New research grant to combine computational chemistry and robots

A research project led by The University of Southampton that will combine computational chemistry and robots to discover new materials has been awarded a highly coveted grant of ten million euros.

It is the first time the University of Southampton has won a Synergy Grant from the European Research Council. These grants are awarded to research that has “the potential of becoming a benchmark on a global scale”.

Called ADAM (Autonomous Discovery of Advanced Materials), the six-year project will combine computational modelling, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning in a Computational Engine to guide robots working in a materials chemistry lab. The aim is to build an autonomous platform that can discover new materials by efficiently exploring the huge number of possibilities to combine molecules into new materials.

Currently, new materials are often discovered through trial and error, because the empirical rules used to predict how molecules arrange themselves in a solid often fail. The success of this project will reduce that, saving time and money and accelerating the discovery of important materials.

Graeme Day, Professor of Chemical Modelling at the University of Southampton, is leading the project, working alongside Professor Andy Cooper from the University of Liverpool, and Professor Kerstin Thurow from the University of Rostock in Germany.

Professor Day explained: “There is a need for new materials in all aspects of our lives, be it healthcare, or for energy generation and storage, or for data storage, or pollution control. We use materials all over the place, and we often need materials with a specific property or combination of properties – that is the issue we are addressing.”

The computational modelling expertise will come from Southampton, whilst the University of Liverpool has expertise in the discovery and characterisation of new materials and the University of Rostock is highly skilled in robotics and laboratory automation.

Professor Day added: ““We are hoping this will enable us to discover new types of materials that people haven’t thought of looking for. This is a hugely exciting opportunity, it’s very challenging and ambitious, and could make some big breakthroughs.”

Mark Spearing, Vice-President (Research and Enterprise), said: “I am delighted for Professor Day and his colleagues. The Synergy Grants are very prestigious and highly competitive. I am particularly pleased that colleagues are continuing to apply for and winning European funding. The UK Government position is for the UK to remain strongly engaged with European Council research schemes; as it is well understood that this improves the quality and impact of the research. We need to ensure that this position continues to be strongly held, and we can most effectively do this by continuing to apply for, and win, competitive EU funding. Well done again to Graeme and his team.”

The funding is split three ways, with €3.5 million coming to Southampton to fund a project manager, four post-doctoral researchers and three PhD students. The whole ADAM project team will be 26 strong, in addition to the three leading professors.