Crystal Engineering Research at UL

The Vision: Materials by Design


 

Centuries ago, the Renaissance witnessed the development of new design concepts and the importation of new engineering techniques that revolutionized architecture and enabled the construction of buildings unlike any predecessors. Today we are at a point in time when the expansion of computational power, the development of better/faster characterization methods and the evolution of synthesis concepts such as self-assembly and supramolecular chemistry have enabled the dream of materials by design to approach fruition. This “materials design revolution” is poised to profoundly influence society by impacting, amongst other matters, energy sustainability and drug development. Simply put, by finding the right chemistry, materials scientists and engineers can gain the level of power that architects have when they design new buildings.

 

The Means: Crystal Engineering

Crystal Engineering

The study of how molecular structure influences crystal structure and physicochemical properties is called crystal engineering. 25 years ago crystal engineering was generally regarded as an oxymoron. Today it has evolved to an extent that materials chemists can serve as architects for de novo design of novel families of compound or platforms. The key to successful crystal engineering is understanding that arrangements of molecules or ions can be controlled via treating them as molecular building blocks (MBBs) that engage in self-assembly.  In short, one applies the same concepts of molecular recognition that are exploited by biological systems to materials design. Crystal engineering therefore represents a paradigm shift from the more random, high-throughput approach that has traditionally been used in materials discovery and development.

 

The Outcome: New Benchmarks for Properties and New Design Principles

Materials platforms that are custom-designed to suit tasks as diverse as drug delivery, carbon capture, natural gas storage, heterogeneous catalysis and commodity purification are at hand. This is because each of these challenges can be addressed with novel materials that overcome weaknesses or handicaps of current technologies. Crystal engineering has recently afforded breakthroughs in both materials design and properties. For example, functional porous materials called metal-organic materials (MOMs) with unprecedented surface area (i.e. a football field per gram) can reduce energy consumption by catalysis, carbon capture or natural gas storage and multi-component pharmaceutical materials (MPMs) enable the development of new and improved medicines.