Fundamentally, the team has developed a technique for spin coating a polymer on to a surface and exploited electrostatic repulsion between the monomer links in the polymers chains to straighten those chains and thus open up channels through which heat energy can be propagated and so dissipated. Applications in vehicle components and electronics should be possible.

Precisely defined, one nanometer, multimetallic nanoclusters (MNCs) composed of three metals - copper, platinum, and gold - have been made by a research team at Tokyo Institute of Technology. The MNCs have catalytic activity in the atmospheric oxidization of hydrocarbons some 24 times greater than commercially available carbon-supported platinum catalysts. Oxidation and subsequent functionalization of hydrocarbons is a critical step in many processes so improvements in the catalysts for such reactions are keenly sought.

An end to methane gas flaring at oil fields might soon be plausible thanks to work by researchers at Washington State University. With current engineering, oil and gas fields are essentially forced to burn off methane as they operate, not only is this a waste of a useful fossil fuel resource but the pollution amounts to as much greenhouse gas in a year as 1 million cars from oil and gas fields in North Dakota alone. Oil companies burn off about one third of the methane they obtain because it is too expensive to use at the volumes they produce. The WSU team has developed a small reactor that could be attached to an oil rig that would inexpensively convert methane and water into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which can both then be used in the manufacture of liquid fuels and industrial chemicals.

Why does chopping onions bring tears to your eyes? The breaking open of onion cells leads to the release of a volatile compound known as "lachrymatory factor", (Z)-propanethial S-oxide. How this compound is produced by lachrymatory factor synthase (LFS) in onions has not been clear. Now, Marcin Golczak of Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, and colleagues have solved crystal structures of LFS in an apo-form and in complex with a substrate analogue, crotyl alcohol. Their structures allowed them to devise a plausible mechanism of catalysis that involves sequential proton transfer and formation of a carbanion intermediate. This mechanism reconciles experimental and theoretical studies and ties up a loose end in science that had biochemists crying in frustration.

The recipient of this year's Davy Medal given by the Royal Society is Matthew Rosseinsky of the University of Liverpool in recognition of his “advances in the design and discovery of functional materials, integrating the developments of new experimental and computational techniques.” The medal was first given in 1877 and previous recipients include Marie Curie, Linus Pauling, Dmitri Mendeleev, Fraser Stoddart, and Ahmed Zewail. Rosseinsky will receive a bronze medal and £2,000 (about US$2650) at the Royal Society's Anniversary Day Meeting on 30 November 2017.