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This week The Alchemist learns how to break a nineteenth century law, figures out how to get hydrogen out of sea water, stabilizes two-dimensional materials, pieces together new drugs like a jigsaw puzzle, sees the tiniest patterns, and chills with this year's Nobel chemists.

UK scientists have used X-ray scattering to show for the first time how Coloumb's law that says opposing electrical charges attract might be broken in ionic liquids confined in a nanoscopic space. The results might lead to a new way to construct batteries, supercapacitors, alternative energy supplies and even water treatment technology. Team leader, Drexel University's Yury Gogotsi suggests that, "We can get safer batteries and supercapacitors when using ionic liquid electrolytes because the ionic liquids are not flammable like the electrolyte solutions currently used in these devices."

Hydrogen can be efficiently released from seawater using a hybrid nanomaterial that means the energy costs of hydrolyzing water are cut sufficiently to make the process viable for obtaining the gas for use in future fuel cells. Yang Yang and colleagues at the University of Central Florida have been working towards this goal for a decade and recently published details of a potent photocatalyst in the journal Energy & Environmental Science. The catalyst comprises an ultrathin film of titanium dioxide with nanocavity indentations coated with molybdenum disulfide.

So-called "two-dimensional" materials, such as graphene and phosphorene could be used in the next generation of flexible, low-power electronic devices but only if scientists can find a way to stabilize these materials for everyday use. Junfeng Gao and colleagues from the A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing used first-principles calculations to show how applying an electric field to molybdenum diselenide on phosphorene can "drastically" increase the 2D material's resistance to oxidation. “We will explore more substrates for their ability to stabilize phosphorene,” says Gao. “In particular, we want to find out if such a substrate is suitable for epitaxial growth of phosphorene.”

Most pharmaceuticals work by binding to proteins and modulating their activity in some way, either inhibiting or stimulating them or preventing their natural substrate from interacting with them. A new way to study these interactions could help in the design of new treatments with fewer side-effects, according to scientists at the University of East Anglia, UK. “Designing novel drugs is a bit like finding the proper piece that fits into a jigsaw puzzle,” explains team leader Jesus Angulo. “Our novel approach allows us to now find the exact piece that matches the complementary shape and graphical content in a protein binding site." The approach is based on a novel nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy technique - DEEP-STD NMR.

Electron beam lithography has been used by researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory to set a new record for drawing at the one-nanometer scale. Vitor Manfrinato and his colleagues used scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) to pattern a thin film of poly(methyl methacrylate) with individual features as small as one nanometer and with a spacing of just 11 nanometers. They could thus create a trillion features per square centimeter on the substrate. This represents the highest resolution ever achieved in a controlled and efficient way, the team reports. The approach opens up materials engineering possibilities that can be tailored almost atom by atom.

Jacques Dubochet (University of Lausanne, Switzerland), Joachim Frank (Columbia University, New York, USA), and Richard Henderson (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK) share this year's chemistry Nobel prize for their work on the development of cryo-electron microscopy. The technique is used for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution and is often used alongside X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and even instead of those powerful techniques where atomic-resolution structures are inaccessible without it.