Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Materials Genome Initiative: or How Long Will the Battery on My New Cell Phone Last?


Okay, the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) sounds like an episode of the SyFy show "Eureka," but it's real.  In June of 2011, the President of the United States and the Office of Science and Technology Policy committed $100 million dollars to improve the discovery and applied use of new materials.

We associate genome with human DNA, but in this case we're talking about the chemical composition of new materials.  Advanced materials can be used for all sorts of things, from more efficient solar power, to better batteries for your phone and laptop, to lighter, stronger components for vehicles.  The problem is that creating and testing new materials takes a long time, and it may be 18 to 20 years before a new material reaches the marketplace as a product.

The idea of MGI is to speed this process up.  One way to do this is to run virtual tests on computers for hundreds or even thousands of chemical combinations, rather than running physical tests on everything.  If you can narrow down the material combinations that look most promising, then you can do full tests on those.


As you know from reading this blog, l love science and technology.  But when there are people going hungry, I'm not sure putting $100 million of taxpayer money into a government program like this is wise.  I'd rather see innovation come from the private sector.  Let the corporations develop their own materials.

However, the basic idea of getting materials from the idea phase to the applied phase faster is sound.  The initial funding was slated for four agencies:  Department of Defense, Department of Energy, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation.  Overall, the idea is for government to work with universities, private companies, and professional societies to share information and techniques.


A government report from May 2012 details some of MGI's progress.  On the government side, $17 million went to the Department of Defense for research, and $12 million to the Department of Energy to combine computational and experimental tools.

In academia, partners include Johns Hopkins University, Harvard, the University of Utah and the Berkeley National Lab.  They will work with both government and corporate partners on various projects. 

For instance, Johns Hopkins is joining with the Department of Defense to, "develop new materials that have been predictably and reliably designed to protect Soldiers in extreme dynamic environments." (Fact Sheet: Progress on Materials Genome Initiative, May 14, 2012)  Other partners include Lockheed Martin's work on carbon nanostructures, and General Electric's Summit on Additive Manufacturing.

Will the eventual results justify the spending of taxpayer money? I have no idea, but I hope so.  I know I wish our troops overseas had better protective gear and bomb-resistant vehicles.  I wish cars here at home were safer.  And yes, I wish the battery in my cell phone lasted longer.

If you invented a new material, what would you use it for?

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(Sources include:  Office of Science and Technology, MaterialsInnovation, and Fact Sheet: Progress on Materials Genome Initiative.  The pic of a carbon rope and some buckyballs is from:

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