From Paul Davies

I would like to thank the readers of Chemistry World  for their assistance with our survey, investigating the mechanism of hair greying (Chemistry World,  September 2006, p35). Specifically we are looking at a possible link between cessation of melanogenesis in the hair follicle and the onset of androgenetic alopecia (common baldness). Further assistance is urgently required and members who can spare a few moments should go to the website (follow link to ’survey’) to complete a very short online questionnaire. 

The assistance of Chemistry World  readers in this research is very much appreciated.

P G Davies CChem FRSC
Esher, UK


From Norman Nicolson

I read with interest the article on the Leblanc Process which, apart from some confusion between potash and caustic potash, I found excellent (Chemistry World, November 2006, p54). 

Potash could be used to make a soft brown slimy soap and to make ’forest glass’. Forest glass was more water soluble than soda glass and weathered badly. 

I remember the Leblanc process was called the Black Ash process, because of its byproduct: piles of stinking black sludge. 

I always thought it was completely superseded by the more efficient Solvay process and that this was still being used to produce sodium bicarbonate and soda ash, by ICI, in Runcorn. 

I can see why, as stated in the article, the electrolytic process would be more efficient in producing sodium hydroxide, but not soda ash. 

Does anyone from ICI chemicals or its current owners know the up-to-date position?

N Nicolson CChem MRSC 
London, UK


From Martin Ashcroft

Mike Sutton may well reflect common consensus among the scientific and political communities that heavy chemical industry is dead in the UK, but I am pleased to report that Brunner Mond is still alive and well. It currently produces one million tonnes per annum of soda ash and related chemicals in Northwich, UK, by the allegedly superseded and outdated Solvay process (Chemistry World, November 2006, p54). 

First, I am unaware of any significant volumes of soda ash being produced by electrolytic means (so it must be efficient indeed). Second, about 40 million tonnes of soda ash are produced each year, approximately 25 million tonnes by the Solvay process and 15 million tonnes by the mining and processing of trona (largely in the US and Africa).  

It may also interest readers to know that there is a significant construction programme of Solvay process soda ash plants worldwide, especially in Asia and the Middle East. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the Solvay process is very much alive and in use.  

My message may not suit the thrust for the new ’knowledge economy’, but there are several heavy chemical industries still operating successfully in the UK which play a fundamental role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by bulk manufacturing in an environmentally responsible manner within Europe. This reduces demand on soda ash produced in a much less regulated way in some regions of the world and avoids the massive environmental impacts of transporting high volume, low value goods half way across the world.

M Ashcroft CChem MRSC
Brunner Mond, UK


From Kay Bagon

Further to the news item entitled Defra leaves organophosphate study hanging, (Chemistry World,  November 2006, p8), there is much evidence that farmers exposed to organophosphate sheep dips may suffer chronic fatigue syndrome and muscular paralysis. Indeed it is estimated that over 800 UK farmers may have suffered adverse effects.  

If these adverse reactions are caused by handling organophosphates (OPs), have any tests been carried out to find out what effect OPs have on the sheep themselves, which are fully immersed in the sheep deep?  

Furthermore, is there any research into the level of residual OPs which could be passed on to humans in the foodchain? 

K Bagon
Radlett, UK


From Geoffrey Davies  et al

We appreciate RSC services to authors and members. However, we are disappointed that the RSC has followed the American Chemical Society (ACS) and commercial publishers in charging authors a fee to have their papers released online and with open access (Chemistry World, October 2006, p12). The ?1600 fee matches the highest fee authors pay to ACS for open access to their paper.  

Authors and readers (especially those in developing countries) should not have to pay for access to high quality, peer-reviewed articles such as those about to be published in Annals of Environmental Science, which we are glad to edit at no charge. 

G Davies CChem FRSC
E A Ghabbour CChem FRSC
R L Wershaw 
Boston and Denver, US

Robert Parker, editorial director, RSC, replies: 
The need to have a hybrid open access model was brought about by the mandates of certain funding agencies to their authors to use an open access route. There is no compulsion on other authors to use this route, and the normal, free to authors publication route remains in place. As for readers in developing countries, the RSC is involved in programmes such as INASP/PERI that provide free or very low cost journal access to scientists in the poorest countries. It has also developed initiatives such as Archive for Africa and Archive for Latin America (see  RSC News article this month).


From David Taylor

With the publication of the Stern report (Chemistry World, December 2006, p8) the news about carbon pollution has gone wild. This is obviously of great concern to chemists.  

I would not wish to add to this storm, except to say that I find that any government that claims to care about carbon pollution and does not invest in the only known method of making a significant difference - that is by encouraging the use of nuclear power - does not impress me as really serious.  

D A H Taylor, 
Scarborough, UK 


From Clifford Jones

I was interested to read that there was illumination by means of coal gas in London in 1813 (Chemistry World, November 2006, p50). It would appear that Britain was ahead of the US, where the first street lighting, also using coal gas, was in Baltimore in 1816. 

I might perhaps be allowed to add a little to what is said later in the article about use of ’residues such as coal tar’ in the chemical industry. In the 19th and early 20th centuries organic chemicals were obtained from coal by two routes: from tars or from synthesis gas. Then came methods for cracking petroleum liquids, one of which was patented by W M Burton in 1915. By the 1930s further cracking technologies had developed and coal ceased to be the primary source of organic chemicals. 

As the Chemistry World article indicates, liquid fuels are still made from coal via synthesis gas by organisations including South Africa’s Sasol. Sasol has recently expanded and is now active in countries other than South Africa, having for example involvement in a gas-to-liquids plant in Qatar. With the US company Peabody, Sasol is also providing guidance to China’s largest mining company Shenhua in its endeavours to make liquid fuels from coal. 

J C Jones CChem FRSC  
Aberdeen, UK 


From the Biological and medicinal chemistry sector, Industry and Technology Forum, RSC

We were very disappointed to read the recent article entitled East meets West  (Chemistry World, October 2006, p42), which we felt was detrimental to the interests of many of your readers, and the UK chemical sciences in general.  

While there is precedent in Chemistry World  for articles written from the perspective of a single company, we believe that these have generally put across a balanced view of the technology or science involved. In contrast, it is our view that the current article was little more than an extended advertisement for Oxygen Healthcare, rather than a serious commentary on the topic of contract drug discovery.  

More importantly, it seemed to us that a central tenet of the article was that chemists are a commodity. A clear indicator of this point was the large number of references made to cost in the feature. This is a sinister view that is rapidly gaining currency amongst non-chemists: ’all chemists are equal, but some chemists are much cheaper than others’ (with apologies to George Orwell). This attitude is doing immense damage to the stature of the chemistry community in the eyes of non-chemists, and is increasingly leading to job losses particularly in the UK contract research organisation sector. 

Surely there can be no doubt that the RSC must make every effort to maintain a very clear position, particularly on the second of these points. The invaluable work of the RSC to support UK chemical education and continuous professional development, its advocacy of our professional status, etc, will count for nothing if the ’customer’ perceives chemistry to be a simple commodity to be purchased at the cheapest unit cost, and if this view is seen to be promulgated in the RSC’s own magazine. 

Trevor Perrior FRSC, Stuart Cameron MRSC, Dave Alker FRSC, Peter H Bentley FRSC, Derek Buckle FRSC, Trevor Grinter MRSC, Terry Hart FRSC, Helen Hailes MRSC, Charles Hedgecock MRSC, Jonathan Mason MRSC, Gordon Saxty MRSC, Feodor Scheinmann FRSC, Andrew Stachulski FRSC , Karl Swift MRSC, Ray White FRSC, Barbara Mason MRSC  

Ed: The feature was never intended to be, nor billed as, a commentary on the topic of contract drug discovery, a topic which will be covered in a forthcoming Chemistry World feature. It was a profile of Oxygen Healthcare, which we believe is an interesting company working in an interesting way. It was certainly not an advertisement that explicitly endorsed their services, and references to costs in a business feature should come as no surprise. Most importantly, although Chemistry World is published by the RSC, it is not the voice of the RSC (for that, you should turn to RSC News). Editorial content of CW - including news and features - does not represent RSC policy, and it should not be read as such.