Density Functional Theory is by far the most successful way of gaining access to molecular properties starting from their composition. Calculating the electronic structure of molecules or solid phases has become a widespread activity in computational as well as in experimental labs not only for shedding light on the properties of a system under study but also as a tool to design those systems with taylor-made properties. This level of understanding of matter brought by DFT is based in a rigorous physical and mathematical development, still–and maybe because of it–DFT (and electronic structure calculations in general for that matter) might be thought of as something of little use outside academia.
Prof. Juan Carlos Sancho-García from the University of Alicante in Spain, encouraged me to talk to his students last month about the reaches of DFT in the industrial world. Having once worked in the IP myself I remembered the simulations performed there were mostly DPD (Dissipative Particle Dynamics), a coarse grained kind of molecular dynamics, for investigating the interactions between polymers and surfaces, but no DFT calculations were ever on sight. It is widely known that Docking, QSAR, and Molecular Dynamics are widely used in the pharma industry for the development of new drugs but I wasn’t sure where DFT could fit in all this. I thought patent search would be a good descriptor for the commercial applicability of DFT. So I took a shallow dive and searched for patents explicitly mentioning the use of DFT as part of the invention development process and protection. The first thing I noticed is that although they appear to be only a few, these are growing in numbers throughout the years (Figure 1). Again, this was not an exhaustive search so I’m obviously overlooking many.
The second thing that caught my attention was that the first hit came from 1998, nicely coinciding with the rise of B3LYP (Figure 2). This patent was awarded to Australian inventors from the University of Wollongong, South New Wales to determine trace gas concentrations by chromatography by means of calculating the FT-IR spectra of sample molecules (Figure 3), so DFT is used as part of the invention but I ignore if this is a widespread method in analytical labs.
While I’m mentioning the infamous B3LYP functional, a search about it in patents yields the following graph (Figure 4), most of which relate to the protection of photoluminescent or thermoluminescent molecules for light emitting devices; it appears that DFT calculations are used to provide the key features of their protection, such as HOMO-LUMO gap etc.
So what about software? Most of the more recent patents in Figure 1 (2018 – 2022) lie in the realm of electronics, particularly the development of semiconductors, ceramical or otherwise, so it was safe to assume VASP could be a popular choice to that end, right? turns out that’s not necessarily the case since a patent search for VASP only accounts for about the 10% of all awarded patents (Figure 5).
I guess it’s safe to say by now that DFT has a significant impact in the industrial development, one could only expect it to keep on rising, however the advent of machine learning techniques and other artificial intelligence related methods promise an accelerated development. I went again to the patents database and this time searched for ‘machine learning development materials‘ (the term ‘development’ was deleted by the search engine, guess found it too obvious) and its rise is quite notorious, surpassing the frequency of DFT in patents (Figure 6), particularly in the past 5 years (2018 – 2022).
I’m guessing in some instances DFT and ML will tend to go hand in hand in the industrial development process, but the timescales reachable by ML will only tend to grow, so I’m left with the question of what are we waiting for to make ML and AI part of the chemistry curricula? As computational chemistry teachers we should start talking about this points with our students and convince the head of departments to help us create proper courses or we risk our graduates to become niche scientists in a time when new skills are sought after in the IP.
Thanks again to Prof. Juan Carlos Sancho García at the University of Alicante, Spain, who asked me talk about the subject in front of his class, and to Prof. José Pedro Cerón-Carrasco from Cartagena for allowing me to talk about this and other topics at Centro Universitario de la Defensa. Thank you, guys! I look forward to meeting you again soon.