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Director's Message

From the Director



There is a constant need for new materials.  Sometimes a new product or a device calls for a material with a special property that is not available off the shelf, such as a superconductor capable of operating in a high magnetic field, at a high temperature or with a high current density.  At other times (and seemingly with increasing frequency) an existing material ceases to be available and a substitute is needed, as in the case of the rare earths that were the focus of our previous issue of Inquiry (2010, issue 2).

Unfortunately, it usually takes a long time to invent a new material, and technology and commerce move at a pace that is not compatible with the necessary lead time.  A 10-year materials development schedule is not very helpful in the “I need it tomorrow” world of engineering product development, so most new materials are typically invented first, sit on the shelf for a while, and find commercial uses only after engineering designers find out about them.  In this approach, a lot of materials get invented with great hope, but never find a use.

One of the grandest of all grand challenges in the world of materials science and engineering is to be able to invent a material for any specific purpose, on request, and deliver it on a short time frame.

Materials occasionally just get discovered and these cases usually generate a lot of news  and a corresponding amount of hype about the kinds of new products that they will immediately enable.  Usually, however, discoveries of this kind occur because someone was working systematically to understand or design some other material.  You don’t discover any new materials if you aren’t working in the lab.  “Discovered materials” also take a longer time to find commercial uses than materials that have been deliberately designed for a purpose.

Likewise, you can’t design new materials just by using ever more powerful computers to do the work.  Computers play an essential role in materials design, but they are only effective when they are used to answer well-posed questions.  Answering an old question faster is not as useful as developing the next question to ask, though when we have that question ready, it’s nice to have the computers available to address it.

In this issue of Inquiry, you will find stories about materials design and synthesis at the Ames Laboratory, where each case illustrates our approach of using theory to inform experiments, and experiments to advance the theory of materials, so we can approach the goal of being able to design materials on demand using well-tested computational tools.  Are we there yet?  Obviously not, but we are making strides in creating materials with never-seen-before properties by theory-based prediction, tested and refined in the computer, and proven by actually making the stuff in the lab.

You will see that the Ames Lab has a unique capability for making stuff in Tom Lograsso’s description of our Materials Preparation Center. The education story, on page six, addresses “Making Stuff” in a different dimension, through the Ames Lab’s role in the highly acclaimed NOVA television series of the same name.  We remain committed to doing great science, explaining it, and inspiring others to do it, too.


Alex King, Director