Prestigious award for new research into machine learning for sustainable chemistry

Friday, 02 October 2020

A Nottingham professor has received a prestigious award from the Royal Academy of Engineering to support the development of machine learning models of sustainable chemistry for researchers in the pharmaceutical sector and related chemical-based industries.

Jonathan Hirst, Professor of Computational Chemistry at the University of Nottingham’s School of Chemistry, is one of eight new Royal Academy of Engineering Chairs in Emerging Technologies who will receive a share of £22 million funding to  support innovative new research.

Professor Hirst will develop machine learning techniques to help chemical engineers and chemists make their manufacturing processes more sustainable. Working with scientists at the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Sustainable Chemistry, Professor Hirst aims to build interactive machine learning models of sustainability that can be used early in the discovery phase by researchers in the pharmaceutical sector developing new drugs and related chemical-based industries.

The challenge we will address is how to design, make and ultimately manufacture new molecules in a more sustainable fashion. At the moment, there are all kinds of inefficiencies, which are largely neglected in the search for new chemicals with specific desired properties. My project will provide machine learning tools for chemists and chemical engineers that will help them address two questions. How do we find greener synthetic routes to chemicals? And how do we identify greener target molecules from the outset?
Professor Jonathan Hirst

Royal Academy of Engineering Chairs in Emerging Technology

The Royal Academy of Engineering has announced that eight academics at universities across the UK are to receive awards from its largest research funding scheme—the Chairs in Emerging Technologies. A total of £22 million will support these innovative researchers and global leaders in their fields whose projects made it through the rigorous selection process in the face of stiff competition.

The innovations being developed by the Chairs in Emerging Technologies aim to benefit society and the UK economy, and enable the nation to remain at the global forefront of engineering innovation. The areas of research funded reflect the UK’s wider technological priorities, with many of the projects directly aligned to the government’s Industrial Strategy and designed to tackle some of the biggest industrial and societal challenges of our time.

The Chairs in Emerging Technologies scheme, which supports global visionaries in the UK to advance emerging technologies, is made possible through funding from the UK’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The ten-year support provided to the Chairs will enable them to progress their pioneering ideas from basic science through to full deployment and commercialisation.

GSK Carbon Neutral Laboratories for Sustainable Chemistry

Machines learning chemistry

Professor Hirst added: “I am very excited to receive this funding! It will support our research group for a considerable period of time, giving us the opportunity to pursue blue-skies, high-risk high-reward research. It will enable us to work ever more deeply with the industrial partners who have supported us, such as GlaxoSmithKline and Lenovo, with the ultimate aim to deliver technology that goes beyond current machine learning deployments to a new generation of dynamic interactive tools where AI and human experts are working hand in hand. I am most grateful to the Royal Academy of Engineering for this award, which builds on the fantastic research of many wonderful doctoral students and postdocs in our research group over the years.”

Research excellence

The project leverages significant investment from the University in its Green Chemicals Beacon of Excellence and in the University’s on-site high performance computer and Digital Research more broadly.


Professor Steven Howdle
This award is wonderful recognition of Jonathan’s excellence in research. Royal Academy of Engineering Chairs in Emerging Technologies are extremely prestigious and we are delighted by Jonathan’s success.
Professor Steve Howdle, Head of the School of Chemistry

Jonathan Hirst studied for his PhD (1990-1993) at the University of London on the application of artificial neural networks to molecular design. His postdoctoral work (supported with a HFSP Fellowship) was first at Carnegie Mellon University and subsequently at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. In 1996, he was promoted to Assistant Professor at Scripps. In 1999, he moved to the University of Nottingham, where he has flourished: Reader (2002), Professor (2004), Head of School (2013-2017).

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Jonathan Hirst on or Jane Icke, Media Relations Manager for the Faculty of Science at the University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 951 5751 or

Jane Icke - Media Relations Manager Science
Phone: 0115 7486462

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