Materials Innovation for the 21st Century

Materials are the basic building blocks of society. They make up the remarkably wide range of physical “stuff” that people depend on to live and thrive—batteries, cell phones, airplanes, and the seemingly infinite list of other tangibles used by so many of us each day.

Historically, access to materials and the ability to make usable stuff out of them has defined the frontiers of American industry. A century ago, plentiful elements like iron, lead, and copper fueled our Nation’s transition to an industrial economy. But today, many of the materials that characterize the industrial cutting-edge—such as rare earths, indium, and lithium—are not as naturally abundant or easy to access as their predecessors. When coupled with the rapid expansion of materials-intensive industries such as clean energy, this new cohort of so-called “critical materials” run the risk of falling into short supply. Continuing to push the innovation envelope in American industry while meeting our Nation’s array of growing needs in clean energy and other sectors will require not only more stable access to critical materials, but also the discovery of altogether new material alternatives.

Recognizing this important challenge, this Administration has taken a proactive approach to improve our domestic materials capabilities. A significant milestone in this effort was President Obama’s 2011 launch of the ambitious Materials Genome Initiative—a collaboration between government, private-sector, and academic leaders to discover and deploy new cutting-edge materials faster and cheaper than ever before.

This week, in another important milestone, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced a $120 million award over five years to establish a new Energy Innovation Hub—the Critical Materials Institute (CMI). Led by the Ames Laboratory in Iowa, CMI will focus on ensuring that the development and commercialization of new and innovative clean energy technologies can forge ahead unhindered by the scarcity or inaccessibility of critical materials. Specifically, it will bring together leading researchers from academia, the private sector, and four DOE National Laboratories to find solutions that can be applied at all stages of a material’s “life cycle”– from new ways to access it at the source, to better ways to recycle and reuse it after it has served its primary functions. At the same time, the CMI will focus on finding new earth-abundant alternatives that could replace critical materials at lower cost, and with equal (or better) performance.

This kind of collaborative effort between experts and innovators within and outside government is key to strengthening the Nation’s capacity in materials science and ensuring continued American industrial competitiveness in the years ahead.

For more information about the Materials Genome Initiative, please click here.

For more information about DOE’s announcement, please click here.

Cyrus Wadia is Assistant Director for Clean Energy and Materials R&D at OSTP

Your Federal Tax Receipt