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Professor Andy Cooper
University of Liverpool
Leverhulme Research Centre

Leverhulme Research Centre for Functional Materials Design

The Leverhulme Research Centre for Functional Materials Design is driving a design revolution for functional materials at the atomic scale by fusing chemical knowledge with state-of-the-art computer science in a world leading interdisciplinary team

medical equipment

A global vision for materials design

At the Leverhulme Research Centre for Functional Materials Design, the global importance of our vision exceeds computer-aided design for large-scale engineering structures, which has already transformed modern society. We are bridging the current design gap by fusing leading-edge synthesis concepts from the physical sciences with ideas from the forefront of computer science, alongside experts in robotics, engineering, management and social science.

This discipline mix is transforming our ability to design and synthesise new materials, which has far reaching implications for society. Instead of targeting specific materials or their applications, our goal is to change the way that we approach functional materials design through the development of new tools, long-term strategic thinking and the creation of the right working environment.

Our research at the Leverhulme Research Centre for Functional Materials Design spans six main themes:

  • Computational Materials Design – the linchpin within the Materials Design Engine where the transformative goal is prediction of experimentally realisable crystal structures and properties. Based only on knowledge of the chemical constituents across multiple materials types we will unlock the dream of truly ‘bottom up’ materials design giving rise to novel, complex systems which mimic biology.
  • Experimental Materials Design – a generic, linear ‘predict-make-measure’ approach is not feasible and it is not our goal. Our experimental programme has interacted dynamically with our computational materials design advances since the very start of the programme and many problems have been initially tackled by experiment before we have leveraged the power of computation.
  • Intelligent Automation – we will overcome current limitations in automated platforms by producing new methods that work more powerfully within our Materials Design Engine. We will use state-of-the-art, novel algorithms created by our computer scientists and robotics control technologies developed by engineers in our team to enable closed-loop automation and the directed, experimental evolution of function.
  • Harnessing Exponential Knowledge Growth – our ten-year disruptive target is for Centre researchers to work with an AI ‘research advisor’ that acts as a semantic reasoning and can answer real language research questions and which can be used by ‘Materials Engineers’ who are not experts in computer science. 
  • Management Research – the very management of the Centre is an object of research, led by team members from the University of Liverpool’s Management School, who build case studies on the development and management of our interdisciplinary centre.
  • Global Context – to become leaders and to deploy the design capability effectively in the future, over 80 researchers trained in the Centre must understand the broader context – that is, what are the socioeconomic drivers for discovering new materials?

Located on campus at the University of Liverpool in the heart of the city’s Knowledge Quarter, and with easy access to the thriving chemical industry of North-West England, the Leverhulme Research Centre for Functional Materials Design is well placed to set the future agenda for functional materials discovery.

Diagram of a mobile robotic chemist

A mobile robotic chemist

In July 2020, we published a paper in Nature (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2442-2) about the development of an intelligent mobile robot chemist capable of carrying out its own experiments and working around the clock with minimal human intervention. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust and EPSRC, our 1.75-metre-tall robot chemist is equipped with a high level of artificial intelligence which allows it to learn as it works and make its own decisions about which chemistry experiments to perform next.

The robot chemist can work with equipment designed for human operation because of its human-like dimensions and physical reach. It uses a combination of laser scanning coupled with touch feedback for positioning, rather than a vision system. The robot independently carries out all tasks in the experiment such as weighing out solids, dispensing liquids, removing air from the vessel, running the catalytic reaction and quantifying the reaction products. Our strategy was to automate the researcher, rather than the instruments in order to create a level of flexibility that will change both the way we work and the problems we can tackle.

The robot’s brain uses a search algorithm to navigate a 10-dimensional space of more than 98 million candidate experiments, deciding on the best experiment to do next based on the outcomes of the previous ones. This is not just another machine in the lab: it’s a new superpowered team member and it frees up time for the human researchers to think creatively. This new technology could tackle problems of a scale and complexity that are currently beyond our grasp – autonomous robots could find materials for clean energy production or new drug formulations by searching vast, unexplored chemical spaces.

To learn more about the Leverhulme Research Centre for Functional Materials Design, please visit: www.liverpool.ac.uk/leverhulme-research-centre

Autonomous Kuka mobile robot

Autonomous Kuka mobile robot used within Professor Andrew Cooper’s research group to accelerate materials discovery as highlighted in the 2020 Nature publication.

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