Limerick researcher reviving crystallography from the ‘chemical cemetery’

5 Aug 2021

Dr Matteo Lusi. Image: University of Limerick

In studying crystals at a molecular level, University of Limerick’s Dr Matteo Lusi has discovered that this solid state can be just as lively and exciting as others.

Noted chemist and Nobel Prize-winner Prof Leopold Ružička reportedly said that a crystal is a “chemical cemetery”, a mark of derision that has dogged crystallography since.

Ružička was remarking on the unreactive nature of the solid state, in contrast to the lively activity a chemist can find in liquids and gases. But his comments have not stopped curious scientists such as Dr Matteo Lusi in taking up the mantle of crystallographer and finding fascination in the study of crystals.

Lusi is a lecturer in University of Limerick’s Department of Chemical Sciences and a postdoctoral research fellow supported by a Starting Investigator Research Grant from Science Foundation Ireland.

He has been at UL for almost eight years following studies in Italy, the UK, South Africa and the UAE. His research in Ireland began in the Crystal Engineering Group at the Bernal Institute. Here, he worked and published with celebrated chemist Prof Michael Zaworotko, chair of crystal engineering at the research institute.

Today, Lusi has authored more than 70 publications on topics such as molecular crystallography and solid-state reactions.

‘My research will only realise its potential if it is received by the rest of the scientific community’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

At the end of high school, I wanted to play rugby. The host city had a course of chemistry that was not available in my home town so I used it as an excuse with my parents. I decided to became a researcher only at the end of my studies when I realised that as a scientist I would have been able to work anywhere in the world.

What research are you currently working on?

The goal of my research is to understand how molecules and ions interact in the solid state (crystals) and how molecular and ionic interactions translate into tangible chemical and physical properties. Ideally, such knowledge can help create new crystalline materials with predetermined properties and functions.

In particular, my research investigated a little-known ability of molecules, which behave in a crystal as they do in a liquid form: they move, react together and mix freely to create solutions.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

What is fascinating about science – but difficult to communicate – is that a single line of research is hardly ever important. Science is a social process at its highest expression. It is the exchange of knowledge that generates new ideas and, eventually, technological and economic revolutions. Unfortunately, such outcome is not programmable nor predictable.

My research is no exception and will only realise its potential if it is received by the rest of the scientific community. So far, the only recognisable importance of my research is that it creates new knowledge and sheds new light on crystalline states. Hopefully, someone will use my discoveries in some amazing way.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Crystalline materials are present in most drugs and agrichemicals. In this sense, there is already a considerable interest from pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and agrichemical companies to produce better products that are more stable, bio-available, and easier to produce and administer. Such products will also have lower side effects and environmental footprint.

Other applications are being explored by high-tech companies to produce new photonic and electronic components for energy harvesting and data storage and communication.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a crystallographer?

Given the many potential applications, the main challenge is the lack of time and financial resources to follow up on all the ideas that come to my mind.

Are there any common misconceptions about crystallography?

There are many misconceptions around crystals. For instance, the general public do not realise how common and important crystalline materials are in everyday life.

The idea of crystals is associated to purity, eternity, rigidity – which are all synonyms of ‘boring’. In fact, a famous scientist defined them as a “chemical cemetery”.

The reality is completely different, and there is plenty of diversity and life in the solid state.

To give an idea, in the past 15 years, 10 Nobel Prizes were awarded to crystallographers. Crystals are our only eye on molecules and proteins. At the same time, they are beautiful to look at and such beauty can serve to inspire the wider public.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

As a crystallographer, we often describe crystal structures through the position of the atomic nuclei and overlook the behaviour of electrons. I hope technology will soon enable greater resolution to see how electrons move around the nuclei. That possibility will revolutionise our view of molecules and the crystalline state.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.