Scientist working in Materials Innovation Factory

Going with the materials chemistry flow

Materials science is a hotbed of exploration and discovery, synthesising new compounds for tomorrow’s batteries, computer components, and industrial ingredients.

But although novel and useful materials are discovered every day, making enough to test in new applications is a big challenge – so researchers at the University of Liverpool are utilising new platforms to manufacture materials in commercially relevant quantities.

Optimising the chemical production process

Dr Anna Slater is interested in changing the way we discover functional materials, by combining high-throughput and continuous flow approaches – the latter uses a continuously flowing pipeline for chemical reactions instead of discrete batches. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry named flow chemistry one of the top 10 emerging technologies in 2019.

 “The ultimate vision is to have a platform to discover new materials, optimise them and scale them up without wasting time, energy, solvents and plastic,” Anna says. “We’re hoping these tools can make a big difference in materials science.”

Making materials for specific tasks

One of the advantages of continuous flow chemistry is its flexible, plug-and-play nature, and the opportunities it gives to control chemical reactions. Slater and colleagues are very interested in using it to make specialised porous materials for specific tasks, like separating useful molecules from waste. By using flow chemistry and molecular design, the team are investigating how to ensure the pores in these materials are the correct size and shape to trap the right molecule.

Breeding ground for innovation

This current work in continuous flow chemistry is preceded by a range of related projects. For example, Anna has shown that flow chemistry can be automated to test different combinations of starting materials to make porous organic cages.

While working as part of the University’s Cooper Group, Slater and colleagues designed new porous materials, such as one-dimensional porous nanotubes in a paper published in Nature Chemistry, using computer-aided screening to evaluate candidate molecular building blocks.

“We have developed a range of tools to control the structures we make; now we’re using flow chemistry to find new materials faster,” she says.

Collaborating to advance new techniques

Slater is interested in gearing up collaborations to push flow chemistry further, and says the University’s Materials Innovation Factory (MIF), where she is based, is the perfect place to generate and start working on such ideas with industrial partners.

“You can co-create programmes easily,” says Slater. “The MIF houses a lot of very advanced equipment I would struggle to access in other places. It’s a fantastic shared resource that will allow some great science to happen.”

 “Liverpool is a great place to work, people are up for suggestions and you can see that the University considers its civic duty seriously,” says Slater. “There’s lots of positive initiatives, such as a chapter of The Girls’ Network to connect young women with mentors in professional roles, and a real sense of an entrepreneurial spirit.”

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