Steel rebar embedded in concrete (left) and “nanorebar” made of carbon nanofibers. Credit: F. Sanchez, Vanderbilt University; ACerS Bulletin.

President Obama announced the launch of a Materials Genome Initiative during his speech at Carnegie Mellon University last week when he also announced the launch of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. (Read our report on the AMP announcement). The goal of the MGI, he said, is to “to help business develop, discover and deploy new materials twice as fast…”

Stating the obvious — This is great news for the materials science and engineering community.

The president did not say much more about the MGI than the above quote, but the White House released a white paper the same day, “Materials Genome Initiative for Global Competitiveness (pdf),” written by an ad hoc committee of the National Science and Technology Council (a Cabinet-level cross-agency entity). In the press release announcing the MGI white paper, the White House says “current “time-to-market” from discovery to deployment for new classes of materials is far too slow, given the range of urgent problems that advanced materials can help us solve.”

The white paper presents a vision for “how the development of advanced materials can be accelerated through advances in computational techniques, more effective use of standards, and enhanced data management.” Envisioned is a comprehensive collaboration among stakeholders, from theorists to R&D labs to manufacturers that will encompass academia, small and large businesses, professional societies and government.

In broad strokes, the paper addresses key issues like materials deployment and acceleration of the materials continuum by developing a materials innovation infrastructure, achieving national goals with advanced materials and preparing the next-generation workforce. A six-point action plan outlines activities that will be coordinated by DOD, DOE, NSF and NIST. The president has written $100M into his FY12 budget to launch the MGI (but it is not clear whether this is included in the $500 million AMP funding request for FY12).

Computational tools are expected to be used extensively to get around the time-consuming and repetitive experimentation that is inevitable but necessary to the development and testing of new materials. The authors of the white paper observe that researchers need to have access to large data sets for accurate simulation and modeling, and that there is no standardized mechanism for sharing algorithms, models or data at present.

Getting good data to feed into models is easy to say, hard to do.

In the March 2011 issue of the Bulletin, the article “A perspective on materials databases,” addresses the issue of data, noting the importance of easy access to reliable materials property data, but large volumes of data are hidden in widely dispersed or unavailable databases. The provenance of available data is often unknown, so the quality of conclusions drawn from such data is also unknown. Old data with well-known provenance still can prove to be insufficiently well-known. The example of 96 percent alumina is given. The composition of the remaining 4 percent can matter enormously, but is not always known. Often processing and preparation information that can affect properties is missing.

The NSF is working to resolve this dilemma by requiring its investigators to include a plan for data sharing in their proposals. The article’s authors admit that the cost of developing and maintaining a comprehensive data system is a formidable obstacle, one which the MGI should help mitigate.

There are plenty of examples of computational tools being used already for materials engineering. In the May 2010 issue of the Bulletin, the article “Atomic-scale computational modeling of cement and concrete,” describes the application of ab-initio and molecular dynamics methods to the engineering of the concrete and cement, materials that nearly everyone worldwide knows. Nanoscale engineering of skyscrapers!

The Chicago-based company, QuesTek – with the tagline “Materials by Design” – is an alloy development company that uses computational methods to expedite alloy development including the commercially available Ferrium line of alloys, one which is under consideration for a use as a helicopter gear by Bell Helicopter. QuesTek’s computational know-how is based on the industry-funded research of its founder, Greg Olson, professor at Northwestern University.

Not surprisingly, QuesTek has come out in strong support of the MGI.