Global tech company International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) believes that more emphasis on materials science will bear better innovative ideas for the global society in the next five years.
In its annual 'Five In Five' technology predictions for 2021 released recently, it said it will be exploring how technology can be used to reinvent the material design process to find solutions to fostering good health and clean energy as well as bolster sustainability, climate action and responsible production.
According to Alessandro Curioni, Vice President at IBM Research Europe and Africa, this year's predictions focus on accelerating the discovery of new materials to enable a more sustainable future, in line with the United Nation's global call-to-action through its Sustainable Development Goals.
"We believe that within the next five years, new materials or novel uses of existing ones will help address many of the global challenges we face. We will see technologies that will help in efficiently capturing carbon dioxide from our overburdened atmosphere, and storing it safely, mitigating climate change; finding more sustainable ways to grow crops to feed our surging population while reducing carbon emissions," he told the Nation.
He adds that in a world moving towards solar energy and ditching grid power, rethinking batteries and energy storage and developing better antivirals and more sustainable electronic devices will be of crucial attention.
"We're not there yet, but it's not just wishful thinking. It's possible to start getting there, and soon. We need to turbocharge the way we do materials design, a traditionally hard and complex process — mainly because the chemical space of potential molecular combinations is incredibly vast," he explained.
There are more possible combinations than there are atoms in the universe, with the final properties of materials not only depending on what they're made of, but also the processes used for their production and, ultimately, their final structure.
Kathryn Guarini, Chief Operating Officer, IBM Research, Vice President, IBM Impact Science revealed that it typically takes roughly 10 years and upwards of Sh10 billion on average to discover one new material with specific properties.
"We want to cut both years and cost 90 percent, with the help of cutting-edge technologies. These technologies are artificial intelligence (AI), data augmentation with traditional, classical computing and emerging quantum computing, and so- called generative models and laboratory automation through the open, hybrid cloud," she noted.
It is the convergence of these technologies that IBM believes will allow the world to modernise the human process of discovery in a fundamentally new way — moving away from serendipity, luck and chance to calculated confidence.
"First, AI will consolidate all of humanity's knowledge on a specific topic — say, a global challenge we want to address. Then supercomputers and, eventually, quantum simulations will cover our knowledge gaps.
"Using past data the AI obtained, we will create models to generate hypotheses about the new materials necessary to tackle that challenge. Finally, we will automate the making and testing of these materials, with the help of cloud technologies," Ms Guarini added.
She added that IBM's efforts in quantum computing, AI and hybrid cloud will be used in accelerating the process of discovery.
IBM designed an approach to accelerate material discovery where AI is a key component across the entire chain of the material discovery process. This includes its cloud-powered chemistry lab RoboRXN, which allows researchers to create new materials by predicting the outcome of chemical reactions.
Materials can be synthesised 24 hours per day, seven days a week, without disruption, and with limited interaction from humans. Scientists simply have to give the system a molecule they want to make, and the AI in the software will outline a step-by-step recipe along with a list of ingredients.
The free-to-use AI model behind RoboRXN was made available two years ago and has already predicted nearly 1 million reactions for students, professors and scientists.
Since 2020, IBM scientists around the world have been using the solution to synthesize materials for carbon capture, photoresists and antivirals.
"It will soon go to work generating materials for nitrogen fixation," said Mr Curioni.
For instance, researchers in Yorktown Heights, New York were able to run a synthesis reaction sent over the cloud to the RoboRXN lab in Zurich, Switzerland — 6,000 kilometres away — to try to generate a target molecule for a new material for Carbon (IV) Oxide capture.
The innovation analysed the resulting molecules, which were synthesized overnight and then shipped to the IBM Research Lab in Almaden, California for further analysis.
"Right now, researchers are synthesising candidate molecules to test RoboRXN's capabilities. The long-term goal is that we will take candidate molecules from the AI-driven systems that are predicting new materials, synthesize them completely autonomously and test them," said Ms Guarini.
It is not just one RoboRXN, but an entire bank of them receiving instructions via the cloud from chemists and material scientists around the world.
Global plastic waste
"This doesn't mean that IBM is getting into the material manufacturing business. Our researchers are focused on developing the processes that will speed discovery and helping our clients and collaborators put them to use," clarified Mr Curioni.
In 2019, IBM predicted that, in the next five years, plastic recycling advancements like VolCat could be adopted around the globe to combat global plastic waste.
VolCat uses a benign organic catalyst to selectively digest the most common household plastic – polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – back to its monomer constituents. After purification, the monomer can easily be re-polymerized to form new PET.
IBM Research plans to kick off the next phase of its plan to commercialise the VolCat plastic recycling process.
"We intend to team with an industry partner to design, build and operate a pilot plant to prove the scalability and economics of the VolCat process. If successful, that work would progress to manufacturing plants all over the world and enable manufacturers to make plastics, fibers or films out of the resulting monomers, without the need to create new plastics from petrochemicals," stated Ms Guarini.
IBM's 5 in 5 demonstrates what's possible when a scientific approach is applied to finding new methods and solutions to the world's challenges, in a period where populations need science more than ever.
Apart from capturing and transforming Carbon (IV) Oxide's harmful emissions into usable energy, the company also plans to recreate fertiliser using AI to help feed the world in a sustainable manner.
Ms Charity Wayua, Senior Research Manager at IBM Research Lab, Nairobi told the Nation that Africa is set to benefit from IBM innovations as the solutions cannot wait.
"Fostering good health and clean energy to bolster sustainability, climate action and responsible production are all equally important for Africa. We've seen how different regions are at different levels of maturity and innovation as they tackle these issues," she said.
By deploying a combination of AI and quantum computing, the company, which has research labs in Nairobi and Johannesburg, shall accelerate the continent's ability to address its complex challenges.
"Within the medical field, the notion of learning from our past for a healthier future will enable Africa address some of the diseases that require accelerated discovery and drug development.
"AI and quantum will enable rapid discovery and analysis of real-world medical evidence – researching new materials and chemistries, suggest new candidates for drug repurposing and aid to speed the development of new for these diseases."
She explained that for better food security, the discovery of new and more sustainable nitrogen rich fertilisers can be utilised in agriculture to boost productivity, in a region where agriculture is still untapped.
IBM, a 109-year-old company, with over 100 years old in Africa has in the past years been in the forefront in introducing emerging technologies to the continent, a case in point being the use of blockchain technology in promoting agriculture and the use of AI in accurate prediction of the rains in partnership with Kenya's Meteorological Department.