Science Foundation Ireland: Plenty of room at the bottom

SFI award has brought iconic research leader to Ireland to push scientific boundaries


When a man tells you that the way to get more fuel in your tank is to fill it with crystals you could be forgiven for reacting with at least mild scepticism. But when that man is Prof Michael Zaworotko one of the world’s top 20 research chemists you might want to think again.

Prof Zaworotko has just secured the first award under the re-launched Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Research Professor programme and is the newly appointed Bernal chair of crystal engineering at the University of Limerick. The SFI award is aimed at attracting iconic research leaders to Ireland and Zaworotko is numbered among those targets.

The €5 million in funding from SFI will support research relevant to the pharmaceutical and clean technology sectors, both of which are seen as critical to the Irish economy. “There are five million and one very good reasons for me to go to work in Ireland,” says Zaworotko.

“The generous Research Professor Award from SFI will enable my team and four collaborators to further push scientific boundaries and immediately address translational research opportunities. And the other is that I am getting the opportunity to return to my Celtic roots.”

His research is focussed on the very small. “The big picture is about being able to design a material from the ground up,” he explains.

“We are becoming architects not chemists. We are now able to design materials with the functions we want. The chemical composition of a substance is important but it is the arrangement of the ions and molecules to give the material the precise properties we are looking for.”

He believes 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.”

He speaks fondly of Richard Feynman, the scientist generally regarded as the father of nanotechnology. “More than 50 years ago he gave a lecture called ‘There’s plenty of room at the bottom’ when he spoke about the amount of things we can do at the molecular level.”

New materials
His work at the molecular level is leading to the design of new materials which have huge potential in areas such as new and better variants of existing pharmaceuticals, natural gas storage, and carbon capture. “I am looking at what I call the low lying fruit at the moment and one of these is a way to put methane in a car that will make it as usable as petrol as well as allowing us to drive twice as far for half the price.”

He explains that natural gas is the most abundant of the fossil fuels and will probably be a significant energy source for the next 200 years. But it does have drawbacks such as the cost of liquefying it to make it useful as a transport fuel.

“There are two ways to make it useful at present; one is to bring it down to a temperature which is below the boiling point of methane – about minus 164 degrees Celsius – or to compress it and hold it in a very thick steel cylinder. Both of these are quite expensive.”

Zaworotko has come up with a third solution which offers considerable cost advantages. This is to use a porous material to adsorb the gas and release it when required. And this is where the almost weird science of the very small comes in.

“The solution is adsorbed natural gas. If you fill a normal fuel tank with porous material it will give it a much larger surface area than when empty and give it a much higher capacity for condensed gas.”

This material is a new, laboratory designed and created version of naturally occurring zeolites. These are microporous materials which are widely used in industry for water purification and detergent manufacture.

One of their properties is their enormous internal surface area in relation to their size and weight.

This surface area can be as much as 400 square meters per gram – a little bigger than the goal area on a football pitch.

Prof Zaworotko’s new material has increased this by a factor of more than 10. “We have achieved a surface area of about the size of a rugby pitch in one gram of material,” he says. “It might sound counterintuitive but something you can hold in your hand is full of empty space and that is what we are exploiting.”

Cling tech
In very simple terms what would happen with a fuel tank filled with this new material is that the natural gas would “cling” to the vastly increased surface area of the tank meaning that you can fit an awful lot more in without the need to cool it or compress it.

“If you think of the fuel tank as a rugby ball the surface area inside it is a certain size. But if you take 10 tennis balls which have the same volume as the rugby ball their combined internal surface area is much greater.” In the pharmaceutical arena he will be working with the SFI funded Synthesis & Solid State Pharmaceutical Centre at UL on the critical pre-formulation stage of pharmaceutical manufacture when the medicine is made into a material.

“If you don’t have the right properties in the material the medicine is not going to work. There is a lot of intellectual property involved in this area and a lot of the patent disputes between generic drug companies and the innovative companies are around materials. This is going to be a growth area and if we can obtain patents around materials there will be a lot of value there for Ireland. After all, there are not many places where there is billion dollar annual income at stake from a single product – even lesser drugs have annual sales of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The adsorbent properties of the new materials he is working on have applications in terms of capturing carbon, the removal of radioactive gases from the atmosphere. “We have set a new benchmark for carbon capture and have the number one material in the world for that at present. But there is no obvious market for that at the moment. But when people are willing to pay for that we will be there.”