On becoming an engine of materials research innovation

Posted on 27. Sep, 2013 by in Advanced Manufacturing, Annual Report, Economic Impact, Issues, Research

Dean Ian Robertson

Dean Ian Robertson

Materials play such a foundational role in advancing civilization that they are essentially the shorthand of human history, as defined by the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

While those three distinct eras span millions of years, the modern materials challenge will be defined by accelerating the pace of innovation. The White House Materials Genome Initiative seeks to unlock the power of materials by doubling the speed at which we discover, develop and manufacture new materials.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering will play a central role in this national initiative, with the summer 2013 announcement of the Wisconsin Materials Institute (WMI). This initiative will build on the impressive multidisciplinary strengths of UW-Madison not only in materials science, but in the computational tools and big data analytics we bring to the challenge.

Our 2013 annual report highlights some of the talented people and ideas behind UW-Madison’s materials science reputation. For example, Padma Gopalan, associate professor of materials science and engineering, is doing some impressive work on polymer self-assembly and how the resulting nanostructures can have useful properties in microelectronics, solar energy and medicine. She also leads our National Science Foundation-funded Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center.

Also featured is electrical engineer Luke Mawst, who is part of a team developing high-power semiconductor lasers that have implications for biomedical devices, environmental monitoring devices, missile avoidance systems and food packaging processes. Our third profile is of Dane Morgan, a materials science and engineering associate professor who leads the computational materials group that employs atomic-scale modeling to understand and design new materials. Morgan also serves as co-director of WMI.

The work of Padma, Luke and Dane provides a glimpse into some of the valuable research taking place here, but represents just a small sample of our expertise. Indeed, all three scientists emphasize the multidisciplinary, collaborative climate that exists among UW-Madison materials researchers, a community of more than 200 people. The disciplines represented in WMI will include most engineering departments, but also computer science, physics, chemistry, mathematics, pharmacy, library sciences, the medical school and others.

There are profound challenges embedded within today’s materials research landscape. For example, we not only need to discover new materials, but become better stewards of existing materials. One challenge will be in the area of materials recovery and developing systems to reclaim and reuse valuable and rare materials. Another will be in finding substitutes for some critical materials that are often concentrated within one country or region, posing competitive and security issues for the United States.

A 2012 European Commission report estimated that 70 percent of all new product innovation in the next decade will be based on the discovery and synthesis of materials with new and improved properties. Meaningful materials innovation will remain at the heart of cultural progress and drive important advances in energy, national security, human health and manufacturing.

Yet, materials advances mean little if they exist only in a university laboratory. At UW-Madison, our discoveries and knowledge must translate to industry as a catalyst for economic development and global competitiveness. Through our advanced manufacturing activities, we are collaborating with our state and U.S. industry partners on ways they can apply leading-edge materials, manufacturing processes, technological capabilities and data in their products and facilities.

We are setting the stage for the University of Wisconsin-Madison to be a global leader in this pursuit.

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