Materials Discovery and Processing

If the U.S. is to be a competitive player in the next generation of advanced materials, it will need to invest significantly more in materials research, in crystal growth and similar facilities, and in training the next generation of material scientists.

Excerpted from The Future Postponed, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015

Michael F. Rubner: Director of the Center for Materials Science and Engineering, TDK Professor of Polymer Materials Science and Engineering, and Margaret MacVicar Fellow

Joseph Checkelsky: Assistant Professor of Physics

Since the times of early civilization, the advancement of the human race has been closely connected with the development of new materials and the means to pro- cess them into tools and other useful forms. We even keep track of history in terms of important materials—the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. This process has accelerated in the last half-century, in what is sometimes referred to as the Information Age, resulting in a wide variety of advances:

  • integrated circuits and batteries small enough to enable tablets, laptop computers, and
  • cell phones, as well as massive data storage facilities that comprise the internet “cloud”;
  • solid state lasers and optical fibers used in surgery, manufacturing, and long distance communications;
  • low-cost solar cells and ultra-high efficiency, long-lived LED lightbulbs;
  • sophisticated new medical diagnostic tools such as CAT and MRI scans;
  • more efficient, safer, and more reliable automobiles.

In all of these cases and many more, advancements made in the development of new materials and materials processing techniques have enabled the implementation of structural
materials and electronic and optical devices with remarkable performance characteristics. These developments, in turn, have resulted in significant improvements in the quality of life and the strength of our economy.

A key factor in these remarkable developments was heavy investment by industry, especially in the United States, in basic science and engineering. Particularly in the first half of this period, in what might be called the Bell Labs era, industry took a relatively long- term view of the process of new technology development. Coupled with the fundamental knowledge generated at universities, this led to the explosive growth of many materials dependent industries. In addition to most of the examples mentioned above, these included superconducting wires and magnets, silicon-based semi-conductor materials for electronics, and a variety of high performance polymers, metals and ceramics. But over the past few decades, international competitive pressures and the short term focus of the financial sector have caused U.S. industry to move away from long-term investments in R&D and to essentially eliminate corporate sponsored basic research, instead relying heavily on academic-based discovery. Thus, without adequate investment in the funding of basic science and engineering at universities, this country will simply not be generating the fundamental knowledge required to enable the next generation of new materials and materials processes. 

U.S. industry has essentially eliminated corporate sponsored basic research. Without adequate investment at universities, this country will simply not generate the fundamental knowledge for the next generation of materials and processing techniques.

One example is the facilities for growing crystals, an area in which the U.S. was the undisputed leader 25 years ago, but is no longer. Growing crystals is an important method of dis- covering new materials and improving existing ones. High purity silicon crystals served as the canvas for modern electronics; single crystals of inter-metallic alloys made possible modern jet engine turbines; and still other crystals gave rise to high temperature superconductors. New computational techniques may soon allow the design of even more complex materials. Yet the U.S. does not support an open access crystal growing facility nor a facility which couples dedicated supercomputer-based materials design to synthesis and characterization as done at, for example, Japan’s leading materials laboratory at the University of Tokyo. 

That means that the U.S. is not training a new generation of experts in crystal growth and related materials specialties. The innovation deficit can be measured in the scientific literature, where U.S. contributions now account for less than 12 percent of publications in the leading crystal growth journals, including a steadily declining proportion of the most-cited (e.g. most important) articles. 

At the same time, investment in crystal growth research and facilities has expanded significantly in other countries, most notably Japan, China, South Korea, and Germany. China has become a major and at times dominant contributor to the crystal growth literature, with innovations in both synthesis of new materials and measurements of their properties. Industrial investment in materials R & D has also been stronger abroad, especially in Japan and Korea, resulting in such important developments by Samsung of commercially important organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs)—in which a thin film of an organic compound emits light in response to an electric current—that now provide some of the dramatic displays in TVs and many other digital devices. In this later case, the materials and device technology was actually invented in the US at Eastman Kodak more than 40 years ago, but it took the intensive R&D efforts of companies like Samsung and LG to finally capitalize on this new technology. Samsung’s commitment to R&D is illustrated by its practice of sending some of its best employees to work for a time in the laboratories of leading U.S. universities.

The opportunities in advanced materials are many, including the growing area of nano-materials, in which the composition is controlled almost atom by atom. Another example is computational efforts to identify all possible types of new materials and calculate their structural properties, as proposed by the Administration’s Materials Genome initiative.

The challenge is not only in the materials, but also the means to process them efficiently. Thin film solar cells, for example, is an area in which the U.S. still leads, for now, and which holds the potential for both far more efficient cells and processing techniques far less costly than the Chinese-dominated market for single-crystal silicon cells. Equally important
are multi-functional materials, such as glass that is both anti-reflective, anti-static and super-hydrophobic, which would make possible dust resistant, self-cleaning windows and solar cell covers. Another important, high-growth area is nano-manufacturing, such as in 3-D printers, in which the required functionality has to be embedded in the tiny particles sprayed into position by a device equivalent to an ink- jet printer. But if the US is to be a competitive player in the next generation of advanced materials, it will need to invest significantly more in materials research, in crystal growth and similar facilities, and in training the next generation of both academic and industrial material scientists.