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$12.3M center aims to ramp up design of advanced materials

ANN ARBOR—It takes between 10 and 20 years to develop a new material—an advanced metal alloy, for example, that can be used in lighter cars, trucks and airplanes. That's too long, says John Allison, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Michigan.

We're losing opportunities to really advance new products. The country and the companies that figure this out will have a major competitive advantage.

—John Allison

With an $11-million, five-year grant from the Department of Energy, Allison is leading a project that aims to drastically shorten that time. The funding comes from the Materials Genome Initiative, President Obama's plan to double the speed with which American scientists and engineers discover, develop and manufacture new materials. In addition to the DoE grant, the university will provide $1.3 million toward the effort.

The grants establish a DoE Software Innovation Center called the PRedictive Integrated Structural Materials Science Center, or PRISMS.

"Materials have been a defining technology for humans since the beginning—the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and now we have the Silicon Age," Allison said. "Going forward, we need new materials to solve enormous engineering challenges around critical issues such as global warming. We don't have as much time as we used to."

Researchers at the center will build a set of integrated, open-source computational tools that materials researchers in academia and industry can use to simulate how proposed materials might behave in the real world. The software tools will provide a radical change from the traditional trial-and-error approach, Allison said. Trial and error managed to double the strength of aluminum alloys since the Wright brothers' time, but it took 80 years.

"PRISMS will give us a quantitative means to figure out which materials knob we should be turning," Allison said. "If I were studying fatigue of metals, for example, and I wanted to understand how to improve that property, I'd want to quantify or simulate how a certain microstructural feature might affect it."

A material can be viewed at different magnification levels revealing important features, as illustrated in this example of an aluminum alloy casting for an automotive engine block. At each level, or length scale, the features can be changed by variations in the alloy composition or manufacturing processes. These features combine to influence the properties in unique and complex ways. For example, the stress at which a material starts to deform, known as the yield strength, is affected by the atomic structure as well as microstructural features at the nano-level and at the microstructural level. Image credit: Courtesy of John AllisonA material can be viewed at different magnification levels revealing important features, as illustrated in this example of an aluminum alloy casting for an automotive engine block. At each level, or length scale, the features can be changed by variations in the alloy composition or manufacturing processes. These features combine to influence the properties in unique and complex ways. For example, the stress at which a material starts to deform, known as the yield strength, is affected by the atomic structure as well as microstructural features at the nano-level and at the microstructural level. Image credit: Courtesy of John AllisonMore than 160,000 engineering materials exist today, and most are mixes of between six and 10 different elements. These materials can have different properties at various scales, from that of the atom, up to the microstructure, to the end product, whether that's a laptop battery, solar cell or car door. It's challenging for the field to predict how each different combination of elements will behave at each of these levels, and that's why Allison says materials science hasn't kept pace with industry needs.

"We're starting to fall behind because the product development and manufacturing fields now have computational tools to design new aircraft components and manufacturing approaches in days, but for materials it still takes much longer. We're losing opportunities to really advance new products," he said. "The country and the companies that figure this out will have a major competitive advantage."

Allison says the materials field is at a tipping point.

"The ability to integrate knowledge across length scales and different technical domains has been a major challenge but the needs for this are now very clear," he said. "We believe that the integrated computational tools our team will be developing will serve as a scientific core for a transformational new approach to materials development."

The PRISMS team of 11 faculty from across the College of Engineering and the School of Information will demonstrate their new approach on magnesium, the lightest-weight metal, which has applications in the auto, aerospace and electronics industries.

In addition to Allison, the faculty involved in the PRISMS Center are: Samantha Daly, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Krishna Garikipati, professor of mechanical engineering; Vikram Gavini, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Margaret Hedstrom, professor and associate dean for academic programs at the School of Information; H. V. Jagadish, the Bernard A. Galler Collegiate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; J. Wayne Jones, professor of materials science and engineering; Emmanuelle Marquis, assistant professor of materials science and engineering; Veera Sundararaghavan, assistant professor of aerospace engineering; Katsuyo Thornton, associate professor of materials science and engineering; and Anton Van der Ven, associate professor of materials science and engineering.