The Department of Energy sponsored a study several years ago: Directing Matter and Energy – Five Grand Challenges for Science and the Imagination which posed the question: how do we design atom and energy-efficient synthesis of new forms of matter with tailored properties? This question reflects frustration with our empirical approach to materials design that has not yet enabled us to develop materials with adequate properties to solve the problems of energy capture, transfer, storage and efficient use that will be needed to achieve human sustainability. Yet the report demonstrates the rich properties emerging from nanoscale structuring of materials, non-equilibrium processing, and the complex correlations possible between atomic and electronic constituents, which offer an incredible palette of new possibilities for revolutionary materials and devices.
By building on a foundation of “materials by design” we plan to assemble a leading team that will develop new materials to address critical energy needs, especially the capture and storage of solar energy. Through sophisticated theory and modeling we will inform experimental efforts, taking full advantage of nanotechnology to make and tune new materials. As we develop our “virtual” materials laboratory, we will also strengthen our experimental capabilities for energy materials. We will target areas already emergent from NU research leadership – such as lithium-air batteries that offer the energy density of gasoline without the carbon footprint;nanostructured dye-sensitized solar cells, which offer cheap capture of the most abundant renewable energy resource – the sun; exotic topological insulators which can revolutionize the computational hardware needed for materials by design.
It is clear that the ultimate solution to finding the magical materials we seek will lie with better ability to describe theoretically and simulate the properties of materials using high-performance computing. We have strong existing efforts to build on, such as the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Complex Systems. Northeastern has invested in the Massachusetts High Performance Green Computing Facility in Holyoke, a consortium of universities that are building a high-performance computing hub. This capability, when combined with our significant strength in materials synthesis and characterization, offers the opportunity for us to build leadership in “Materials by Design.” We will team with the College of Computer and Information Science to recruit leaders in physics, chemistry and biology who will pioneer materials by design, building on the existing faculty in theory and simulation and our experimental capabilities.
We will recruit six new faculty in computational materials design over the next three years, complemented by half-a-dozen new faculty in materials fabrication and characterization, with an emphasis on nanomaterials.
Linking structure, function and dynamics of molecules, materials and systems brings together basic research in chemistry, biology and physics. Our initiative in computational science synergizes with strength in theory and mathematics, and connections between mathematics and other disciplines that we plan to develop.
The New Materials for Energy Center will develop solutions that are aimed at more efficient or cheaper systems for collecting and storing energy. Strong government-industrial partnerships will facilitate innovation reaching to the marketplace, and will offer unique “soup to nuts” experience for undergraduates.