Design & Simulation

Chemical research gets a new look

Editor at large Nick Basta looks at what the chemical industry can do to re-invigorate its technological research. He says technology pioneered in the pharmaceutical industry promises broad benefits.

By Nick Basta, editor at large

Serendipity historically has played a major role in chemical research. We’ve all grown up on the legendary stories of Harvey Firestone accidentally discovering how to vulcanize rubber and Wallace Carothers unexpectedly stumbling onto nylon. However, we all know that even fortuitous discoveries only happen when a very smart, focused researcher is looking at a specific problem. The question is: Are enough new discoveries —from well-planned programs, serendipity or otherwise -- occurring to sustain the health of the chemical industry?

Meanwhile, whole forests of trees have been consumed in publishing reports about the health of chemical research. A generalized feeling — malaise, if you will — has set in that most of the important polymers, inorganics and other products, as well as synthesis routes, have already been discovered. This downbeat outlook points to research’s role as one of gradually winnowing chemical manufacturing to the simplest, most efficient production methods to make materials that are already commercially available today.

That feeling is wrong on a number of counts, most notably that the chemical industry is the exclusive commercial outlet of chemical research. Energy, consumer goods and environmental remediation are just some of the other businesses that deploy chemical technology. As the cover story on p. 20 indicates, the “intellectual capital” of the chemical industry is pretty healthy these days, as is funding for chemical research.

What about the “how” of chemical research? Most involves a painstaking effort centered on a long, time-consuming series of experimental runs. While beakers or test tubes frequently can handle work on new chemicals, process research requires reactors and instrumentation that is scaled down in size, but not necessarily in complexity, compared to a commercial unit. A well-engineered pilot plant is a wonder to behold. So, it is not surprising that product and process research is often measured in years.

Now, however, recently developed technology promises to change this dynamic. You’ve probably heard of it already: combinatorial chemistry, which usually is associated with “high-throughput experimentation” (HTE). “Combi” involves computer-based modeling of molecular interactions; when teamed with HTE, it creates the possibility of running hundreds of micro-scale experiments simultaneously. The machines that do the screening require specialized software to manage the torrents of data that are produced by each run.

Combi/HTE came out of pharmaceutical research a decade ago, but the results have been surprisingly scant. Some observers even blame the current dearth of new pharmaceutical discoveries on it because the biochemists and molecular biologists using the approach have had to structure their research in a different way and might, in fact, have been seriously detoured by its appeal.

But — surprise, surprise — the technology already has had some significant successes in the chemical industry. Dow Chemical Co., working with a combi/HTE vendor called Symyx, developed the Versify line of polymers, which has now entered into commercial production in Tarragona, Spain. UOP, working with the same vendor, has identified a new paraffin isomerization catalyst, tagged PI-242, and is in the process of commercializing it.

ExxonMobil, meanwhile, launched a $200-million, five-year project in 2003 with Symyx to pursue a variety of applications in fuels, chemicals and lubricants.

Symyx is by no means the only player in this field: Avantium, Accelrys, CombiMatrix, Solvias and Argonaut Technologies are among the names that show up in the literature. Year by year, the number of chemical companies relying on combi/HTE is growing. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has a unit devoted to materials research using the technology (, and university-based programs are popping up around the world.

The initial buzz about combi/HTE mostly focused on pharmaceuticals <em dash>– and surely valuable work continues as does the potential for pay out <em dash>– but the substantial developments in chemicals and catalysis have brought the biggest success so far. Even more to the point, technology vendors already are branching out from processes for screening catalysts, and into reactor or process technologies <em dash>— true chemical engineering research.

Serendipity will always occur, in research as elsewhere. However, it’s starting to look as if the chemical industry, instead of wishing for new discoveries, will soon be cranking them out on demand.

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