It takes decades for new materials to travel from discovery to store shelves. Lithium ion batteries, now ubiquitous in laptops and portable electronics, were first proposed in the mid-1970s, but took more than 20 years to reach their commercial potential. The federal government’s Materials Genome Initiative wants to cut the time it takes for advanced materials to go from concept to market. If all goes according to plan, the U.S. innovation sector could be churning out new materials in less than 10 years’ time.
Why care so much about how we make stuff? The American economy, in many ways, is built on an increasingly intricate foundation of etched silicon. Just as earlier centuries depended on ever more clever permutations of iron and steel, today’s information economy relies on sophisticated silicon wafers. Advanced materials, argues the Materials Genome Initiative, are the fundamental building blocks of tomorrow’s economy, no less important to growth and development than an organism’s DNA.
The government initiative is designed to double the speed that new materials are discovered, developed, and commercially manufactured, igniting what the Initiative envisions as a “Renaissance of American Manufacturing.” Fine words, but how? In part, the concept calls for replacing some scientific intuition and trial and error experimentation with virtual experiments conducted on powerful computers, as well as infrastructure to share engineering data and models. “The materials community must embrace open innovation,” the report states. It also describes a plan to streamline today’s unwieldy, seven-stage commercialization process. Even integrating today’s best engineering tools could shorten the materials development cycle to only two or three years, figures The National Academies of Sciences.
The Obama Administration is proposing spending $100 million to make developing these advanced materials “faster, less expensive, and more predictable,” and has launched an Advanced Manufacturing Partnership effort with the private sector. With China rapidly closing the funding gap for science research and development–Chinese government support for R&D rose to $3 billion in 2011, seven times the level in 1998–the U.S. will need more than its reputation to stay on top.
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