Despite the progress, combina-torial chemistry still must prove itself in materials research. And while combinatorial methods went from scientific oddity to rising star in the drug business within several years, success in the materials industry could be tougher to achieve.
Fast screening, it turns out, is not the only headache. Researchers must also come up with faster methods for determining the exact molecular structure of each compound. That is particularly difficult for crystalline materials such as high-temperature superconductors, says Xiang. Even if scientists know the exact chemical composition of a square in the array, the material can adopt a variety of structures, in the same way that precipitation can come down as rain, hail, or snow.
And beyond such research hurdles loom even more daunting commercialization challenges. “Finding a good material is not enough,” says Xiang. Researchers must figure out how to scale-up production from nanograms to tons. Even if a substance can be produced in relatively large quantities, bulk materials often behave very differently than do thin films. A compound that acts as a high-temperature superconductor when it is a thin film can behave completely differently as a bulk powder. “There are a lot of just plain doubters who question [whether] all this can be done,” says Bob Ezzell, a chemist at Dow Chemical.
Many don’t want to take the risk. “Most research managers with budget responsibilities don’t want to take a gamble” on an unproved technology, says Gerald Koermer, a chemist at Engelhard. “Their tendency is to hold back.”
But combinatorial proponents are not daunted. The technology, says SRI’s Schneider, escalates the research arms race, allowing its users to come up with new products faster and cheaper than competitors. And in a business where winners and losers are often determined in patent court, combinatorial chemistry could allow companies to sew up rights to new technologies before other companies even get wind of an emerging field, says Schneider. In an initial patent “it’s very difficult to cover everything you would like to cover,” Schneider explains. By speeding up the discovery process, he says, “combinatorial chemistry allows you to cover more of the world.”
The process also works in reverse. “It also makes it easier for your competitor to get around your technology,” by allowing them to quickly explore hundreds or thousands of alternative compounds to one already on the market, says Schneider. As a result, Schneider believes that in the near future, chemicals and materials companies will be more or less forced to use combinatorial efforts to prevent competitors from pirating their core businesses.
Just when that will happen is anybody’s guess. And it will take a radical change in thinking. “Research really hasn’t changed much since Madame Curie,” says Schneider. Combinatorial chemistry, he adds, “represents a major change in the research mindset. Making that change is hard to get people to do.” For researchers to be convinced that combinatorial chemistry is the wave of the future for materials science and not just a passing swell, “it’s really going to take a hit,” says Schneider. But if and when someone gets that first big hit, he says, “everyone will follow and say, God, I can’t believe we haven’t been doing this all along.”’