Science Research at UvA-VU: Amsterdam Center for Multiscale Modeling

27 January 2015

In 2007, chemists Evert Jan Baerends of VU University Amsterdam and Daan Frenkel of the University of Amsterdam decided it made sense for the two universities to collaborate more closely in the field of molecular modelling. The two professors went on to become the founding fathers of the Amsterdam Center for Multiscale Modeling (ACMM).

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‘This was a genuine bottom-up initiative,’ says VU Professor of Theoretical Chemistry Lucas Visscher, the current director of the ACMM. ‘The two research groups – Quantum Chemistry at VU University Amsterdam and Molecular Simulation at the University of Amsterdam – were interested in each other’s work and each had a growing need to make use of the other’s methods, software and expertise.’

Solar cells

About fifty people now work at the ACMM. Visscher explains what they do: ‘The ACMM focuses on the question: how can you improve molecules? We develop new modelling techniques. Modelling can now take place on an increasingly large scale and at a faster pace thanks to the constant advances in the world of computers. This remains an ongoing trend.’

One prime example of an application in which the ACMM is engaged, lies in the world of photochemistry. ‘Along with our experimental colleagues, we are developing solar cells that can convert the sun’s energy into chemical energy,’ says Visscher. ‘It’s similar to the process that occurs naturally in plants and trees.’

Leading the way in Europe

‘Until the mid-1990s, chemists working with models could only analyse the behaviour of existing molecules,’ Visscher recalls ‘but now we can use computers to design molecules without having to first make them in the lab.’

‘Historically there has always been a traditional division between the two branches of theoretical chemistry, each with its own culture, its own conferences and experts. Now these research areas are gravitating towards one another, as evidenced by the 2013 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, which went to a joint development in Quantum Mechanics and Molecular Mechanics.’

In the Netherlands, the ACMM is the focal point where expertise from quantum chemistry and molecular mechanics converges. ‘In Europe, the Netherlands is leading the way in this area,’ says Visscher proudly. ‘There aren’t many countries where all the expertise is concentrated in one city, like it is in Amsterdam.’

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The shared supercomputer. Photo: SURFsara

Shared supercomputer

Twice a year, the ACMM holds a symposium, often centring on a single theme. Experts from the Netherlands and abroad exchange ideas at these biannual events. ‘In the course of their work, researchers, teaching staff and PhD students see each other regularly on the VU campus or at the Science Park in Amsterdam-Oost,’ Visscher says. ‘As a group we are tending more and more toward the Science Park, for both teaching and research. The universities’ joint Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes are now based at the Science Park and it’s also where our shared supercomputer is housed. Developments like these are bringing us ever closer together.’

Text: Laura Janssen

Published by  Faculty of Science