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Manufacturing faster than the speed of human thought

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New materials are key to solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including decarbonizing transportation and increasing clean water supplies. There is no shortage of ideas; every day scientists are creating state-of-the-art materials for high-capacity, long-lived, safe, recyclable, and grid-compatible batteries and selective water purification materials that are resistant to fouling and degradation.

Material quantities that can be developed in the lab, though, are very small — just a gram or less. In order for manufacturers to bring these new materials into the market, a basic science idea must be scaled up” to a sufficiently large enough quantity that it can be evaluated for wide-scale use.

Cost-effectively scaling up to a quantity of a kilogram or more has been challenging, to say nothing of attempting to accelerate the process in order to meet urgent needs. To overcome these challenges, Argonne is employing artificial intelligence (AI) — a powerful new agent that works faster than the speed of human thought.

From autonomous driving to discovering medicines that could potentially work for COVID-19, to suggesting what you should eat or what movie you should watch, artificial intelligence is all around us,” said Santanu Chaudhuri, director of Manufacturing Science and Engineering at Argonne. This same power can transform manufacturing.”

Argonne’s recently expanded Materials Engineering Research Facility (MERF) is a manufacturing-like environment where scientists use advanced tools to characterize materials they’re making, as they’re making them. Then they use AI and high-performance computing to steer toward the optimal process in near-real time.

AI helps us make sense of data that would overwhelm a human operator,” said Chaudhuri. He added, however, that experts must still be at the helm of the machines. Argonne’s cadre of world-class scientists includes many who spent years working in industry, he said.

Essential to Argonne’s one-of-a-kind scale-up process are the innovative manufacturing technologies and streaming data analytics platform housed in the MERF, as well as the Advanced Photon Source (APS) and the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF), national user facilities also located on campus. The APS is the most powerful X-ray microscope in the Western Hemisphere, while the ALCF will soon welcome Aurora, an exascale supercomputer that will be among the most powerful machines in the United States.