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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/G007489/2
Title: Ex nihilo crystal structure discovery
Principal Investigator: Pickard, Professor CJ
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Dassault Systemes Normal Superior School (ENS) of Lyon UCL
University of Edinburgh
Department: Physics and Astronomy
Organisation: UCL
Scheme: Leadership Fellowships
Starts: 01 January 2009 Ends: 30 September 2014 Value (£): 1,590,546
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Condensed Matter Physics
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
No relevance to Underpinning Sectors
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Panel History:  
Summary on Grant Application Form
The discovery that matter is made up of atoms ranks as one ofmankind's greatest achievements. Twenty first century science isdominated by a quest for the mastery (both in terms of control andunderstanding) of our environment at the atomic level.In biology, understanding life (preserving it, or even attempting tocreate it) revolves around large, complex, molecules -- RNA, DNA, andproteins.Global warming is dictated by the particular way atoms are arrangedto make small greenhouse gas molecules, carbon dioxide and so on.The drive for faster, more efficient, cheaper computer chips forcesnanotechnology upon us. As the transistors that make up themicroscopic circuits are packed ever closer together, electronicengineers must understand where the atoms are placed, or misplaced, inthe semiconducting and insulating materials.Astronomers are currently, daily, discovering new planets outside oursolar system, orbiting alien stars. The largest are the easiest tospot, and many are far larger than Jupiter. The more massive theplanet the higher pressures endured by the matter that makes up itsbulk. How can we hope to determine the structure of matter at theseconditions?The atomic theory of matter leads to quantum mechanics -- a mechanicsof the every small. In principle, to understand and predict thebehaviour of matter at the atomic scale simply requires the solutionof the quantum mechanical Schroedinger equations. This is a challengein itself, but in an approximate way it is now possible to quicklycompute the energies and properties of fairly large collections ofatoms. But is it possible to predict how those atoms will be arrangedin Nature - ex nihilo, from nothing but our understanding ofphysics?Some have referred to it as a scandal that the physical sciencescannot routinely predict the structure of even simple crystals -- butmost have assumed it to be a very difficult problem. A minimum energymust be found in a many dimensional space of all the possiblestructures. Those researchers brave enough to tackle this challengehave done so by reaching for complex algorithms -- such as geneticalgorithms, which appeal to evolution to breed ever betterstructures (with better taken to mean more stable). However, Ihave discovered to my surprise, and to others', that the very simplestalgorithm -- throw the collection of atoms into a box, and move theatoms downhill on the energy landscape -- is remarkably effectiveif it is repeated many times.This approach needs no prior knowledge of chemistry. Indeed thescientist is taught chemistry by its results -- this is critical ifthe method is to be used to predict the behaviour of matter underextreme conditions, where learned intuition will typically fail.I have used this approach, which I call random structure searching to predict the structure of crystals ex nihilo. My firstapplication of it has been to silane at very high pressures, and thestructure I predicted has recently been seen in experiments. Butprobably the most impressive application so far has been to predictingthe structure of hydrogen at the huge pressures found in the gas giantplanets, where it may be a room temperature superconductor.In the course of my fellowship I will extend this work to try toanticipate the structure of matter in the newly discovered exoplanets,to try to discover and design materials with extreme (and hopefully,extremely useful) properties, and to help pharmaceutical researchersunderstand the many forms that their drug molecules adopt when theycrystallise.
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