[Image above] Javier Garay (center, University of California, San Diego) fields a question during a panel discussion at a recent workshop on emerging opportunities in ceramics and glass science. Also pictured are Gary Messing from Penn State and Kathy Lu from University of Virginia. Credit: ACerS

To fulfill its mission, the National Science Foundation has to be focused and smart about how it spends its budget. The focus needs to be on science, and the “smart” has to be on emerging opportunities that will advance society in the long run.

According to the NSF’s website, its $7.5 billion annual budget supports about one-fourth of basic science research conducted at U.S.-based universities and colleges through about 12,000 new awards per year.

That sounds like a lot of science, but the budget divides into seven research directorates and several “management and overhead” buckets. Thirty-two divisions reside under those seven research directorates, and those divisions break down further into discipline-specific programs.

Today my focus is on the Directorate for Mathematical & Physical Sciences, its Division of Materials Research (DMR), and the Ceramics Program that DMR hosts. Absent a crystal (or glass) ball to gaze into, a workshop organized with support from DMR’s Ceramics Program last week looked into the minds of leading researchers in the U.S. and abroad.

Caltech professor Katherine Faber organized the 2.5-day workshop to identify emerging opportunities in ceramics and glass science. Working with her organizing committee of Jennifer Lewis (Harvard University), Clive Randall (Pennsylvania State University), and Greg Rohrer (Carnegie Mellon University), about 45 scientists presented the latest work in the field, challenges they are addressing, and most importantly, why it matters in the context of scientific trends and society’s compelling grand challenges.

Most attendees hailed from academia, although organizers were careful to balance experience levels. Perspectives from national labs and industry also were represented—the latter being especially important for providing “rubber meets the road” perspectives. Organizers also reached beyond the obvious community and invited experts outside the field working in “nearby” research areas, such as a mineral physicist and a solid-state chemist.

The first day-and-a-half comprised presentations arranged into five challenges:

  • Advanced processing. Where can we go with advances in additive manufacturing? What new synthesis opportunities do polymer-derived ceramics offer? What does new science into low-temperature, pressurized sintering imply?
  • Defect-enabled phenomena. What advantages do imperfect materials offer? Can “designer defects” lead to new functionality?
  • Low-dimensional phenomena. Can properties of 2-D materials be tuned? Can we learn to process them with advanced methods, such as 3-D printing? How can grain boundaries be engineered for functionality? Can surfaces be designed for catalysis, switching, or other functions?
  • Materials in extreme environments. Extreme environments push materials to their critical property limits, including thermal, heat, or radiation flux and mechanical or electrical loads. How do we discover new materials for these environments and test and characterize them?
  • Glass and high entropy materials. What can we learn by better understanding and controlling of amorphous structures? Do new approaches to achieving amorphicity open new ways of thinking about glass and its uses?

Topical sessions included a panel discussion that generated lively conversation on a wide range of topics. Modeling techniques and strategies was a common thread that cut across all topics, which the final report will probably reflect. In breakout sessions on the second day-and-a-half, participants worked on refining the definition of these areas and teasing out grand challenges and emerging opportunities.

Faber says, “The workshop has provided us with valuable assessments of where knowledge gaps exist in ceramic and glass science. These will form the basis of our emerging opportunities report and ultimately inspire researchers with a host of challenges to tackle.” Putting it another way, Faber encouraged participants to seek “overarching ideas that provide a framework for individual contributions.”

The output from the workshop will be an open-access article that will detail these opportunities, challenges that they present, and cross-cutting themes (for example, modeling and dataset management). Watch for that to publish in early 2017.

Besides topical areas, Adam Stevenson from Saint-Gobain (France) gave a captivating and stimulating presentation on his work using literature data mining to uncover new areas of research. A young materials scientist, Stevenson says the work started as a side project to figure out where the company could go for information as its “go-to” staff retire. By mapping author and institution trends, the company can now quickly see nodes of activity. Keyword analysis shows research trends with rising stars, and those that are waning. Stevenson published the work in JACerS in 2015, and the paper is summarized in CTT.

One struggle presenters had was to stay in the realm of science and not veer off into engineering—a challenge because ceramic and glass materials are most interesting for solving engineering problems that other materials cannot.

One attendee from industry noted that manufacturing cost comes from two sources—capital cost and operating cost. He says companies expect to invest in capital equipment, and operating costs come down with time and engineering. His message to researchers seemed to be “prove that the science works,” and let engineering work out the manufacturing problems.

Readers may recall a similar workshop took place in 2012. The resulting JACerS paper has been downloaded well over 800 times, an indicator of its relevance to researchers as a guide to our field’s Big Ideas. Organizers hope this workshop will serve today’s research community similarly, and also provide one channel for input to the NSF for tough funding decisions it needs to make.


Clive Randall (Penn State, right) fields a question from Sossina Haile (center) of Northwestern University. Credit: ACerS


The workshop led to valuable networking and exchange of ideas. Credit: ACerS