Comprehensive Undertakings

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

New materials are constantly needed to enable a wide range of emerging or prospective high-performance technologies that are important to economic growth, environmental sustainability, and national defense. But moving those materials from discovery to useful application has, until recently, “taken decades, so materials solutions were viewed as too slow and too expensive,” says Alcoa Distinguished Professor of Materials and UC Santa Barbara College of Engineering associate dean, Tresa Pollock. 

To address that, in 2008 Pollock chaired a nationwide National Academies study committee whose members interacted with multiple federal agencies and proposed a major national materials-development project. “We made the point that computation was expanding rapidly, that there were lots of new experimental tools, such as high-throughput experimental (HTE) methods, and that, accordingly, it was time to put some effort into speeding things up,” she recalls.

That approach was effective, and in 2011, President Barack Obama announced the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI), aimed at forming the infrastructure to develop advanced materials twice as fast as was previously possible at a fraction of the cost. Pollock and fellow materials faculty member Professor Anton Van Der Ven attended the MGI White House kickoff event in 2012. 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) participates in the MGI by awarding Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future (DMREF) grants. Nine grants, worth nearly $10.7 million, have gone to UCSB materials engineers, more than to any other university, reflecting the CoE’s strength in both collaborative materials science and in attracting major grants that that leverage the collaborative environment. As PIs on the projects, Pollock, Van Der Ven, and professors Irene Beyerlein, Michael Chabinyc, Glenn Fredrickson, Matthew Helgeson, Ram Se-shadri, Chris Van de Walle, and Stephen Wilson have collaborated with each other and with other UCSB colleagues, industry partners, and PhD students and researchers at UCSB and beyond.

“These DMREF programs are a very significant investment at NSF,” says Pollock. “There are four-hundred-twenty-three faculty involved nationally, each program has a group of four or five faculty, and each faculty member has a PhD student, so the total number of people involved equates to roughly half the number of PhD students who graduate in materials in the U.S. every year. It’s having a big impact through sheer numbers of people who are just thinking about speeding things up.”

The PIs mentioned above may be involved in multiple DMREF projects that have some shared goal or subject matter or require similar skills and tools. Other faculty members join teams on projects that require their specific expertise. In one project for which Pollock is the lead, the team is developing an integrated framework for designing multi-component, multi-phase single-crystal alloys. They are also developing novel computational and experimental tools that can be integrated with existing tools to address fundamental barriers to designing and synthesizing the new alloys.

In those and related projects, Pollock conducts research on processing and mechanical behavior that guide the discovery of novel alloys. Materials professor Carlos Levi, Mehrabian Distinguished Professor of Materials, is involved in two MGI projects; his role is to understand the oxidation behavior of alloys that are of interest for such higher-temperature applications.

The DMREF projects may also require the skills of mathematicians and computationally oriented scientists, including mechanical engineering professor Matthew Begley, Fredrickson (chemical engineering), mechanical engineering professor and department chair, Frédéric Gibou, Van Der Ven, and Van de Walle (materials), and. All perform computational analysis, but they focus on different length scales and time scales and have varying, but complementary, specializations.

Fredrickson, for instance, who directs the Mitsubishi Chemical Center for Advanced Materials at UCSB, specializes in simulating polymer self-assembly, structure, and function, while Van de Walle works primarily with colleagues in the Solid State Lighting and Energy Electronics Center to establish quantum-level theoretical knowledge used to guide research on semiconductors for energy-efficient electronics. His DMREF project has been focused on accelerating the development of materials that can serve as ultraviolet light sources, by applying computational techniques that allow the team to study alloys and defects in them.

Van Der Ven also works at the atomic and sub-atomic levels to establish theory related to the crystal structure and performance of new materials having different purposes than the ones Van de Walle studies, while Begley focuses on the mechanics of new materials. In that work, he often creates simulations to examine the materials at a scale beyond (larger than) the crystal scale to understand how they will actually function under a variety of forces and conditions.

Gibou concerns himself with the phase change of materials. “As a melt of [newly amalgamated] metals solidifies, the space between the atoms changes, and that has a tremendous influence on the material,” he explains. “During that process, the atoms may be arranged one way in one region of the solid and differently in another region of the same solid. Those regions, or phases, have a huge influence on the performance of the material, and understanding them is an essential first step in simulating the entire life of a material, from the ‘cradle’ though its life in an engineering application.” 

DMREF and other grants associated with MGI from the Air Force, the Navy, and the Department of Energy reflect UCSB’s broader success in securing grants within major government-funded initiatives that require large interdisciplinary teams to accomplish their objectives. That success is a direct result of the university’s well-established and broadly recognized culture of collaboration.

UCSB regularly receives multi-million-dollar, multi-year grants from the Department of Defense Multiple University Research Initiative (MURI) to pursue a wide range of projects aimed at rapidly developing new technologies. The collaborative nature of the university has also led to its 
being named West Coast Headquarters for AIM Photonics, led by electrical and computer engineering professor John Bowers, an initiative of the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics focused on developing an end-to-end photonic integrated circuit ecosystem in the United States.

Large grants for collaborative research have been awarded to UCSB researchers under the National Institutes of Health Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, the Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Defense, especially through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which itself depends on a collaborative ecosystem comprising universities, industry, small business, and government.

By now, collaboration comes naturally to UCSB researchers, and that, in turn, drives the increasing flow of large collaborative grants to the campus. But there is much more at stake in such efforts than securing research dollars and more-effective materials science and engineering. Pollock indicates how it all relates to the future of the field when she says, “This is enabling an entire new generation of scientists and engineers who are naturally poised to take on major science and technology leadership positions in academia, industry, and government.”

Illustration by Peter Allen