Why is chemical synthesis and property optimization easier than expected?†
Identifying optimal conditions for chemical and material synthesis as well as optimizing the properties of the products is often much easier than simple reasoning would predict. The potential search space is infinite in principle and enormous in practice, yet optimal molecules, materials, and synthesis conditions for many objectives can often be found by performing a reasonable number of distinct experiments. Considering the goal of chemical synthesis or property identification as optimal control problems provides insight into this good fortune. Both of these goals may be described by a fitness function J that depends on a suitable set of variables (e.g., reactant concentrations, components of a material, processing conditions, etc.). The relationship between J and the variables specifies the fitness landscape for the target objective. Upon making simple physical assumptions, this work demonstrates that the fitness landscape for chemical optimization contains no local sub-optimal maxima that may hinder attainment of the absolute best value of J. This feature provides a basis to explain the many reported efficient optimizations of synthesis conditions and molecular or material properties. We refer to this development as OptiChem theory. The predicted characteristics of chemical fitness landscapes are assessed through a broad examination of the recent literature, which shows ample evidence of trap-free landscapes for many objectives. The fundamental and practical implications of OptiChem theory for chemistry are discussed.