The National Institute of Standards and Technology has awarded a $25 million grant to Northwestern University and other members of a Chicago-based consortium to establish a new center of excellence for advanced-materials research.
The Center for Hierarchical Materials Design will focus on developing the next generation of computational tools, databases and experimental techniques to enable the design of novel materials, one of the primary goals of the Obama administration's Materials Genome Initiative.
Other members of the consortium include the University of Chicago, the Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering (a partnership between Northwestern and the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory) and the Computation Institute (a partnership between the University of Chicago and Argonne).
The institute only made one award in the national competition.
"Building on a long history of collaborations with NIST researchers, the center will bring together the next generation of state-of-the-art computational methods, curated materials databases and novel integrated experimental methods to design new materials," said Northwestern professor Peter Voorhees, one of three co-directors of the new center.
The other co-directors are Gregory Olson, the Walter P. Murphy professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern, and Juan de Pablo, the Liew Family professor in molecular engineering at the University of Chicago.
"This center will build the primary foundation of the national Materials Genome Initiative," Olson said.
The consortium plans to work closely with the pioneering materials-design company QuesTek Innovations, a small business spinoff of Northwestern, co-founded by Olson; ASM International, a well-known professional society of materials scientists; and Fayetteville State University.
The consortium also will have help from "a strong cast of supporting industrial collaborators from across the nation," the consortium said in a news release.
Designing materials employs physical theory, advanced computer models, vast materials properties databases and complex computations to accelerate the design of a new material with specific properties for a particular application – perhaps an extremely tough, lightweight composite for automobile bodies or a biocompatible cell scaffold for medicine. This approach stands in contrast to the traditional trial-and-error method of materials discovery. (Think of Thomas Edison and his dogged quest for the best light bulb filament.)
The new center's work is expected to encompass both "hard" (inorganic) and "soft" (organic) advanced materials in fields as diverse as self-assembled biomaterials, smart materials for self-assembled circuit designs, organic photovoltaic materials, advanced ceramics and metal alloys, according to the consortium.
"The consortium will focus these techniques on a particularly difficult challenge: the creation of novel 'hierarchical materials," it explained. "Hierarchical materials exploit distinct structural details at various scales from the atomic on up to achieve special, enhanced properties. An example in nature of a hierarchical material is bone, a composite of mineral and protein at the molecular level assembled into microscopic fibrils that in turn are assembled into hollow fibers and on up to the highly complex material that is 'bone.'"
Techniques for designing materials have the potential to revolutionize the development of new advanced materials, which in turn have created whole industries. It's estimated that the average time from laboratory discovery of a new material to its first commercial use can take up to 20 years. The Materials Genome Initiative aims to halve that.
"The launch of this new center represents a major milestone in support of the president's Materials Genome Initiative and our national goal of doubling the pace of discovery and development of novel materials," said Cyrus Wadia, assistant director for clean energy and materials R&D at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
"By integrating the complementary strengths of computation, instrumentation and creative modeling, this center promises to help keep America at the forefront of the materials revolution and a leader in the economically important domain of advanced manufacturing."
The award to the Northwestern-led consortium for the Center for Hierarchical Materials Design is for $5 million per year for five years, subject to available funds. The consortium is contributing another $4.65 million to the center.