Materials can be every bit as sexy as technologies such as driveless cars or 3-D printers. After all, it’s the composite materials that make the cars lighter and faster, and the inks and powders that are capable of doing the printing.

But developing advanced materials to drive such innovations is a complex and expensive process. It can take 20 years or more for a newly created or discovered material to make it to market, says James Warren. He’s the technical program director for materials genomics in the Material Measurement Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Even so, those new materials will drive developments in sustainable travel, clean energy, and national security. They also figure in making manufacturing competitive in a global environment.

Two recent U.S. initiatives seek to accelerate the pace of materials discovery by bringing together federal agencies and national research laboratories to help develop and commercialize new materials.

James Warren, NIST.James Warren, NIST.Mapping the Materials Genome

In 2011, the federal government kicked off the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI). It’s mission: to discover, manufacture, and deploy advanced materials twice as fast, at a fraction of the cost.

So for, the government has invested more than $250 million in the interagency effort. This year the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy provided a $40 million tie-in to that program through its Energy Materials Network. The idea is to step up market rollout of advanced materials for clean-energy solutions.

“MGI is not a choice, it’s not a new way of developing materials that will maybe work out,” Warren says. “This is the future of materials. We have to do this.”

NIST has a big hand in MGI development and Warren heads those efforts.

Already, the initiative has found that materials scientists—like so many researchers in other fields—work with their heads down, focusing their efforts within their own fields. But their experimental data needs to be shared and accessible, and the MGI is working on ways to do that, Warren says.

Information sharing is not the only issue. Designing a new material is complex and involves many factors that need to be balanced.

Data Sharing

For example, composite materials, whether they are intended are to act as inks for printable electronics or as concrete or nanocomposites, may include dozens of molecular and microscale components, each of which affects material properties. The same sorts of interactions apply for devices like photovoltaic materials, batteries, catalytic materials, or next-generation electronics.

MGI researchers are hopeful they’ve now come up with at least two ways to get scientists working together across disciplines to enhance and speed materials development.

The first goal is to bring together all that data—from various material fields and from theories and experiments—to drive multiscale models that simulate the diverse properties, processes, and physical phenomena that act upon a potential material.

One tool used by CaloriCool scientists to characterize essential properties of caloric materials is a fully-automated calorimeter. Image source: Ames LaboratoryOne tool used by CaloriCool scientists to characterize essential properties of caloric materials is a fully-automated calorimeter. Image source: Ames LaboratoryThe simulation models can be used across materials fields to predict how a given material will perform in a number of conditions, he says. But to share results, researchers must access each other’s data and exchange information.

That may sound like double talk, but they really are not, although they are opposite sides of the same coin, Warren says.

For one thing, accessing others’ data pertains to the methods used to store and access the data. It’s the same problem many people face when trying to send information created in one set of software to a different system. The issue for materials is on a much greater scale.

As a result, getting the insights gleaned from various technologies to communicate across multiple programming languages and cultures is part of the effort spearheaded by NIST.

“When we’re talking about materials, there’s a lot of different types of experiments, and you have to break them down into the meaningful ways,” Warren says. “So if you do SEM scanning electron microscopy and you want to share those experiments, how will you share it in a way that everything will know what it means?” he asks.

To get systems talking and to ensure the data is correct “you need the full provenance of the simulation: quantitative information about data validation and verification, uncertainty analyses, metadata about the computer it comes from,” as well as other information, Warren says.

Working to solve the problem led managers to realize that a limited amount of data actually can be shared. “That’s how hard the problem of data sharing actually is,” Warren says.

A Role for Standards

That’s where NIST’s standards setting capabilities come in. NIST is establishing data exchange protocols and the means to ensure materials data and models can be shared in ways all systems understand.

But to make use of standards, data researchers need to know what information is out there.

“Google just doesn’t cut it for this kind of thing,” Warren says. “Most data sits on someone’s hard drive and it’s never shared.”

That led to creation of a second MGI initiative, the Materials Research Directory. Warren admits that the NIST MGI group borrowed the idea from a similar directory created by astronomers to share research. The gateway to the MGI tool is at https://mgi.nist.gov/ and for now includes models and simulations.

The DOE’s Energy Materials Network represents another government effort to support materials development. This efforts is specifically aimed at finding materials for clean energy solutions.

Reuben Sarkar, DOE.Reuben Sarkar, DOE.The network gives industries access to the scientific and technical resources available at the DEE’s national labs, says Reuben Sarkar, deputy assistant secretary for transportation at DOE. He oversees the agency’s Office of Energy, Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s sustainable transportation area, which includes the vehicle, fuel cell, and bioenergy technologies offices.

In short, the network is intended to bring materials scientists of all stripes to labs that offer the experts and technologies those scientists need to get their jobs done.“It’s hard these days to get people to build centers for excellence,” Sarker says. “They’re expensive to build and people think we’ll be funding something into perpetuity.” To solution was to create national lab consortiums around a class of problems and across different materials.

Each of the Energy Materials Network consortia brings together one or more national labs, industry, and academia to focus on specific classes of materials aligned to challenges related to create materials for clean energy technologies.

So far, three groups exist, though that number is expected to grow, Sarkar says.

· The Caloric Materials Consortium (CaloriCool) is dedicated to the discovery of high-performance energy conversion materials that can be economically adopted by industry for a new generation of energy efficient solid-state cooling and refrigeration devices.

The Electrocatalysis Consortium (ElectroCat) is using national lab resources to design and synthesize catalysts to speed the development process of PGM-free electrocatalysts for fuel cells.  Image source: Argonne National LaboratoryThe Electrocatalysis Consortium (ElectroCat) is using national lab resources to design and synthesize catalysts to speed the development process of PGM-free electrocatalysts for fuel cells. Image source: Argonne National Laboratory· The Electrocatalysis Consortium (ElectroCat) is dedicated to finding new ways to replace rare and costly platinum group metals used in hydrogen fuel cells with more abundant and inexpensive substitutes.

· The Lightweight Materials National Lab Consortium (LightMat) is a network of nine national labs with technical capabilities that are related to lightweight materials development and use.

“There are many steps to creating new materials and you need to scale up your discoveries to produce them in mass; a lot of people get tripped up there,” Sarkar says.

Warren says members are now demonstrating for manufacturers and industries the data-sharing software and simulation tools the MGI has created, and are looking for feedback on how to make those tools more useful.

“We want to engage more in the manufacturing community in general to increase our relevance,” he says. In addition, the MGI is also looking at machine learning tools that can further speed materials development.

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