Paul Bohn, Three Persistent Challenges

Third DOE/Basic Energy Sciences Separations
Research Workshop

Savannah DeSoto Hilton, Savannah, Georgia
May 12-14, 1999

Three Persistent Challenges 

Paul Bohn
University of Illinois


The fundamental problem in separation sciences research in the current environment is money.  All other problems for the researcher pale by comparison. 

In some cases we are working on problems where mankind is far out on the learning curve, so the interest of the people who are funding the research is waning.  In these programs we will need to work very hard to make small improvements.  To be successful in turning the funding trend we will need a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach, and new, innovative ideas, especially those where we are early on the learning curve and which promise to have large impact. 

Some examples of ideas, which would fit those criteria:

  1. Chiral separations represent a whole field of very challenging separations.  At the moment there is a great deal of effort in developing synthetic routes to high value-added chiral products.  If a concerted effort were made to develop more effective chiral separations relatively cheap and easy non-enantioselective syntheses could be substituted for inherently difficult and expensive asymmetric syntheses.  Sheng Dai’s work on imprinted nanoscale sorbents could be a good new approach in this area. The work in several of the analytical separations techniques (Capillary Electrophoresis, Capillary Electrochromatography etc.) needs consideration for scaling.
  2. The biological cell represents a “grand challenge” for separation science, since the functional part of cell molecular biology must start with a knowledge of the molecules present.  Although tremendous inroads have been made through genomics (and now proteomics), this still leaves a vast territory (small signaling molecules, carbohydrates, lipids) where advances in separations could yield a gold mine of understanding.
  3. Combinatorial Chemistry has already shown that new materials can be synthesized by directed random walk. Although already highly successful in the drug industry, applications of combinatorial chemistry to other areas has been slower.  Applying combinatorial chemistry to problems like new phosphor materials will require completely new ways to think about separations to get at problems in the manner in which small changes in defect, grain, and surface structure affect properties.  In the end this approach may provide solutions to building materials that have the most effective nanostructure.  These are cross-discipline problems, requiring skills that include many of those represented at the workshop as well as some well outside this domain.

Returning to the funding problem, science is driven by a burning curiosity, while

Industrial needs are driven by an economic goal.  Somewhere in the mix of motivations, the supporters of government research must have a clear picture of what the fundamental research is about and what the very real benefits of the work is to the public.   To improve the situation, we need to convey to the public the importance and excitement of our work.  One way is to show how new products are actively improving the environment (an example - using carbon dioxide for dry cleaning).

There is some receptiveness in industry if you show that you are addressing issues of economic importance to them.  It is imperative that trust be built.  You won’t hear about industry’s problems until that trust is individually developed over a period of time, often several years.  The government must also be concerned about trust.  Rapid changes in funding behavior and changes in policy that wipe out years of work with industry harm budding relationships.  All of this must be taken into consideration when setting funding and other support policy.

There is a gold mine of chemicals being discarded from refineries, paper plants, and other processing industries that could be recovered and used with improved separations.  Generally, industry is too conservative to pursue this.  It might be a good new opportunity area.  While BES program are (properly) focused on front end problems, we should seek opportunities to bring new understanding to bear on relevant industrial separation problems.

Collaboration: Nobody has all the resources needed.  DOE should help make it convenient for collaborators to share capabilities, facilitating real, meaningful collaboration, and overcoming barriers.  Robert Botto disclosed that he is preparing a pilot program for short proposals for small grants to facilitate such collaborations.  The idea would to fund travel, joint postdoctoral appointments, shared students for the cementing of collaborative work.  This program would inject funding to continuation support at strategic point and not require delay until the next funding cycle.  Generally the support would not be peer-reviewed.  The concept is to use some small amounts of discretionary funds that are available in each budget to fund the work and not reallocate funding.  The latter would spark some unhealthy intramural competition.

The suggestion was made to begin a BES web site of capabilities and problems within the BES separations community.