A Chat with Frontiers Speaker, Adam Braunschweig
April 25, 2023
Frontiers in Nanotechnology speaker Adam Braunschweig gave us a preview of his upcoming seminar on using mechanochemistry to transform how chemicals are produced
Q) Can you tell me about your Northwestern journey?
I earned my PhD while studying under Fraser Stoddart, although, at the time, he was still at UCLA. Fraser and I arrived at Northwestern around the same time, I continued my academic journey as a postdoctoral researcher with Chad Mirkin. During this time, we developed several tools I still use today, and I will discuss them in my upcoming seminar. In 2010, I began my independent career as a professor, initially at NYU, then the University of Miami, before returning to New York to work at the Advanced Science Research Center of the City University of New York.
Q) Where did you prefer living, Chicago, Miami, or New York?
New York. I enjoyed Chicago. I’m a native of Miami, so I’ve been there twice, growing up there and then working there.
Q) What is it like running your own group?
The key is understanding that they don’t work for me; I work for them. I love everyone in my group, and I work hard for them, and my job is to further their careers the way Chad and Fraser did for me. One thing that’s taken me a decade to learn is that you must put things down, relax, and spend time with your family at the end of the day; that’s the only way to stay sane.
Q) How do you relax at the end of the day?
I spend as much time outdoors as possible. And cooking. I’m not allowed near the lab anymore. If I look in the lab, things start breaking. So now my release is cooking because you can never trust a chemist who can’t cook.
Q) Your Frontiers lecture is in a few days. What can we anticipate?
I will discuss something new, something I’ve never discussed before. It’s not an area of science that is well-developed, so I hope the audience finds it interesting.
Q) In your opinion, what is the most significant challenge facing chemical manufacturing?
We have a big problem with sustainability. The way we make chemicals is we heat them in solvents. The heating takes a lot of energy, and the solvents are toxic. So, manufacturing chemicals generate a tremendous amount of waste and use something like 40% of all manufacturing energy. Obviously, this needs to change.
Q) Why choose mechanochemistry as the focus of your seminar, and what is it?
Mechanochemistry is a new method of manufacturing molecules that involves placing molecules in a small ball mill and shaking them vigorously with ball bearings, effectively smashing them together. This process doesn’t require any solvents and uses minimal energy, making it an eco-friendly alternative for chemical production. The problem, and what has hindered the wider adoption of mechanochemistry, is that no one really understood how it worked. We’ve developed a new theory to explain how chemistry works in mechanochemical reactors. It’s a genuinely transformative theory and addresses a problem that nobody had previously solved, as it wasn’t widely recognized as an issue.
Q) Why is mechanochemistry less widely used?
One of the problems with this method is that people need to learn how this stuff works. What’s going on when you smash molecules together? If you don’t understand things like how much energy is involved, the energetics of the process, or what the end products will be, then nobody will explore this idea seriously.
Q) You have a paper being published soon in Science that took a hard look at mechanochemistry as a possible solution to the sustainability problem.
We set out to figure out what happens when you smash molecules together. And we did so by repurposing some tools developed in nanotechnology. And in doing so, we have come up with a new theory that explains very well what happens and now allows you to predict products. And that is the key to broader adoption. So, we hope that this new model will lead to the wider adoption of mechanochemical methods and, in turn, more sustainable synthesis.
Q) What’s some other exciting research coming out of your lab?
We do a lot more than mechanochemistry. For example, we develop antivirals and work on some new printing technologies, which builds off what I did at Northwestern in the Mirkin group. We collaborate with Nathan’s group on what we call 6D printing, and we recently published a paper with Nate Gianneschi’s group called sixth-dimensional photolithography. The one project that gets people really excited, that Chad explicitly said, “Don’t talk about this,” is that we work on mucus. I have the world’s largest collection of secreted animal mucus in a freezer in the hallway behind us, but that will be for another seminar in the future.
Q) I have no choice; what are you doing with that much mucus?
The mucus stuff is exciting, and I’ll note that we are collaborating with Nate Gianneschi on the mucus project, and we are both jointly funded by the Space Force, so that’s cool. But the mucus isn’t ready for prime time yet, so I won’t discuss it here.
Q) What can you tell us about broad-spectrum antivirals?
The antivirals operate based on supramolecular chemistry I learned about when working with Fraser. When Covid hit, lots of people died. We had to wait for vaccines and other treatments to come out. When you get a bacterial infection, we have broad-spectrum antibiotics, pills that will work against all sorts of bacteria. But when a new virus comes, we have nothing. We’ve developed a series of molecules that work as broad-spectrum antivirals that will be ready for the next pandemic, whatever it may be. That’s something we’re working on that will change the world.
Q) How can people keep up to date on your work?
I have zero social media. We let our work speak for itself. We have our papers, the Braunschweig Group website (braunschweiggroup.org), and, otherwise, zero social media.