As I crossed the Waal River into Nijmegen Central Station, on a double-decker train no less (a novelty for an Englishman), I was again taken aback by the structural order and beauty through which the Dutch seem to have mastered the construction of their cities. On my travels to and from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, I was able to catch a glimpse of Utrecht, Rotterdam and The Hague, all showing off their history and elegance on the eternal flatness that is the Dutch State. But as Nijmegen loomed into view, I knew I had found my favourite. With it being the Netherland’s oldest city, Nijmegen sits majestically on one of the few hills overlooking the river, still utilised as one of the great arteries that service the surrounding region, where many a boat carrying vital commodities still trundle along to this day.
My journey to this fine city, however, was not one for leisure. I had come to study and, hopefully, begin to understand the Dutch perception of structural order. But not relating to the construction of their towns and metropolises. Instead, I had come to learn about the beauty and complexity of crystallisation and its application to the non-superimposable world of chiral molecules. My travels had brought me to Nijmegen to attend the CORE ITN Chiral Crystallisation Summer School at Radboud University, a distinguished institution where I hoped I could learn a thing or two that could be applied to my own research. The school promised an adventure to the heart of what chirality was, how the nucleation and growth of crystals could be controlled to allow for the separation of chiral entities and what robust and initiative methods were out there for use. I couldn’t wait to get started.
For readers perhaps not so entirely aware of the challenging area within which chiral separation resides, I will elaborate. Chirality is an important phenomena that occurs all around us. If you look at your hands, you should notice that they are essentially the same, but they are also opposite. Or, to look at it another way, they are mirror images that cannot be laid directly on top of each other (non-superimposable). This property is known as chirality and is particularly important for the molecular world. Many pharmaceutical materials are chiral and each mirror image can have profoundly different therapeutic properties, which can be sometimes beneficial, but can also have disastrous consequences, as seen in the infamous chiral problem of thalidomide. Whilst there are several methods that can allow for the separation of chiral molecules, crystallisation, when used and understood correctly, can be a robust and scalable process that can give exquisite results. It was in search of this understanding that had brought me across the channel.
I was staying in the centre of the Nijmegen, in a hotel called ‘Credible’, an interesting name that seemed to understate its superb location, friendly welcoming staff and excellent facilities (a recommendation if you ever happen to want to stay in the city). The hotel was a half an hour walk from the Huygens Building at the University, the venue for the school, and as a keen hiker, the obvious thing to really soak up my surroundings was to start the mornings with a stroll. What a pleasant place the Netherlands is. On every street there seemed to be a fresh bakery from which I could buy a morning selection of pastries, something that is unfortunately becoming rarer in modern Britain. Everyone greeted and chatted to each other in the streets and everyone; men, women and children, were on bikes! We could definitely learn from this at home. So every morning, full of baked goods and enlivened by the early amble, I found myself prepared for the week’s programme of crystallisation delights.
And what a programme of delights it was. The participants of the school consisted of students, researchers and industrialists from across the continent, all bringing their own areas of chiral expertise. We were treated to a range of talks from some of the big names in the area, covering thermodynamics, crystal nucleation and growth, preferential crystallisation, complementary separation techniques and the new and up and coming area of Viedma ripening. The school encouraged the exploration of new ideas and applications, collaborations and new opportunities, whilst building friendships, in many cases, whilst sampling one of the most famous Dutch pleasures, Beer! It really hit home the importance of chirality, something poignantly highlighted by a visit to the Krӧller-Müller Museum, famous for, amongst other things, its collection of Van Goghs. When one looks at the Needle Tower by Kenneth Snelson (1968), you see the complexity and beauty of chirality and begin to realise the challenges we face in trying to handle them.
I would like to thank all those who were involved in the organisation and delivery of this excellent school, with particular thanks to Elias Vlieg, Hugo Meekes and Elizabeth Salem. I encourage anyone who is researching in this area, or who has an interest, to go to this summer event. I found it extremely helpful and thought provoking. Hopefully you will too.
CMAC Future Manufacturing Hub – University of Bath
Alex is a PhD researcher based at the University of Bath, working with Prof. Chick Wilson as part of the EPSRC Future Manufacturing Hub in Continuous Manufacturing and Advanced Crystallisation. His research explores the development of novel multi-component materials with chiral molecules, exploring how different combinations of materials can alter physicochemical properties, with particular application to enhancing preferential crystallisation. He also works with polymorphic and stoichiometrically varied multi-component materials for application into continuous processing platforms. He is the Industrial Group Representative of the Young Crystallographers Group within the British Crystallographic Association (BCA) and is a keen advocate out many public engagement activities, particularly for the promotion of science.