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Molecular engineering is an emerging field of study concerned with the design and testing of molecular properties, behavior and interactions in order to assemble better materials, systems, and processes for specific functions. This approach, in which observable properties of a macroscopic system are influenced by direct alteration of a molecular structure, falls into the broader category of "bottom-up" design.
Molecular engineering deals with material development efforts in emerging technologies that require rigorous rational molecular design approaches towards systems of high complexity.
Molecular engineering is a dynamic and evolving field with complex target problems; breakthroughs require sophisticated and creative engineers who are conversant across disciplines. A rational engineering methodology that is based on molecular principles is in contrast to the widespread trial-and-error approaches common throughout engineering disciplines. Rather than relying on well-described but poorly-understood empirical correlations between the makeup of a system and its properties, a molecular design approach seeks to manipulate system properties directly using an understanding of their chemical and physical origins. This often gives rise to fundamentally new materials and systems, which are required to address outstanding needs in numerous fields, from energy to healthcare to electronics. Additionally, with the increased sophistication of technology, trial-and-error approaches are often costly and difficult, as it may be difficult to account for all relevant dependencies among variables in a complex system. Molecular engineering efforts may include computational tools, experimental methods, or a combination of both.
Molecular engineering was first mentioned in the research literature in 1956 by Arthur R. von Hippel, who defined it as "... a new mode of thinking about engineering problems. Instead of taking prefabricated materials and trying to devise engineering applications consistent with their macroscopic properties, one builds materials from their atoms and molecules for the purpose at hand." This concept was echoed in Richard Feynman's seminal 1959 lecture There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom, which is widely regarded as giving birth to some of the fundamental ideas of the field of nanotechnology. In spite of the early introduction of these concepts, it was not until the mid-1980s with the publication of Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology by Drexler that the modern concepts of nano and molecular-scale science began to grow in the public consciousness.
Molecular design has been an important element of many disciplines in academia, including bioengineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, materials science, mechanical engineering and chemistry. However, one of the ongoing challenges is in bringing together the critical mass of manpower amongst disciplines to span the realm from design theory to materials production, and from device design to product development. Thus, while the concept of rational engineering of technology from the bottom-up is not new, it is still far from being widely translated into R&D efforts.
Molecular engineering is used in many industries. Some applications of technologies where molecular engineering plays a critical role:
Antibiotic surfaces (e.g. incorporation of silver nanoparticles or antibacterial peptides into coatings to prevent microbial infection)
Cosmetics (e.g. rheological modification with small molecules and surfactants in shampoo)
Cleaning products (e.g. nanosilver in laundry detergent)
Protein engineering - Altering structure of existing proteins to enable specific new functions, or the creation of fully artificial proteins
DNA-functionalized materials - 3D assemblies of DNA-conjugated nanoparticle lattices
Techniques and instruments used
Molecular engineers utilize sophisticated tools and instruments to make and analyze the interactions of molecules and the surfaces of materials at the molecular and nano-scale. The complexity of molecules being introduced at the surface is increasing, and the techniques used to analyze surface characteristics at the molecular level are ever-changing and improving. Meantime, advancements in high performance computing have greatly expanded the use of computer simulation in the study of molecular scale systems.
An EMSL scientist using the environmental transmission electron microscope at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The ETEM provides in situ capabilities that enable atomic-resolution imaging and spectroscopic studies of materials under dynamic operating conditions. In contrast to traditional operation of TEM under high vacuum, EMSL's ETEM uniquely allows imaging within high-temperature and gas environments.
The academic journal Molecular Systems Design & Engineering publishes research from a wide variety of subject areas that demonstrates "a molecular design or optimisation strategy targeting specific systems functionality and performance."
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