January 22, 2016, by Michael Jennings
Transformative Technologies – changing people’s lives for the better
Q&A with Professor Neil Champness, Global Research Theme Lead for Transformative Technologies.
This is the second of our monthly academic profiles of our five Global Research Theme (GRT) leads, for you to find out who they are, their research and what it means to lead one of the University’s five Global Research Themes. Read our first profile of Professor Georgina Endfield, GRT Lead for Sustainable Societies.
You can also find more information on our new Research Strategy 2015-2020, Global Research Themes and Research Priority Areas on Campus News and in our inaugural blog post from Professor Dame Jessica Corner DBE, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange.
1. If you had to explain your research to someone who knew nothing about the field, what would you say to them?
Our research is based upon trying to make new functional materials from molecules by making the molecules do all the work. We use an approach called self-assembly which basically means that we design molecules that will specifically interact with one another to give products that combine the various building-blocks in a well-defined arrangement. Another way of looking at self-assembly is to say that we take a pile of bricks, throw them up in the air and when they land we have made a house! It is not as simple as that but the basic premise is correct. Using this approach we can make materials that combine the properties of the different components or potentially make materials whose properties are greater than the sum of its parts. This allows us to target materials with new optical, electronic or magnetic properties.
2. What inspired you to pursue this area of research?
I have always been inspired by taking a new approach to scientific problems and the idea of self-assembly. Achieving highly complex systems from simple components is an idea that has always attracted me. I suspect it is partly that the structures that we produce can be extremely beautiful both aesthetically but also from a scientific standpoint. I enjoy the challenge of both designing and understanding such complex processes. Typically self-assembly is controlled by the balance between very subtle factors so understanding this is highly demanding. It also means that we have to work with a range of other scientists across other disciplines, and this can be very rewarding.
3. How will your research impact the average person?
In the shorter term a lot of what we do is fairly fundamental; however, we do work on new materials which are of direct relevance to industry. For example we research dye molecules which have application in photovoltaic devices but also in organic electronics. Our understanding of how to control the arrangement of molecules can lead to improved performance in real-world devices.
4. What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?
The greatest moment is always difficult to put your finger on but seeing research results for the first time, before they are released to the wider scientific community, is always an exciting moment. As a chemist there are always exciting times when your research team is the first to make a particular molecule. There is something intrinsically exciting about seeing something for the first time which nobody has ever seen before. A specific case was the time that I first saw images of a self-assembled system of molecules that had been designed and made in my research group, in collaboration with Professor Peter Beton from the School of Physics. It was exciting that we had successfully hit on a system that would make a real mark on the scientific community – that study was publicised in the press around the world, and is now included in undergraduate text books – but we saw it before anyone else knew.
5. What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your field?
The advice always has to be to aim for what you really want to do not what someone else tells you to do. I have been told numerous times that I should focus on something relatively straightforward rather than going for the big idea. That may be the prudent approach but you will never do anything that will make people sit up and take notice.
6. What’s the biggest challenge for researchers in your field to overcome?
A very exciting problem in the area of self-assembly is the current limitation on the number of different components that can be assembled at the same time. This sounds like a completely academic exercise and to some extent it is, however if you consider that nature uses self-assembly to create complex structures then you get some idea of the challenge. DNA is a self-assembled material and is based on four building-blocks, although DNA is amazing its function is to carry information. In contrast peptides, which are the things which perform function in nature, are comprised of 20 different components. If I say that the number of synthetic components that can currently be combined in a well-defined manner by chemists is just five it is gives some idea of the scale of the challenge.
7. You lead the Transformative Technologies Global Research Theme (GRT) at The University of Nottingham. What does this entail?
The Transformative Technologies GRT encompasses many of the great research challenges that face the world today, ranging from energy, transport and manufacturing through to advanced materials and quantum technologies. My role is to oversee and coordinate the University’s research efforts in these priority areas, encouraging and enabling efforts to make step-changes in the research delivered here at Nottingham.
8. How does your work fit within the Transformative Technologies GRT?
My own research fits nicely in the theme of Advanced Molecular Materials but also has relevance to some of the other research areas, notably Energy. However, I also have an interest in quantum technologies and this enables me to have insight into the wider themes across the GRT.
9. How does being based at The University of Nottingham allow you to fulfil your research aspirations?
One of the best features of Nottingham, alongside its excellent research facilities, is the great strength and breadth of research interests. If I need to find an expert in an area of science or engineering which is unfamiliar to me it is not hard to find someone in a nearby building. This simple fact makes it possible for me to pursue whatever research direction fascinates me.
10. What does Transformative Technologies mean to you?
To put it simply Transformative Technologies means technologies that change people’s lives for the better. Researchers can be driven by many different factors but I am yet to meet a researcher who didn’t want to make a significant improvement to understanding and to apply this to improve the world we live in.
Professor Neil Champness began his academic career at the University of Southampton, completing both his degree and PhD. Following postdoctoral studies also at Southampton he moved to The University of Nottingham in 1995 as a Teaching Fellow in Inorganic Chemistry. He took up an appointment as a Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry (1998), was promoted to Reader in Chemistry (2003) and to the Chair of Chemical Nanoscience (2004). He is currently the Head of Inorganic and Materials Chemistry (2013) and Global Theme Leader of Transformative Technologies. In recognition of his research he was awarded the Bob Hay lectureship of the RSC Supramolecular Chemistry Group (2005); the RSC Corday Morgan Medal (2006) and RSC Supramolecular Chemistry Award (2010). He is a Royal Society Wolfson Merit Awardee (2011-2016) and a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales, IUPAC and the Royal Society of Chemistry. In 2011 he was named as one of the top 100 most cited chemists of the previous decade and in 2014 and 2015 he was recognized as a Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researcher.