How to develop cutting-​​edge technologies faster

When DuPont intro­duced Nylon in the 1940s, its cre­ators had no idea that the mate­rial would be a crit­ical com­po­nent in today’s auto­mo­bile engines. It took just as long for the world’s third-​​largest chem­ical com­pany to develop a new kind of Nylon specif­i­cally for the auto industry.

This story isn’t unique. Many of today’s technologies—from our ubiq­ui­tous hand­helds to the most advanced mil­i­tary equipment—were made pos­sible by mate­rials that took decades to develop. In fact, the average time to market for a novel mate­rial is 18 years.

In 2011, the Obama admin­is­tra­tion announced a multi-​​agency ini­tia­tive to combat that stag­nancy, fuel advanced man­u­fac­turing, and strengthen the U.S. economy. The Mate­rials Genome Ini­tia­tive, it said, would “help busi­ness dis­cover, develop, and deploy new mate­rials twice as fast” and at a frac­tion of the cost. Two years after its announce­ment, the MGI is honing in on the best strategy through which to realize its goal.

At the Mate­rials Genome Ini­tia­tive New Eng­land Regional Work­shop hosted by North­eastern on Tuesday, many spec­u­lated the need for the course adjust­ment arises from the expan­sive nature of the effort.

“It is a highly unbounded problem,” said David Luzzi, pro­fessor of mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering and exec­u­tive director of the university’s Strategic Secu­rity Ini­tia­tive. “There needs to be some bounding and strate­gizing as to the approach that is right for this time, with this level of capa­bility, with this knowledge.”

Hosted by North­eastern in con­junc­tion with the White House Office of Sci­ence and Tech­nology Policy, the work­shop con­vened a group of aca­d­emic, indus­trial, and gov­ern­mental stake­holders from around New Eng­land and beyond with the goal of iden­ti­fying how to expand MGI’s potential.

The work­shop was the first of a series that will take place through spring 2014 at five higher edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions around the country. At this kick-​​off event, par­tic­i­pants were tasked with iden­ti­fying the major research oppor­tu­ni­ties and grand chal­lenges for MGI, as well as how acad­emia, industry, and gov­ern­ment can partner to tackle them.

Con­sensus among the group led to sev­eral require­ments to make MGI suc­cessful. Among them were orga­nizing cross-​​sector con­sortia around customer-​​driven needs;  designing open engage­ment plat­forms that allow com­peting insti­tu­tions to col­lab­o­rate while still pro­tecting intel­lec­tual prop­erty; and sup­porting com­pu­ta­tional research, a crit­ical com­po­nent in mod­eling novel mate­rials in a high throughput fashion.

As part of Northeastern’s ongoing engage­ment with the White House, Murray Gibson, dean of the Col­lege of Sci­ence, and other uni­ver­sity offi­cials met last year with the White House Office of Sci­ence and Tech­nology Policy to dis­cuss oppor­tu­ni­ties for rein­vig­o­rating the MGI. That con­ver­sa­tion gave way to Tuesday’s meeting and cat­alyzed the start of the regional work­shop series.


Related Faculty: David Luzzi

Related Departments:Mechanical & Industrial Engineering