Material Innovation Gaining Speed with Online Tool Kit
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are looking to speed up the process of material innovation with a new online tool kit.
The tool kit, called the Materials Project, allows scientists to explore a massive online database containing information on some 18,000 chemical compounds. With a quick computation using the supercomputers at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley Lab, the project's online tools can tell users how two compounds will likely interact, and what the resulting composite's molecular structure and physical properties will be.
Ultimately, the tool kit will help scientists easily find a specific compound they need or learn more about a material they're already looking to use, essentially reducing months of work down to a few moments.
These days, we're very limited when trying to design new materials based on our knowledge of existing ones, said Gerbrand Ceder, a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT. We just don't know the properties of most materials.
A few years ago, Ceder founded MIT's Materials Genome Project, the precursor to the current collaborative effort. He and his colleagues computed some of the properties of about 120,000 compounds, including all known inorganic compounds and some others. With scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Ceder is now building a more robust catalogue of the compounds the count is now at 18,000, with hundreds more added each day. What's there today is really only a smidgen of what's to come, Ceder told InnovationNewsDaily.
Material innovation is currently a frustrating experience, Ceder explained. Researchers will go into the lab with an idea of how something will work and spend many months developing their new material, only to find out later that it doesn't perform the way they thought it would. The new tool kit can solve complicated quantum mechanics equations on the fly, allowing scientists to analyze and combine compounds virtually, and learn how a new material will work before wasting their time developing it in the lab.
We now have in many cases computational confirmation that the property we are looking at is going to be good, he said. We can select much better targets and do experimental research much more effectively.
In tests at MIT, the tool kit has been used mainly for battery research. Duracell has used MIT's early version of the tool kit to find better materials for its rechargeable batteries; the company has since filed patents based on the research, Ceder said. Ceder expects that in the near future researchers will be able to use the project to seek out materials for photovoltaic cells and new lightweight alloys for vehicles, such as cars and airplanes. [Futuristic Materials Could Build Tornado-Proof Homes ]
When it's put in the hands of experimental teams, I think small miracles happen, Ceder said. They really use it in creative ways.
Ceder stresses that the Materials Project, which went online in early October, doesn't track what users do with it: how a scientist or company uses the tool kit is strictly confidential. It's available for anyone to use, but people who want unlimited access must sign up for a free registration.