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Beyond the molecule - the importance of understanding assembly processes

Posted on 07/11/2017

The EPSRC Directed Assembly Network grand challenge aims to gain unprecedented control of the assembly of molecules.

By Dr Rachael Rowlands-Jones, Knowledge Transfer Manager, Formulation

Research and innovation in new functional materials remains a key area of focus for the UK Chemical and Chemistry using industries, but how do we ensure that the UK remains at the forefront on materials innovation?

Whether it be self-healing composites for aerospace and automotive or pressure sensing materials for robotics, adding functionality to materials is essential to UK competitiveness and clearly linked to molecular assembly.

Recognising the importance of this research area, the EPSRC provided funding for the Directed Assembly Grand Challenge Network in 2010 to bring together a new research community, to determine the current state of the field and draw up a roadmap to drive progress towards these goals. The EPSRC Directed Assembly Network Grand Challenge aims to gain unprecedented control of the assembly of molecules – the building blocks of many functional materials. Understanding the principles of assembly of molecules and how this relates to the material’s properties is key to unlocking future innovations and the design of materials for functionality.

The Network’s Grand Challenge vision is:

“To be able to predict and control the assembly of matter with sufficient certainty and precision to allow preparation of materials and molecular assemblies with far more sophisticated and tuneable properties and functions than are accessible in materials synthesised using current methods.”

This vision requires a multidisciplinary approach involving not only chemists and chemical engineers, but also physicists, material scientists, biologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists, and so incorporates all the engineering, physical and life sciences. Delivery of the Grand Challenge vision also depends critically on full and appropriate engagement with end- users, including industry, health professionals and others.

A Roadmap to Innovation by the EPSRC Directed Assembly Network

In consultation with the research community, the Network focussed its discussion and roadmapping activities into five theme areas, published in the 2012 roadmap:

  1. Controlling the assembly of designed molecular frameworks and hybrid materials with targeted properties
  2. Controlling nucleation and crystallization processes
  3. Controlling molecular self-assembly in biological and biomimetic systems
  4. Controlling surface-based molecular self-assembly for applications in interface science
  5. Developing self-optimised chemical systems through self-evolution

The Network has since developed and evolved, based upon the findings and inputs of the community to expand and incorporate stakeholders working within the three “Challenge Streams”:

A.   Directed Assembly

B.   Directed Disassembly

C.   Transition and Scale-up

The expansion of the Network’s remit to include Directed Disassembly will enable UK industry to address the challenges of sustainable manufacture – for example designing the next generation of catalysts or smarter routes to disassembly to improve the reuse of materials before the need for recycling and disposal.

The 2017 edition of the Roadmap to Innovation is now available here. With support from the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) the Network will now build on the consultations with the research community to identify the industry needs within these challenges streams to establish multi-disciplinary collaborations and influence national research agendas to ensure the UK continuously develops and nurtures cross-disciplinary research in this grand challenge area.

For more information or to get involved please contact the Network’s Principal Investigator Prof. Harris Makatsoris (H.Makatsoris@cranfield.ac.uk), the Network Manager Dr Paul Jones (p.m.jones@cranfield.ac.uk) or KTN’s Dr Rachael Rowlands-Jones.