Functional materials impact every area of our lives, from electronic and computing devices to transportation and health. Here we examine the relationship between synthetic discoveries and the scientific breakthroughs that they have enabled. By tracing the development of some important examples, we explore how and why the materials were initially synthesized and how their utility was subsequently recognized. Three common pathways to materials breakthroughs are identified. In a small number of cases, such as the aluminosilicate zeolite catalyst ZSM-5, an important advance is made by using design principles based on earlier work. There are also rare cases of breakthroughs that are serendipitous, such as the buckyball and Teflon. Most commonly, however, the breakthrough repurposes a compound that is already known and was often made out of curiosity or for a different application. Typically, the synthetic discovery precedes the discovery of functionality by many decades; key examples include conducting polymers, topological insulators and electrodes for lithium-ion batteries.
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A.K.C. thanks the Ras al Khaimah Centre for Advanced Materials for financial support. R.S. gratefully acknowledges the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences, for support under award no. DE-SC-0012541.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Cheetham, A.K., Seshadri, R. & Wudl, F. Chemical synthesis and materials discovery. Nat. Synth 1, 514–520 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44160-022-00096-3