Third DOE BES Separations Research Workshop

Charles Byers, Summary Remarks

Third DOE/Basic Energy Sciences Separations
Research Workshop


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

Summary Remarks

Charles H. Byers
IsoPro International

This presentation was prepared before the final sessions on Friday May 14 and represents a condensation of remarks made by participants during their primarily technical talks. A good deal of off-line conversational material is included in this document.

Themes:  There were many themes and crosscurrents that flowed through the workshop. Indeed each speaker and presenter of posters necessarily came with a viewpoint. This is an attempt to find commonality amongst them.  The themes are presented in the order of strength, which this observer perceived.

  1. Cross-fertilization:  There was a remarkable spirit of collaboration that came out of this Workshop.  During the talks and posters and particularly during the breaks and social events, new collaborations could be seen to be taking place.  Because there was a broader diversity of subjects in this workshop than in virtually any conference attended by the participants, new vistas were opened to the participants opening new research and collaboration opportunities.  The summary nature of the talks gave people an opportunity to grab onto the first rung of understanding of the research presented and see what is possible in these areas.  Remarkably, every speaker was an articulate spokesman to their research, amplifying the interest of all of the topics.   We know of several collaborations that were begun at this meeting.  BES Chemical Sciences is encouraging these collaborations through the promise of small grants for making the cross-fertilization possible. 
  2. Diversity:  The mix of approaches to separations was truly remarkable.  We say presentations where only first principles were used to make cement the underpinnings of the science supporting separations.  On the other hand, the probing into some of the more advances areas of separations materials approached the Edisonian.  One was struck by the breadth of the umbrella we call "Separations".   If there is a trend shown by all of these talks, it is an increased commitment to understanding of science and the tailoring of solutions over the good fortune in the empirical search for solutions.
  3. Nanosystems:  One of the areas where a focus on understanding at the most fundamental level is the nanometer scale of molecular assemblies.  Structures such as micelles, interfaces, cell structures, membranes, self-assembly mechanisms (SAMs), capillaries, crystallizing clusters, bubbles and drops for the basis for many of the separations that are currently in commercial use.  However our lack of understanding to the level of predictability limits our ability to realize the potential of these methods.  This scale of the organization of matter presents one of the great challenges to chemical and engineering science and certainly is one with which many of the participants of this conference struggle daily.
  4. Modeling:  Underlying all of science is the attempt to model the behavior of systems in the simplest way possible. Many of the participants are struggling with including important features omitted from earlier models while retaining simplicity.  As they move to the nonlinear, the computer tends to dominate, allowing us to view phenomena at the molecular level and at the continuum fluid mechanics level. From both directions, workers are attempting to close the gap.  Again the "mezzo" region remains as a frontier. New model often require the moving to the description of all dimensions of problems, especially ones where an array of external forces are involved.  In all cases, the problem of interactions, either at the molecular level or at a larger scale lies somewhere in the core of the problem. 
  5. New Tools:  A characteristic need in this area is for more powerful computers, and for faster and more precise means of being able to accurately "see" the scales we are becoming able to model.  The tools are becoming more expensive as they become more complex.  This speaks loudly to the concepts of centers and sharing of experimental resources.  Our experience is that equipment, with the exception of computers is idle about 80% of the time, while the researcher makes preparations for his next series of experiments.  We must become more clever in collaborating and maintaining these valuable resources.  This workshop provided a good place to arrange these collaborations. The DOE BES Chemical Sciences office can be instrumental in helping forge these collaborations.
  6. Conformal Issues:  It is becoming important that we understand in much more depth the conformal issues in areas that affect separations.

 

Problems.  There are many individual problems that challenge every researcher and his institutions.  We do not always meet these in a manner commensurate with their importance to our research and as a result we tend to be come out on the losing end of the results.  Some of the problems that were discussed to a greater or lesser extent during the workshop are discussed below in order of importance to the community.  It is important to note that this section requires review and strengthening.

  1. Funding:  The funding of basic research has been shrinking with alarming regularity over the past fifteen years.  This has affected virtually every aspect of our ability to continue our remarkable record of achievement.  While it is perfectly clear to the participants of the workshop, that a reinforcement of basic science is vitally needed to continue the record of scientific and technical achievement of the past 50 years, the message is not getting through to the leadership of corporations and the government.  It is the responsibility of every single basic researcher to make every effort to reverse this trend. Without a major effort there will certainly continue to be erosion.  The Chemical Sciences Division must strive for stability to continue to get its share of the budget.  It must get the help of its PIs when it as needed.  A cooperative effort will be very useful in stemming the tide of further cuts. 
  2. Perception of Separations:  The field of separations and the science that underlies it is viewed by science in general as something of a stepchild.  I processing of materials, creating new reaction paths to get wonderful new products is what you want to accomplish. Along with it comes separations and purification that your must do.  Glamour does not attend separations, nor does the large funding that goes hand in hand with scientific excitement.  On the other hand, everybody recognizes that we must continue to separate and purify, and the problems of the area are becoming more complex.  So the area does not attract the "best and the brightest", nor does it attract the educational focus needed to excite new generations.  What, if anything, can be done about this condition should be an active question for the area.
  3. Basic Challenges of Separations:  The basic challenges that promote a need for separation science are amplifying and the needs of the global society become greater in quantity and more complex in scope.  As world population continues to increase we are called upon to become more efficient in our science, while dealing with shrinking resources and less pure input. We view the demand by society as being:
  4. To continue to reduce the cost of separations.
  5. To meet every more stringent environmental quality specifications.
  6. To solve new separations challenges as new products emerge.
  7. To remove impurities that were previously believed to be benign.
  8. The Biotechnology Challenge:  Biotechnology is challenging us to rethink the field of separations. The demand is for small quantities of exquisitely pure materials. These materials cannot tolerate the thermal assaults of bulk chemicals.  Thus new methods are needed.  Method that had previously been curiosities must be reviewed and perhaps improved to meet new separations.
  9. The Gap:  There is an important gap in the leap from basic research and industrial implementations of new science and technology.  The government tries to fill this with programs like DOE OIT or the Department of Commerce ATP program, but basically much of the science goes uncommercialized.  Means of improving efficiency in transfer of science to end-use must be explored and put into action.
  10. Separations Education:  Chemistry is not doing a good job in teaching separations fundamentals to its undergraduates.  The impression is left on the students that everything has been done and we have a well-developed set of tools for use in the important problems of the science.  Educators in the area of separations need to rethink how this situation can be reversed. 
  11. A Multidisciplinary Field:  Because separations falls at the crossroads of several recognized disciplines it tends to fall through the cracks in all of them.  Strong collaborations are needed.  For instance, there are many separations conferences in specific fields like chromatography or membranes, but no strong separations conferences that attract leaders from chemistry physics their counterparts in the engineering sciences.
  12. BES Chemical Sciences Office:  It is difficult to assess the impact of the interim nature of the appointees in this office.  Certainly the current staff is superb, but they will rotate out in a short time, breaking continuity again, perhaps leaving the funding undefended.  Continuity in the office is very important to the health of the field of separations.

 

Future Plans:  The discussion of what to do about future meetings and some of the ideas that should be considered by DOE BES Chemical Sciences found a place in some of the discussions. The following are some of these ideas.

  1. Collaboration:  This is not an activity that comes naturally to independent principal investigators, but the rewards are often so rich that it is worth the while of everybody concerned to make the extra effort to encourage long-term collaborations with in the program office. 
  2. Publicizing Separation Sciences:  It is important that the Office get help from its PIs in helping to "sell" the program to sponsors.  The PIs for their part must realize that it is their futures that they are promoting and be responsive to an activity that does not come naturally and does not bring immediate rewards.
  3. Nature of the Workshop:  There seemed to be a consensus of participants that indicated that the workshop was worthwhile and that a fourth on be held.  A two-year gap seems to be an appropriate one.  Geographic fairness would indicate the need for a more westerly location.  The balance between talks and posters was discussed a good deal, but in the end the discussion continued without conclusion.   Certainly the number of participants was about right. Whether industrial participation is advisable was left in midair.
  4. Focus:  There was a good deal of discussion of focusing research efforts.  The consensus was clearly on the side of retaining the PI-centered research format.  This format has served science and society well and should not be the victim of tinkering.  This small community is the "yeast" that makes the science rise and should not be diverted. Focused or directed research may have a place in programs aimed at the solution of specific problems.  This should not detract from the freedom of this fundamental research effort. It is important however that we let the community at large know of our accomplishments and their ultimate application in a forceful and understandable manner.  An effort of this kind is under way. 

 

This document is an effort to capture the flavor of the 3rd DOE BES Separation Sciences Research Workshop. Obviously it is delivered with a viewpoint.  If there are misimpressions and errors, these are the sole responsibility of the author.   The overwhelming response of the participants was that this was a worthwhile workshop and that they gained more from it than they had e

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