‘AI will play an important role in developing next-gen advanced materials’

19 Jul 2022

Dr David Madden, UL. Picture: Alan Place

Dr David Madden discusses the ‘age of digital chemistry’ and how his research could have an impact amid the climate crisis.

Dr David Madden received a PhD in physical chemistry in 2014 at the University of Limerick, where he was researching the utility of porous materials for gas separations. He then took up a postdoctoral position in crystal engineering at the university’s Bernal Institute.

As a research fellow, he worked with Prof Michael Zaworotko and Prof Gavin Walker on the scale-up of metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) for natural gas purification and CO2 direct air capture technologies. MOFs are crystalline compounds that consist of metal ions held together by organic molecules, which have potential uses in areas such as energy storage.

Madden spent a period at the University of Cambridge, focusing on the development of monolithic MOFs for industrial and environmental applications such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning, carbon capture and vehicular fuel gas storage. In 2021, he came back to the University of Limerick on a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship, before subsequently being awarded a Pathway Fellowship in 2022 from Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council.

In this fellowship, he is studying the digital manufacturing of advanced nanoparticle materials for medical therapeutics and energy-related applications.

‘I always try to convey that if there is a cleaner or more energy efficient solution to current technologies, then we should pursue it’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

At present, I am working on the development of automated manufacturing processes for advanced nanoporous materials.

My research combines the use of continuous synthesis techniques such as flow chemistry and mechanochemical twin screw extrusion in conjunction with process analytical technologies (PAT) for the controlled synthesis of MOF nanoparticles.

PAT will be used to assess critical parameters such as material quality and particle size, while the use of machine learning and automated process controls will adjust and optimise the synthesis conditions to achieve the dial in synthesis of MOF nanoparticles with preferential size and shape.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

We are entering an age of digital chemistry including the digital manufacturing of advanced nanoporous materials – whereby artificial intelligence and machine learning will play an important role in the discovery, development and manufacturing of next-generation advanced materials.

The first high-surface area nanoporous MOF materials were published in 1999 and we are now moving to a point where MOFs are beginning to enter pilot and industrial-scale use in areas such as carbon capture, air conditioning, sensor technologies and medical therapeutics.

The progress of next-generation manufacturing technologies for the controlled synthesis of MOF nanoparticles will be a critical step towards MOF product development, including shaping, densification and materials integration.

Automated technologies for the synthesis of MOF materials could pave the way for future materials discovery, high-throughput chemical synthesis of MOFs and also related coordination compounds such as covalent organic frameworks (COFs), coordination cages and perovskites.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I have always had a keen interest in environmental and clean energy technologies. Upon completing my undergraduate degree, I undertook a master’s in environmental engineering with the intention of pursuing research in the area of tidal energy technologies.

Unfortunately, due to illness I was unable to complete the research aspect of my master’s in Belfast and instead completed it at the University of Limerick, developing materials for carbon capture technologies. The materials I subsequently worked with displayed a remarkable ability to selectively capture carbon dioxide, even directly from the atmosphere.

I found the area of research remarkable and, considering the impending climate crisis, set my mind that I would work in this area long term with the hope of participating on the frontlines in the fight against catastrophic climate change.

In the next two decades, humanity will face a critical point where the urgency to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions will require a rapid response in the development of clean energy technologies, which will enable humanity to utilise fossil fuels in a clean manner as the world transitions towards next generation clean energy technologies.

This response will require the mobilisation of materials scientists, chemists and engineers in a manner similar to the Covid-19 response, and I want to play a pivotal role in the solutions developed.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

As a third-generation MOF scientist, I often face a certain stigma towards MOFs from non-academic researchers and industry. The first MOFs were developed in 1999, and while there was a surge in academic research and interest from the global scientific community, much of the early promise of MOFs never materialised.

Industries such as car manufacturers and chemical giants invested large amounts of money and resources in MOF development with limited returns. Unfortunately, many of the materials in the first 10 years of MOF research just were not up to the task in terms of replacing existing technologies. For a long time, MOFs held pariah status for numerous industries.

Thankfully, the memories of these failures are starting to fade, and we are now seeing the first MOFs transition from academic labs into full-scale industrial production and use. Recently Svante, a Canadian company, installed the first MOF-based pilot facility for carbon capture from the cement industry. The success of this has led to a recent upsurge in MOF interest after nearly a decade in the wilderness.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years? How do you encourage engagement with your own work?

As a scientist working in a field related to climate change, I have often faced significant barriers in terms of public engagement as a result of climate sceptics. Thankfully, public opinion on climate change and science in general has begun to change as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic restored significant faith in the scientific community as virus and vaccination research paved the way for the world to return to a normal way of life whilst living with Covid-19 indefinitely. I think in Ireland, champions of science such as Prof Luke O’Neill – with his ability to convey science to the average person and his reassuring voice – have helped restore trust in science.

In terms of my own work, I am happy to discuss my research with the wider public anytime. I always try to convey that if there is a cleaner or more energy efficient solution to current technologies, then we should pursue it. Humanity should forever strive to better itself; if this means we have a cleaner and more sustainable climate and way of life, all the better.

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