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5 Tech Trends Accelerating Advanced Materials Design in 2021

Feb. 22, 2021
Material engineers are benefiting from game-changing emerging technologies.

Historically, designing advanced materials has required a significant amount of patience. Professionals in some creative and scientific fields can see the results of their work right before their eyes, but material engineers have always needed to wait for their designs to be manufactured and then tested to see if a new material’s performance would meet expectations.

Recently, however, several emerging technologies are letting material engineers more freely tinker and iterate to see results from their work much more rapidly. As a result, designers and engineering teams developing advanced materials can test out more ideas, discovering more solutions to pressing problems, faster than ever.

Here are five of those emerging game-changing tech trends for advanced materials designers.

1. Machine learning and artificial intelligence. The rise of machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) is probably the single most significant development in the field of advanced materials design over the past decade. ML algorithms simply make materials design much more intuitive than before. They let material engineers make a design change and get immediate feedback about how that new material performs.

Meanwhile, AI is helping designers make discoveries that lead to design changes for materials. As humans, we can observe natural phenomena, develop mathematical models to explain them, and eventually try to replicate them in the materials design process. But AI tools essentially eliminate the intermediary step and uncover physical laws and solve problems without ever having to work out the equations. This technology is revolutionizing sectors like biology and medicine, and it will have an increasingly significant impact on the materials design field in the coming years.

2. Cloud computing. Advanced materials design requires some serious computational power, the type of computing power that until recently was largely only accessible in research labs. Today, the public cloud lets researchers spin up vast resources on a temporary basis, paying only for what they use.

The benefits of the cloud are on full display in my MIT course on materials design, which I am currently teaching live/remotely due to the COVID pandemic. Although students cannot travel to the MIT campus, they can still write and run code in the cloud directly from their browsers. That moment, when people write their first their first ML algorithm, is often a point of great pride. And it’s possible, thanks to widely accessible (and simple) cloud computing.

3. Nanoengineering. The advent of nanoengineering, in which engineering is done on the nanoscale, has let engineers improve the internal structure of materials. Through this process, they can more accurately mimic properties of extremely strong natural materials, such as spider’s silk.

Nanoengineering works on a scale so small it is hard to fathom.

To illustrate just how small we’re talking: The difference in scale between a nanometer and a meter is similar to the difference between a child’s marble and the entire earth. It’s as though material engineers now have a huge canvas to work with, and until now they’ve only been using 1% or less of it. Nanoengineering opens up the other 99%.

4. Augmented reality. Usually, augmented reality (AR) refers to overlaying digital information onto the real, physical world. For example, by downloading an app from a furniture company, consumers might be able to point a smartphone at parts strewn around the living room floor and receive assembly instructions.

In a different type of AR, material engineers can design a new material and then see the actual forces and the effect they will have on the  material pop up on a computer screen. Technically, this is digital information being overlaid onto other digital information (rather than onto the real world), but the effect on designers is like that of more traditional AR programs.

5. 3D printing. Finally, the growth of high-fidelity, micro-level 3D printing puts the “materials” in “materials design.” Rather than waiting weeks to see designs brought to life via manufacturers’ prototypes, engineers can use 3D printers from their labs (or, depending on their budget, even from their basements) and see real-world results of their efforts in nearly real time. And for people without ready access to a 3D printer, companies like Amazon are now offering 3D printing as an on-demand, “as-a-service” option.

Although mainstream 3D printing hasn’t quite reached the nanoscale, many 3D printers on the market let designer sprint on a scale of tens of micrometers; more expensive machines are operating on the microscopic level and expected to reach nanometer resolutions soon. In other words, today’s technology lets designers print what they can and cannot see.

The combination of AI and AR lets humans for the first time interactively design at the “ultimate” scale of atoms. Taken together with the other tech trends mentioned it greatly expands what is possible for advanced materials designers.

Markus J. Buehler is the McAfee Professor of Engineering and a materials engineering instructor at MIT. In addition to his regular teaching, he offers an annual MIT Professional Education course, Predictive Multiscale Materials Design.”

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