Combinatorial Chemistry for Materials: What's Ahead

Published - Jun 2001| Analyst - Sam Brauer| Code - CHM037A
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Report Highlights

  • In 2000, $230 million materials research dollars were spent on combinatorial methods.
  • Climbing at an average annual growth rate (AAGR) of 10.2%, these expenditures are expected to approach $375 million in 2005.
  • Essentially, this area of materials research expenditure has risen from zero dollars only a few years ago.
  • As of yet, no widely available commercial products have been developed with combinatorial methods, but this lack of success is not inductive of future trends.



This report focuses on the technology of combinatorial chemistry and the materials that are being developed with this technology. Combinatorial chemistry has become a well-established technique in the biotech/pharmaceutical industry, and it is clear that this technology is having an impact on the field of materials. There have already been some qualified successes using this technology to develop new materials, and there is little doubt that more materials will be developed with this technology in the future.

Over the course of the twentieth century, more new materials have been discovered and used in applications than were in the previous millennia. Consequently the importance of chemistry and materials science increased dramatically as well, and most people take advancements in these fields as a matter of course, rather than of wonder. Surprisingly however, the tools of chemistry, the key science to producing and characterizing these new materials, has altered little over the century with the obvious exception of the s used to probe molecular structure. In many ways, a chemist from the turn of the 20th century would feel right at home in the modern laboratory with the familiar flasks, burets, and burners that have changed little since then. Combinatorial chemistry for materials or high-speed experimentation is changing this perception. This technology is aimed at altering the workflow and the tools in the modern laboratory. With these new tools have come new approaches to doing research, and the hope that the pace of discovery may increase.

Combinatorial chemistry is technology aimed at research, and is intended to alter the research paradigm. Over the course of the past century, thesis-driven research has been remarkably successful at translating fundamental discoveries into new molecules and products. However, before the rise of thesis-driven research, the Edisonian approach had also been quite successful in developing products with enormous commercial impact. Today, Edisonian research has largely been eclipsed by thesis-driven research, but the tools of high-speed experimentation may alter the balance. Like so many other aspects of technology, the advent of inexpensive, nearly inexhaustible computing power has made problems in materials science that seemed impossible to tackle 10 years ago, readily accessible to off-the-shelf technology. The transformation so commonplace in many fields, of changing art into science, has begun to occur in chemistry and materials as well.

The first company to translate the ideas developed in combinatorial chemistry used in pharmaceuticals to the materials arena is Symyx. This is a young company less than five years old, but it is already the acknowledged leader in combinatorial materials. Symyx no longer has the field all to itself, though; several independent companies and joint ventures have been formed to commercialize this technology. Other major firms have been lining up to purchase the technology used for this research, so it is clear that this technology has already made an impact.

While combinatorial chemistry for materials can have some very lofty goals of changing the way research is done in most aspects of chemistry and materials, es do not function on pie in the sky. Therefore, chemical firms and materials firms have lined up some targets in specific products including catalysts, electronic and optical materials, and polymers. This report covers the research expenditures using high-speed experimentation in these fields, as well as the possible markets for materials that may be developed using this technology.

Armed with this information, readers with interests can then make sound judgments regarding marketing strategies, investment decisions, or strategic plans concerning the technology of combinatorial materials. This report has been written to be readily accessible to those readers with backgrounds, but accuracy concerning the technical aspects of combinatorial materials has not been sacrificed.


With any new technology there are always wildly contrasting opinions concerning the likelihood of success and the applicability of the technology. On one hand, some people think that the new technology will revolutionize the world as we know it, and this revolution will happen in a remarkably short period of time. On the other hand, more jaded souls insist that there is nothing new under the sun. While there has been much ballyhoo in the popular press concerning the wonders of combinatorial materials, it is difficult to get solid information on the quantities of materials being produced and sold which were developed with this technology. Furthermore, many articles have presented wildly misleading information concerning the technology of combinatorial materials, their markets and applications. This report offers a timely picture of trends in combinatorial materials, information that cannot be obtained from other sources.


This report shows the current and the future research expenditures of high-speed experimentation. This report also covers the current (negligible) and future markets for the materials developed with this technology. Since the U.S. probably will become the dominant user of this technology, and is one of the largest markets for new materials worldwide, this report focuses heavily on trends in the U.S. However, research in combinatorial chemistry is global, and will remain so for the future. Many of the firms involved in this technology are large multinationals; thus this is certainly international in scope. Readers of this report will be able to distinguish between the hype concerning uses of combinatorial chemistry and the reality of the market. Many press accounts of the applications of combinatorial chemistry have presented a very misleading picture; this report will allow readers to draw more accurate conclusions about the status of combinatorial chemistry now and in the next few years.


To generate the information necessary to construct a reasonable future market for the technology of combinatorial chemistry, it is necessary to take a hardheaded look at the potential advantages and pitfalls of this technology compared with more traditional research methodology. This report uses a metric of dollars to compare research being done with traditional technology to research being performed with combinatorial technology. This report also covers the materials that may be discovered using this technology. This report does not delve into the likelihood of markets based on exotic new materials that have yet to be discovered; instead, it is restricted to possible replacements of existing materials discovered by conventional technology by materials developed using combinatorial technology. Given the wide variety of materials that may be affected by this technology, this report uses the metric of dollars throughout.

This report categorizes three types of materials being researched with high-speed experimentation.

1.Catalysts: Catalysts can be either organic or inorganic compounds, and are widely used in materials production processes. There are four major markets for catalysts: polymers, petroleum refining, fine chemicals, and environmental applications.

2.Electronic and optical materials: These materials are used in the production of microprocessors and other electronic goods. Optical materials' largest market has become telecommunications over the past decades. Both of these fields have large research and development efforts driven by high rates of growth and a rapid pace of technological change. This report delves into the demand for new materials in these markets.

3.Polymers: These goods are widely used throughout the economy. Combinatorial chemistry offers a way to make these goods less expensively either by developing new catalysts, or by altering the properties of these materials so they are suitable for new applications such as improved coatings.

The report is broken into six sections. First there is a technology overview, which gives the broad details of combinatorial chemistry and a comparison to more traditional research methods. Next, there is a combined economic analysis for combinatorial chemistry coupled with an extensive description of the industry that is developing and using this technology. This industry section includes firms dedicated to developing new materials using combinatorial chemistry, equipment manufacturers, and the firms that are employing combinatorial chemistry to develop new products, along with company profiles. Following this industry structure, there is a brief description of the government and academic laboratories that have been doing extensive research in combinatorial materials. Then there is a description of the research being done using combinatorial chemistry by material type. After this products section, there is a description of the markets for the materials being developed using this technology, including future trends. The report concludes with a section on patents that have been filed pertaining to combinatorial materials.


This report is the end result of five months of concerted effort by the author. The primary information sources for this report were interviews with several dozen people in industry, academe and the government. The author also attended meetings and conferences, and much precious insight was gained from these sources as well. Many of the people interviewed are recognized authorities in the field, and provided invaluable assistance. I would like to thank all who took the time to speak with me for their help with this project.

Since this study was not commissioned by any corporation or individual, the author's brief in writing it was to be as objective as possible.

Secondary sources used for this report include a number of publications issued by the federal government, including items on the Internet, corporate literature, and publications in peer-reviewed literature.

Any time an estimate for a number has been made, the underlying assumptions are discussed. Thus, if a reader chooses to interpret the raw data in a differing manner, it is possible to do so. Dollar amounts are in constant 2000 dollars, and average annual growth rates (AAGRs) are calculated using standard tables.


The author has published more than 10 studies at BCC, several of which relate directly to this report. The author also has performed custom studies for BCC, and presented original research to corporate clients. The author earned a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry by researching the formation of chromium complexes in an interdisciplinary group, and is a member of SAMPE.

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