Softly does it

Chemistry Professor Dave Adams is a Clarivate Analytics Global Highly Cited Researcher for 2018, one of ten Glasgow researchers recognised as being in the top 1% for citations in their academic field.

Tell us a bit about your career this far.

I began as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of York in 1998, gaining further experience at Leeds and Leicester Universities before working in Unilever for 4 years. I then moved to Liverpool University, where I progressed from fellow, through lecturer and reader, to professor. In 2016 I became Professor of Chemistry here at Glasgow.

What is the focus of your research, and what inspires you?

I’m currently focusing on self-assembled soft materials, looking to understand how to control the properties of single and multicomponent systems, helpful in being able to make interesting new materials.

I have a five-year Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-funded fellowship aimed at trying to see whether we can use soft materials for new types of optoelectronic materials. When you make these soft materials you basically design molecules so that they self-assemble into wires and one-dimensional objects. Conceptually, you should be able to use those to conduct electricity. That’s what we would like to be able to do, to design molecules so that you can throw them into a pot and they would spontaneously assemble into the right kind of structures and allow you to do things like make a new type of solar cell.

I love doing things that nobody has done before, or doing things where you suddenly go, “Oh, you know what, I now understand something that nobody else gets.”

What drives you to do this research?

I want to get to the point where we are world leading in soft materials and at the absolute forefront of what we’re doing. Part of this is really trying to drive the group forward to do the best quality science, and to do everything as carefully and thoroughly as possible, and make a whole range of stuff which people can’t do at the moment.

How do you feel about being featured in the Highly Cited list?

It’s nice to know that the work that we have done has been useful to people, and I’m pleased that it’s not just in one single area. It’s a kind of validation that we are doing stuff that’s actually exciting, new and different.

Tell us a bit about the research that you have been highly cited for.

Essentially, it’s in two areas. The first is in self-assembled soft materials, the second area is in various porous materials which can be used for trapping gases and separating molecules. I’ve done work where we’ve looked at trying to come up with new types of material to capture carbon dioxide, for example, from power stations. There’s also some more recent work where we’ve looked at whether we can use those materials to entrap chemical warfare agents specifically.

What attracted you to Glasgow?

It was a great chance to join a fantastic university at the right time. There are opportunities here which I’ve not seen in other universities, such as our support for early-career researchers. There are opportunities here which I’ve not seen in other universities, such as our support for early-career researchers. On top of this, Glasgow is an amazing place to live. I’m trying to tick off every single ruined castle in Scotland – that’s taking a while. I’m extremely happy with the decision to move.

What’s next?

Until now, I’ve deliberately made a decision not to go down any kind of biological routes, but there’s work coming through by the group where coincidentally we’re making materials which are appropriate for biological systems, so I suspect we’ll end up moving down much more biological routes.

We’re also doing some really complicated x-ray and neutron scattering experiments which mean that you can do things I don’t think have been done before. For example, in the multicomponent systems, you conceptually make one network and then a second network. If they both are structurally very similar, how do you tell the difference between the two? We’ve worked out ways now where you can use complicated neutron scattering experiments to make one network invisible at one time and another one invisible at another time, so you can tell the two things apart from each other. Then you can start to really work out how to control those two things independently, which nobody’s been able to do before. That is really interesting, because it’s extremely difficult.

And we’re doing some cool stuff where we’re just playing around with really subtle changes in molecular structure where, with tiny variations, you can end up with completely different materials from extremely similar materials. That opens up a lot of opportunities to actually build soft materials with different strengths or different morphologies.