Materials Genome Initiative
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Examples of Materials Applications

From the synthetic fibers in Kevlar vests to the lithium-based compounds that power your laptop, advanced materials are a part of our everyday lives—yet many people don't realize it can take 20 years to move a material from discovery phase to a product on store shelves. Those lithium ion batteries in our portable electronic devices, for example, were first proposed in the mid-1970s but only achieved broad market adoption in the late 1990s.

This current "time-to-market" for new classes of materials is far too slow, given the urgent problems that advanced materials can help to solve. New materials, for example, can enable safer, lighter vehicles; packaging that keeps food fresher and more nutritious; and solar cells as cheap as paint.

Other examples of potential MGI impacts could include:

Finding Substitutes for Critical Minerals

Minerals are important components of many products civilians use in daily life (e.g., cell phones, computers, and automobiles), as well as crucial military applications (e.g., avionics, radar, precision-guided munitions, and lasers). According to a National Academies study, each person in the United States consumes, on average, 25,000 pounds of non-fuel minerals each year.Yet the United States does not mine or process much of that raw material. The National Academies defines a critical mineral as one whose supply chain is at risk, for which the impact of a supply restriction would be severe, or both. Currently, the American manufacturing sector is struggling to maintain adequate supplies of critical minerals at reasonable costs. As the use of critical minerals increases, this supply shortage may be amplified unless additional domestic supply is identified and captured.

Many materials are referred to as “critical” because supply is highly concentrated in either one country or by a few corporate interests, and because they are used in the production of goods that are important economically or for national security. Today, there is particular concern about materials like platinum, tellurium, and certain rare earth elements because they are essential to the manufacture of products in key high-growth sectors, including clean energy, consumer electronics, and defense, among others. The discovery and development of technology substitutes that deliver the same functionality but replace critical minerals, like the rare earth elements, with those that are more earth-abundant is one strategy that would have the dual benefit of protecting our military capabilities while also addressing the growing dependence on any mineral resource, domestic or foreign, that are unstable or subject to supply disruptions. The infrastructure created by this initiative could assist researchers and engineers to rapidly discover and develop substitutes for technologies and applications that are currently dependent on these critical minerals for which no known alternative is available today. Such applications will range from personal electronics to missile guidance systems.

Preventing Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) occur when an external force impacts the head or body, leading to a loss of consciousness, amnesia, and/or alterations in normal brain function. An estimated 360,000 military personnel have been afflicted by a TBI during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and each year 1.7 million civilians suffer from TBI due to falls and athletic/vehicle accidents. The medical costs and lost productivity of these injuries are estimated to exceed $60 billion annually.

Suitably designed protective gear can prevent these injuries. Designing gear that accounts for the wide range of conditions and circumstances that can lead to TBI, however, presents a challenging materials problem. For example, advanced materials might be used in a host of protective technologies for military and passenger vehicles, body armor, and sports equipment to limit the devastating effects of blasts, impacts, and collisions. But in each circumstance, understanding the response of protective gear and the subsequent manner in which impact forces are transmitted to the brain (or body) is paramount for innovative and targeted materials solutions.15 This initiative could provide tools to assess the requirements of these different applications, optimize materials designed for specific uses, and identify potential overlapping uses for materials in the military and civilian sectors.

Reducing Oil Dependence for Transportation

Of the 12 million barrels of oil per day the U.S. imported from foreign sources in 2009, two-thirds was for transportation fuels.16 Motorized road transport consumes around 19 percent of the global energy supply, and aviation accounts for another 3 percent.  Improving fuel efficiency in the transportation sector is therefore an important target for decreasing oil consumption.

The development of new lightweight materials for vehicles could significantly improve fuel efficiency. Every 10-percent reduction in passenger vehicle weight in a conventional combustion engine car could reduce fuel use by six to eight percent. Yet, to be successful, these lightweight materials would still need to meet the structural integrity and safety standards of more traditional materials in use today — for both commercial passenger vehicles and those designed for military deployment.

In addition, automobile companies are starting to deploy alternative vehicles such as hybrids, electric cars, and hydrogen fuel-cell-powered cars. The technologies used in these vehicles have great potential to replace conventional combustion engines, however there are unresolved issues limiting their widespread use. Current batteries have low energy density and take a long time to charge. Hydrogen fuel cells powerful enough to run a car use significant quantities of high cost metals.

This initiative could provide tools to optimize and deploy new materials such as high-performance, cost-effective, lightweight structural materials and better portable energy-storage devices that will address national economic and security challenges through the reduction of oil use in the United States.