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Competing Faster

We need to develop the deployment of advanced materials.
April 25, 2012

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner elicits awe, envy, and the question “How did they do that?” It is 20 percent more fuel efficient than previous comparable airliners, its cabin is more spacious, and its windows dim with the touch of a button. Fully explaining how it was done is complex, but the first part is simple: it’s all about advanced materials. A body and wings made from a carbon fiber composite confer enhanced fuel efficiency, for example, while the windows incorporate an electrochromic gel.

Most people don’t realize that it can take 20 years or more for a newly discovered material to be incorporated into commercial products. Lithium-ion batteries were proposed in the mid-1970s but were not broadly adopted until the late 1990s. Superconductors, solar photovoltaics, and solid-state lighting emerged over similar time frames. That is far too long given the role advanced materials could play in addressing many of the nation’s most urgent needs (see “High-Speed Materials Discovery,” TR10).

Once a new material is discovered, the current best practice for tailoring it to the market is a long sequence of steps involving many repeated experiments. Each step serves a different purpose, such as property optimization or process scaling. Engineers have to grapple with and ultimately control dozens of electrical, chemical, and mechanical properties. Predictive software models could complement and in some cases replace this time-consuming experimentation, but such tools are lacking. To make matters worse, an overly proprietary and fragmented community inhibits a culture of sharing knowledge, data, and tools. As a result, good inventions lie dormant, and development cycles remain linear and slow.

In the case of the Dreamliner, Boeing realized that materials development didn’t have to be linear. The company unified its multinational supply chain into a single virtual design platform. Design changes made in Japan became immediately visible to partners in the United States, and a global team cycled through thousands of designs before a single screw was turned. This kind of collaborative, networked approach could revolutionize and significantly speed up the process.

Last year, President Obama launched an ambitious new program called the Materials Genome Initiative, which aims to help the U.S. materials community foster similar approaches. But while the federal government can encourage change, it will be up to scientists to put this new vision to work.

Over the past two decades, advances in nanotechnology have given us the tools to synthesize, characterize, and model materials at the nanoscale—the scale at which materials’ behavior can be controlled. We need to nurture an accompanying national infrastructure for materials development in computation, experimentation, and data informatics. Combined with a more open, collaborative approach, these tools will accelerate the discovery and deployment of advanced materials.

Cyrus Wadia is assistant director for clean energy and materials R&D in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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