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High-performance Materials Essay




 

Mary L. Good
Professor and Dean
Donaghey College of Information Science and Systems Engineering
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

We have long identified epochs of human history in terms of the materials exploited—referring, for example, to the Stone Age or the Iron Age. The hallmark of progress in every age has been the way "materials engineers" worked to improve the usefulness of materials, whether extracting coal or iron ore from the earth or creating new materials from combinations, such as iron and carbon to produce steel. For most of history such improvements have been incremental and have depended on experimentation, accidents, and passing on from generation to generation the "art" of materials processing and finishing. However, by the early 1980s, instrumentation, simulation techniques, and the accumulation and analysis of materials databases had moved materials engineering and structural design much closer to the fundamental physics and chemistry of the materials' building blocks. Thus, the concept of "materials by design" began to have some champions, and the potential for creating new materials with designed properties for specific applications no longer was considered "science fiction."

Those of us involved in the invention and improvement of catalytic processes and new catalysts found the idea of molecular design of catalysts with predetermined properties compelling. Catalytic science was driven by "trial and error" experimentation and the ability to determine correlations between performance and composition. In June 1984 the Research Laboratories of UOP (Universal Oil Products) and the Signal Companies, where I was president, were awarded a research contract from the Department of Energy to evaluate the concept of materials by design by assessing the current status of relevant theoretical, computational, and experimental tools. After several workshops with leaders in the field, we prepared an extensive report in 1986 to describe areas of understanding and islands of ignorance. This activity was one of the most stimulating and challenging of my career. At the time, computational theorists had good models for the quantum mechanics and properties of electronic systems, and engineers understood macroengineering design and had a good grasp of finite element analysis and process simulation. However, the understanding of molecular dynamics, atomic structure, and multimolecular pieces, or subunits, was quite primitive.

Fifteen years later I revisited this topic in a paper and a lecture to an international conference. Progress in materials by design in the interim had been profound. Theoretical calculations had progressed to quantum calculations of a few atoms to form the basis of quantum computing; atomic force microscopy could now image individual atoms, molecules, and molecular machines; atomic and molecular reactions on catalyst substrates could be imaged and analyzed directly. In addition, researchers could blend new alloys with totally new properties from existing materials and process them to provide desired physical properties. Others were building analytical chemistry instrumentation on a 1-square-inch chip and designing and producing a variety of micromachines.

Clearly the next 15 years will continue these insights into materials at the atomic and molecular level. The science of nanotechnology—the understanding of materials at the nanometer and molecular size—is now building on these prior excursions into the submicroscopic world. No longer "a science looking for applications," nanotechnology is turning some of these discoveries into real products, ranging from high performance fabrics in which nanostructures are intertwined with conventional synthetic fibers to nanocarbon fibers used to transform properties of polymeric materials. Prototypes of quantum dots, utilizing a few atoms, to be used for the next generation of supercomputers are just one of many examples of products to come. In materials engineering, atomic and molecular materials by design and the nanoproducts they can produce, may very well make the 21st century the "Nano Age"!


 


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