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From the synthetic fibers in Kevlar vests to the lithium-based compounds that power your laptop, advanced materials are so much a part of our everyday lives it’s not surprising that many people don’t appreciate how difficult it is to develop them. It can take 20 or more years to transition a material from discovery to a commercial product on store shelves. Those lithium ion batteries, for example, which are ubiquitous today not only in laptops but in all kinds portable electronic devices, were first proposed in the mid-1970s but only achieved broad market adoption and use in the late 1990s.
This current “time-to-market” from discovery to deployment for new classes of materials is far too slow, given the range of urgent problems that advanced materials can help us solve. New materials, for example, can enable companies to make safer, lighter vehicles, packaging that keeps food fresher and more nutritious, and solar cells as cheap as paint.
Today, as part of his new Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, the President is announcing an ambitious plan, the Materials Genome Initiative, to double the speed with which we discover, develop, and manufacture new materials. The White House released a new white paper describing the initiative, Materials Genome Initiative for Global Competitiveness (pdf), produced by the Cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council.
In the same way that the Human Genome Project accelerated a range of biological sciences by identifying and deciphering the basic building blocks of the human genetic code, the Materials Genome Initiative will speed our understanding of the fundamentals of material science, providing a wealth of practical information that entrepreneurs and innovators will be able to use to develop new products and processes.
The President’s FY12 budget includes $100 million to launch the Materials Genome Initiative, with funding for the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The initiative will fund computational tools, software, new methods for material characterization, and the development of open standards and databases that will make the process of discovery and development of advanced materials faster, less expensive, and more predictable.
Realizing the goals of the Materials Genome Initiative will require an unprecedented level of collaboration among all stakeholders, including government, industry, academia, professional societies, and national labs. By working together, we can use advanced materials to help solve of our most pressing national challenges and promote a renaissance of American manufacturing.
Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Policy at OSTP
Cyrus Wadia is Assistant Director for Clean Energy and Materials R&D at OSTP