Linnaeus environments at the halfway point IV: How molecules build matter
17 December 2010
LUM continues its series following up the research projects that received Linnaeus funding in 2006. We visit the research programme OMM, Organising Molecular Matter, which investigates how molecules are organised to build matter, and the innovation research centre CIRCLE.Getting to grips with research at nano-level is like diving into an ocean of proteins, viruses and bacteria. A whole world emerges down there, but on a different scale from the one we are used to. It isn’t every day we find cause to divide a metre into a billion units – or even a million units.
Ulf Olsson, head of the research programme OMM and a professor of physical chemistry, takes us on a journey down to the nanoscale; to the components of matter. We are now in the area between a nanometre and a micrometre. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre and a micrometre is one millionth of a metre.
Ulf Olsson explains that the nano-level is most interesting for pharmaceuticals and materials research. On the nanoscale we find bacteria, viruses, proteins and various structures in the cells of the body, known as organelles, as well as things like the pigment in paint and the components of a cement mixture.
The researchers within OMM work on the nano-level to study the forces between molecules. It is these forces that make the molecules interact with one another. This interaction leads to the emergence of different structures and processes.
“If we can understand the forces between the molecules we can predict what structures the molecules are capable of building and how a material can behave”, says Ulf Olsson.
Materials research is an important part of OMM’s activities. Cooperation with the planned facilities ESS and MAX IV is important. With the two facilities 10–15 minutes cycle ride away, the Lund researchers will gain an enormous competitive advantage, says Ulf Olsson. Therefore, he thinks it is important that they utilise this opportunity. In addition, it is important for both ESS and MAX-lab to have strong research groups nearby – groups that can be involved in driving the development of the facilities.
Earlier this year, OMM recruited a top international researcher in the field of materials research. Professor Peter Schurtenberger is now in the process of moving both his equipment and his entire research group from Switzerland to the Department of Chemistry at Lund University. Ulf Olsson describes Peter Schurtenberger as world-leading when it comes to using synchrotron radiation and neutron radiation technology – the two types of radiation source used at MAX-lab and ESS.
OMM has also recruited several other researchers during the autumn, among whom are Anna Stradner, Marie Skepö and Malin Zackrisson Oskolkova. Ulf Olsson notes that OMM is becoming stronger in a number of areas thanks to these appointments, including the possibility to develop new materials within materials research, for example magnetic fluids and magnetic nanoparticles.
Ulf Olsson also stresses the value of knowledge development as the most important outcome of OMM. In the years that the research programme has been in existence, a range of different research findings have been made. One example is the model developed by doctoral student Joakim Stenhammar that improves the theoretical description of polar fluids, for example water.
“The model is also important when we look at how other molecules behave in such solutions”, explains Ulf Olsson.
Another example of findings from OMM is a project with links to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Doctoral student Erik Hellstrand is using experiments to study ‘amyloid peptides’, which are believed to be behind these neural diseases.
There are currently also two OMM projects with a clear commercial focus; one is a piece of software to make various quantum chemistry calculations, and the other is the development of a method in the field of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to diagnose cancer, for example.
One of the newly recruited researchers is Marie Skepö, associate senior lecturer in theoretical chemistry. She appreciates OMM’s large network of different skills and the opportunity to work with both theory and experiments. Marie Skepö works with a type of protein that is found in human saliva.
“I am interested in how these proteins react and bind to the surface of the tooth”, she says.
Diving down to nano-level not only involves a meeting with billionths of a metre. It also offers an insight into the broad nature of the field of chemistry. Ulf Olsson says that chemistry is the most interdisciplinary subject within science.
“In OMM chemists work with physicists on biological problems. We observe nature and try to describe it at nano-level”, he says.
While we swim around in the nano-ocean, we should perhaps also be grateful for the forces between molecules; the forces that form the main focus of the research within OMM. Without these forces there would only be gases. Neither liquids nor solid matter would exist.
FOOTNOTE: A total of 20 senior researchers work in OMM, from three different divisions of the Department of Chemistry: Physical Chemistry, Theoretical Chemistry and Biochemistry.
- Lena Björk Blixt
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