MIT database could revolutionize materials research
By Ben Coxworth
December 21, 2011
Remember what it was like in the days before the internet, if you were trying to find out something specific? If you wanted know what flounders eat, for instance, you would have to physically go to the library, look up "marine biology" in the card catalogue, find the appropriate books in the stacks, look up "flounder" in their indexes - and even then, you might not find what you were looking for. It was certainly a lot more work than just typing in "flounder diet" on Google. Well, materials research so far has been kind of like that pre-Google era, in that scientists have had to spend months conducting research in order to determine how different compounds will react with one another. With the launch of MIT's Materials Project website, however, it looks like that could be about to change.
Launched on November 3rd, the website is a growing database of over 18,000 chemical compounds, gathered from participating institutions and companies around the world. Not only can researchers look up the properties of individual compounds, but they can also virtually combine them together. Utilizing a supercomputer at California's Lawrence Berkeley Lab, the Materials Project algorithms will then draw upon established formulas and principles to determine how those compounds would react with one another, along with the resulting composite's molecular structure and stability under varying conditions.
MIT's Prof. Gerbrand Ceder provided the example of a phase diagram, a tool that illustrates at what points a compound made of several different elements will be in a solid, liquid or gaseous state. Whereas it previously would have taken months of calculations and lab tests to create such a diagram, it can now reportedly be done within minutes, using the Materials Project.
The website can be used by anyone, free of charge. Over 500 researchers have already taken advantage of it, in their attempts to create new materials for use in products such as lithium-ion batteries, lightweight alloys, and photovoltaic cells.
"I really do think this will transform the way people do materials research," said Ceder. "If we could do more rapid materials development, we could push things out into manufacturing much faster."
The Materials Project is reminiscent of a mathematical model recently created at the University of Leeds and Durham University, which is able to predict the qualities of different plastic compounds, and that can determine what polymers will be required to create a plastic with certain user-defined qualities.