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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/K004840/1
Title: Dial-a-Molecule Grand Challenge Network continuation
Principal Investigator: Whitby, Professor RJ
Other Investigators:
Harrowven, Professor DC Marsden, Professor SP
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Department: Sch of Chemistry
Organisation: University of Southampton
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 07 May 2012 Ends: 06 November 2015 Value (£): 450,269
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Catalysis & Applied Catalysis Chemical Synthetic Methodology
Physical Organic Chemistry
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Chemicals Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology
Related Grants:
Panel History:  
Summary on Grant Application Form
Much of modern life (and life itself) is based on molecules with specific structures and properties (e.g. as pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, plastics, liquid crystals, electronic materials etc). The task of making molecules is challenging - an organic molecule containing just a few dozen atoms can easily take many man-years of effort to complete. The result is that many of the molecules we use are compromises - the easiest to make that have acceptable function, rather than being the best for the job. One example is pharmaceuticals when the need to use simple, easy to make compounds leads to cross-activity (interaction with other than the target biological system) as the compromise, and hence undesirable side effects.

The aim of the 'Dial-a-Molecule' Grand Challenge (GC) is to make the synthesis of any desired molecule as easy as dialling a number thus removing a severe constraint to progress in many fields. A linked aim is to make synthesis 100% efficient. Currently in the production of a molecule many times the mass of the desired product (typically 1000's of times) is produced as waste with consequent disposal and cost implications. With 100% efficient synthesis there would be no waste to dispose of and the process would be much cheaper and consume less energy. It is a difficult problem which will require input from many disciplines not currently engaged with synthesis, and we estimate will require 20-40 years to accomplish. We expect that even the initial steps towards the GC will have substantial economic and scientific benefit as so much industry and science relies on access to designed molecules to progress.

2 years ago the EPSRC established the Dial-a-Molecule network to define a roadmap to the GC and to start to build the cross-disciplinary and industry-academia collaborations needed to deliver it. The network ran a launch meeting (200+ attending), 6 two day workshops (30-40 people at each) to identify the key challenges in theme and focus areas, and a variety of 1 day meetings. It has established a network of over 400 people (38% from industry, and of the academic members 58% are from outside the traditional synthesis area), a web site (www.dial-a-molecule.org), and delivered a draft roadmap to the GC to the EPSRC (final version to be published in April 12).

The key challenges were identified as: 'Making synthesis predictable', as currently >90% of time is typically spent on failed or far from optimum reactions; 'Smart synthesis by design', as we need to be able to sequence reactions efficient and find the best route to targets; and 'Sustainable synthesis for a sustainable future' as any solution must be economically and environmentally beneficial. It reinforced that transforming synthesis into a more data driven discipline, and building a multi-disciplinary community to tackle the GC were crucial steps.

The current grant seeks funding to extend the network for a 3 year period, at the end of which it expects to be self-sustaining. Although there is still work to be done extending the range and depth of involvement of a number of disciplines, the emphasis of the second phase is on delivering funded groups and consortia to start to tackle the challenges identified in the roadmap. It will run meetings in targeted areas to establish cross disciplinary groups to apply for funding, it will fund knowledge exchange between disciplines and between industry and academia, and will fund some proof-of-concept work in critical areas. It has an active industrial advisory board to ensure that opportunities for early stage commercial exploitation are not missed. The network will also raise the profile of 'Dial-a-Molecule' on both the national and international stage through open meetings, outreach work, and direct interactions with funders and politicians.

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Organisation Website: http://www.soton.ac.uk