Argonne, Universities partner to design advanced materials

May 14, 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory today announced major new efforts with Northwestern University and the University of Chicago to advance the research and development of new materials to help solve the nation’s challenges in the fields of energy, health and security. The aim of the collaborations is to strengthen Chicago’s regional “innovation ecosystem” by linking experts in every aspect of advanced materials science and providing them with direct access to the world’s most advanced tools for materials discovery and characterization.

The announcement was made by Argonne Laboratory Director Eric Isaacs at a meeting of science and technology leaders at the White House to kick off a major R&D thrust called the Materials Genome Initiative for Global Competitiveness.

The plans articulated by Isaacs include the expansion of the joint Northwestern-Argonne Institute for Science and Technology to incorporate materials research emphasis and capabilities and, separately, the introduction of new collaborative programs with the Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago focused on leading-edge materials research. In addition, industry partners are expected to play key roles in the collaborations.

The Materials Genome Initiative, announced last year by President Obama, seeks to accelerate the pace of discovery and deployment of advanced materials that could fuel new and emerging industries, much as research into the properties of silicon in the 1970s laid the foundation for today’s $550 billion information technology industry.

“By more closely integrating our national laboratories’ capabilities with those of academia and industry, we can shorten the discovery-to-innovation timeline and enable a new generation of advanced materials,” Isaacs said. “Our vision is to build a materials innovation ecosystem in the Chicago area that leverages the power of discovery science, the deep expertise of academia, the energetic spirit of entrepreneurialism and the pragmatic focus of industry – all powered by the unique suite of scientific facilities at Argonne.”

“We look forward to expanding the Northwestern-Argonne Institute, an already successful partnership,” said Julio M. Ottino, dean of Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Computational materials has a long history at Northwestern in both education and research, and by combining our strengths in materials science, chemistry and nanotechnology with Argonne’s facilities and talent, we are poised to help solve global challenges.”

“Northwestern and Argonne have a long history of productive, collaborative research in materials science, the life sciences and chemistry,” said Northwestern Vice President for Research Jay Walsh. “Our faculty and students are excited to be collaborating with Argonne scientists and engineers to further the national Materials Genome Initiative and accelerate the development of new products and processes that will help us respond to challenges in energy, national security, health care and other areas of societal need.”

“The Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago will attack societal problems from a technological viewpoint,” said Matthew Tirrell, the Institute’s Pritzker Director. “I envision a translational institute, one where scientists and engineers working at the atomic and molecular levels will apply the most advanced tools to find solutions to engineering problems in fields such as materials science, information technology and healthcare.

“Engineering draws on both empirical knowledge and computational modeling, including the management of large data sets, to approach engineering solutions. IME’s interdisciplinary setting is ideal for developing this powerful new approach to engineering research and education.”

Argonne is the home of the world’s most advanced tools for materials characterization, including the Advanced Photon Source, a premier national research facility that provides the brightest high-energy x-ray beams in the Western Hemisphere to more than 5,000 scientists each year from around the United States and the world. The computational materials research effort at Argonne stretches from materials for batteries and catalysts to magnetic materials for information storage.

Argonne’s leadership computing facilities will allow the properties of materials to be predicted with unprecedented accuracy and can serve as the archive for the community’s experimental and simulation results. This computational effort draws upon the faculty of the University of Chicago through the joint Computation Institute.

The computational materials effort at Northwestern involves faculty in nearly all the science and engineering departments on campus. It spans from algorithm development for quantum mechanical calculations of materials properties to the design of high-temperature superalloys using thermodynamic databases.

Computational materials design is deeply embedded in the educational effort at Northwestern as well through an undergraduate materials design curriculum that was started nearly 15 years ago, and a Masters Degree certificate in Integrated Computational Materials Engineering is being developed.

As the nascent Northwestern-Argonne Institute ramps up its activities, plans are to include new materials research emphasis and capabilities that will engage disciplines from computer engineering and materials science and engineering to chemistry, and physics. The initiative will take full advantage of the advanced instrumentation at Northwestern, such as the J. B. Cohen X-Ray Diffraction Facility and the Northwestern University Atomic and Nanoscale Characterization Experimental Center.

Northwestern faculty members are currently working with companies such as Dow, Ford and Boeing to design advanced materials. In addition, a Northwestern University spin-off company focused on computational design of materials, Questek Innovations, is working with Argonne to design lightweight automotive materials.

The University of Chicago deepened its commitment to materials research with the creation last year of the Institute for Molecular Engineering in partnership with Argonne. Beginning with the appointment of Matthew Tirrell as Pritzker Director, the institute has been pursuing an aggressive hiring plan to bring world-leading faculty members into joint appointments at Argonne and the university.

Molecular engineering encompasses the design and construction of functional molecular-level systems for applications in, for example, energy efficiency, energy conversion or bio-energy production, as well as healthcare, computation and communications. Early specific targets of this hiring plan are in materials for advanced nanolithography, quantum information technology, biological engineering, new materials and device technology for energy storage. To achieve this, computational methods are not only essential and representative of another important area for targeted IME hiring, but will be integrated with all experimental and developmental efforts.

The Materials Genome Initiative will support the development of computational tools, software, new methods for materials characterization and the development of open standards and databases that will make the process of discovery and development of advanced materials faster, less expensive and more predictable.

Among the potential advances that could come out of the initiative are high-efficiency solar photovoltaics and other clean energy systems, lightweight structural materials for automobiles, biocompatible materials for prostheses and artificial organs and substitutes for rare earth minerals vital in numerous civilian and military applications but mined almost exclusively in other countries.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.