Tom Runčevski is interested in understanding the structure, properties and applications of solid-state molecular materials. Under this umbrella, his lab works in three major areas: engineering of physiologically active molecular materials, molecular reactivity under crystal- and nano-confinement, and molecular minerals on the surface of Titan. The last area – modeling the microcosmos of Saturn’s icy moon Titan, which theoretically could support prebiotic life – was launched with Welch Foundation funding.
“We began trying to reproduce Titan’s environment in a test tube shortly after I started my lab at SMU in 2018,” Dr. Runčevski said. “It was incredibly risky research, and it wouldn’t have been possible without Welch support. After providing proof-of-concept, we landed additional funding from NSF in 2021.”
There is an imminent need for this research: With its New Frontiers program, NASA intends to launch a rover to Titan in 2027 that should reach Saturn’s moon in the 2030s. Dr. Runčevski’s work is developing a better understanding of the environment of what he calls “that very strange world.” As the only place in the solar system (other than Earth), with a dense and chemically reactive atmosphere, Titan is an “organic lab on a huge scale,” he says. His team develops models for putative molecular minerals expected to naturally occur on Titan to study their thermodynamic and structural properties.
Dr. Runčevski is excited about his lab’s most recent Titan research on nitriles, which he expects to publish in the second half of 2023. He plans to extend this research to other planetary bodies, such as Europa and Io, as well as molecular minerals and petroleum on Earth.
Another project explores using the confinement of molecules within a crystal lattice to provide a unique platform for the high-pressure synthesis of extended solids. This research is expected to lead to novel materials, such as functionalized graphene and 2D solids. Recently, his team achieved an all-solid-state synthesis of atomically precise polymer materials confined between inorganic crystalline layers.
Dr. Runčevski’s lab is also working on engineering solid-state formulations of physiologically active materials, such as medicines, pesticides, fungicides, food and sport supplements, and dyes and pigments, among others. For example, many drugs and active pharmaceutical ingredients show low aqueous solubility that limits their bioavailability. They aim to create more soluble drug formulations with prolonged shelf-life.
With pesticides, the team is taking the opposite tack, aiming to formulate less-soluble pesticides that would deliver better results at lower volumes. The high solubility of current pesticide molecular materials leads to “washing” them from the crops to the soil, limiting their effectiveness and causing significant pollution.