This article is from the In-Depth Report World Changing Ideas 2013

How Supercomputers Will Yield a Golden Age of Materials Science

With supercomputers and the equations of quantum mechanics, scientists are designing new materials atom by atom, before ever running an experiment

quantum super computer

Marek Haiduk

In Brief

  • Engineered materials such as chip-grade silicon and fiber-optic glass underpin the modern world. Yet designing new materials has historically involved a frustrating and inefficient amount of guesswork.
  • Streamlined versions of the equations of quantum mechanics—along with supercomputers that, using those equations, virtually test thousands of materials at a time—are eliminating much of that guesswork.
  • Researchers are now using this method, called high-throughput computational materials design, to develop new batteries, solar cells, fuel cells, computer chips, and other technologies.

More on this Topic

In 1878 Thomas Edison set out to reinvent electric lighting. To develop small bulbs suitable for indoor use, he had to find a long-lasting, low-heat, low-power lighting element. Guided largely by intuition, he set about testing thousands of carbonaceous materials—boxwood, coconut shell, hairs cut from his laboratory assistant's beard. After 14 months, he patented a bulb using a filament made of carbonized cotton thread. The press heralded it as the “Great Inventor's Triumph in Electric Illumination.” Yet there were better filament materials. At the turn of the century, another American inventor perfected the tungsten filament, which we still use in incandescent lightbulbs today. Edison's cotton thread became history.

Materials science, the process of engineering matter into new and useful forms, has come a long way since the days of Edison. Quantum mechanics has given scientists a deep understanding of the behavior of matter and, consequently, a greater ability to guide investigation with theory rather than guesswork. Materials development remains a painstakingly long and costly process, however. Companies invest billions designing novel materials, but successes are few and far between. Researchers think of new ideas based on intuition and experience; synthesizing and testing those ideas involve a tremendous amount of trial and error. It can take months to evaluate a single new material, and most often the outcome is negative. As our Massachusetts Institute of Technology colleague Thomas Eagar has found, it takes an average of 15 to 20 years for even a successful material to move from lab testing to commercial application. When Sony announced the commercialization of the lithium-ion battery in 1991, for example, it seemed like a sudden, huge advance—but in fact, it took hundreds or thousands of battery researchers nearly two decades of stumbling, halting progress to get to that point.

Yet materials science is on the verge of a revolution. We can now use a century of progress in physics and computing to move beyond the Edisonian process. The exponential growth of computer-processing power, combined with work done in the 1960s and 1970s by Walter Kohn and the late John Pople, who developed simplified but accurate solutions to the equations of quantum mechanics, has made it possible to design new materials from scratch using supercomputers and first-principle physics. The technique is called high-throughput computational materials design, and the idea is simple: use supercomputers to virtually study hundreds or thousands of chemical compounds at a time, quickly and efficiently looking for the best building blocks for a new material, be it a battery electrode, a metal alloy or a new type of semiconductor.

Most materials are made of many chemical compounds—battery electrodes, which are composites of several compounds, are good examples—but some are much simpler. Graphene, which has been widely hyped as the future of electronics, consists of a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon. Regardless of a material's complexity, one thing is always true: its properties—density, hardness, shininess, electronic conductivity—are determined by the quantum characteristics of the atoms of which it is made. The first step in high-throughput materials design, then, is to virtually “grow” new materials by crunching thousands of quantum-mechanical calculations. A supercomputer arranges virtual atoms into hundreds or thousands of virtual crystal structures. Next, we calculate the properties of those virtual compounds. What do the crystal structures look like? How stiff are they? How do they absorb light? What happens when you deform them? Are they insulators or metals? We command the computer to screen for compounds with specific desirable properties, and before long, promising compounds rise to the top. At the end of the process, data generated during that investigation go back into a database that researchers can mine in the future.

This article was originally published with the title "The Stuff of Dreams."

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