Materials Genome Initiative

Materials Genome Initiative

MGI OverviewOne of the big challenges of engineering is the time it takes to get from innovation to production. This year, President Obama announced the Materials Genome Initiative for Global Competitiveness, as a joint effort between industry, academia, and several major government agencies. Materials issues are considered critical both to national defense and energy policy. However, the time to get  a brand new material from the lab bench to market tends to be measured in decades. This initiative aims to decrease that time by  making foundational data more accessible.

Accordingly, one of the major goals of the Material Genome Initiative is to create better open databases for materials information. In biology, with the rise of bioinformatics and data sharing requirements by funding agencies, there are some impressive databases, such as FlyBase and WormBase, each devoted to a  particular organism. However, there are a number of challenges that arise when trying to share materials data. One major issue is the highly proprietary nature of many processing techniques. For example, the heat treatment of the undercarriage of Caterpillar  equipment is a carefully controlled trade secret, because it provides them a competitive edge.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is in charge of the effort to create reference databases. Some such databases already exist, such as the Ceramics WebBook, which is essentially a database of vetted publications from the literature at large. It will be interesting to see if this new initiative produces more of the same, or if there is a shift towards a handbook style.

I’m excited to see my field getting more attention from the top, but right now, this is a one-year budget item, and may vanish as quickly as it seems to have appeared as science funding gets targeted as an “easy” place to make cuts.

Have you seen similar “initiatives” in your field, either from high-level attention or from other factors outside the norm of your field?

1 comment

In the late 80’s, I participated in a DARPA-funded, multi-university project on concurrent engineering. It’s goal was strikingly similar to that of the Materials Genome Initiative: to radically reduce the amount of time needed to develop engineering concepts into commercially available products. This would be done by developing new software tools and integrating them throughout the design cycle to produce more interactions between research, design and manufacturing (sound familiar?). Total funding was around $100M spread over five years (as I recall). Our initial testbed was jet engine turbine blade design and General Electric was the corporate contact/target for this project.

In reality, this project was used as a means for the current Senate majority leader to funnel funds into a university in his home state. Nothing substantial ever came of it. It would have been more useful if we had shoveled all that money into a big pile at the kickoff meeting and burned it while we passed around a bottle of Jack Daniels.

I’ve read the Materials Genome Initiative white-paper; it sounds like more of the same. I assume placing “Genome” in the title is meant to invoke positive associations with the successful Human Genome Project. But HGP only met its mission schedule because Craig Venter mounted a parallel, private effort that threatened to eclipse the government project. I doubt that will be repeated here. If the delay for moving materials concepts from the lab to the public could be cut in half for an outlay of $100M over a single year, then companies would have already jumped all over it.

As the Initiative progresses, it might be interesting for you to dig around and see who got the funding for this effort approved and where the money ends up going. I hope, at least, that some of it finds its way into your pocket.

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