The grand challenge
In the modern world the design, development and use of new materials is having a major economic and societal impact in areas as diverse as: healthcare, energy, food production, transport, construction and electronics. The grand challenge for the coming decades is to be able to control the properties and functions of these new materials through intelligent design in environmentally friendly, energy efficient ways that are not possible presently. The ultimate goal is to be able to design and fabricate a material with a targeted range of properties with 100% success.
All the current and future materials, with dimensions from the nanoscale to the macroscopic scale, are and will be, built through the assembly of individual atoms or small molecular building blocks. Through our determination to meet the grand challenge by controlling the assembly of these building blocks and developing the understanding of the science as we move up though the length scales, we will continue to make major breakthroughs in both science and engineering along the way that will transform the world as we know it.
The directed assembly network (DAN) was one of three grand challenge networks originally funded by the EPSRC Chemistry Programme back in in 2010, and has been going from strength to strength since that time. The original vision of the DAN was to develop methodologies that will afford exquisite control over the preparation, properties and function of materials that can be assembled into complex pre-designed structures. Since then, without losing the original vision, it has expanded to include understanding how materials may be disassembled as well as assembled, and the ideas are not restricted to the solid state but solution and gas phase processes are also being included. There is also more focus on the scale-up of the new materials so that they are available in industrially useful quantities.
Under the umbrella of this grand challenge, chemists, physicists, biologists, mathematicians, and chemical, mechanical and electronic engineers are combining in wide ranging collaborative projects to develop new materials, with targeted properties and functions that will ultimately meet some of the following current world challenges:
The development of new medicines and therapies that can cure currently unbeatable diseases .
The development of unlimited and inexpensive fuel sources through new ways of transporting, storing and generating energy.
The development of new materials and measurement devices will enable the rapid and reliable detection of concealed explosives, weapons and chemicals for example, and can help to protect against crime and terrorism.
The development of efficient methods for the purification and reclamation of water.
The development of new agrochemicals and agricultural processes that will safely enhance food production and provide world food security.
It should be emphasised that these are 50 year goals that require the fundamental science and engineering to be understood and developed in ways that are not currently possible . Essential to this vision is a multidisciplinary approach involving the collaboration of the full range of physical and life scientists together with engineers, mathematicians, and economists. Buy in from industry, end users, policy makers and the general public is also essential if these goals are to be met and the new methodologies and processes adopted.
Within DAN a multifaceted approach (Fig. 1) has been developed and employed towards both setting and meeting the many targets, in addition to overcoming the many challenges on the way to the absolute goal of being able to prepare and fabricate any material with predesigned properties or functions, whether they are physical, chemical or biological.