Symposium X—MRS/The Kavli Foundation Frontiers of Materials
April 12, 2023
50 Years of Materials Research
Written by Elizabeth Wilson
In the past 50 years, materials science advances, from cell phones to solar panels, have literally changed the world. At the Symposium X session, a group of past MRS presidents and journal editors chose their favorite past breakthroughs, including high temperature superconductors, conducting polymers, advances in microscopy, and solar technology.
But the group’s vision is united in what lies ahead: they predict artificial intelligence and deep learning will be crucial for solving ever more complex problems. And with climate change, sustainability and other world-wide issues, they foresee a sea change in how materials scientists approach problems. No longer can they afford to pursue developments without first considering their global implications. “There will be a huge transformation in the way materials scientists approach their work—to start to ask questions at the beginning,” said moderator Carolyn R. Duran, who is with Intel Corporation, and is immediate past MRS president.
The history of materials science has been undeniably rich. Some developments have progressed gradually, but high temperature superconductivity, “came out of the blue,” said Julia M. Phillips retired from Sandia National Laboratories. “This was one of the true revolutionary, as opposed to evolutionary advances,” she said. First reported by IBM scientists in 1986, and which received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1987, the discovery changed the way scientists think of materials. Their complex structures unleashed a flood of research on new materials, including magnetic oxides and perovskites. And advances in theory and simulation are now helping to guide experiments, rather than simply validate results, she said.
Conducting polymers are another materials science success story, said Rigoberto Advincula, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and editor in chief of MRS Communications. Though research on conducting organic compounds began in the 1950s, it was the late 1970s and early 1980s that saw a breakthrough in the discovery of stable polymers that could compete with copper and other metals, Advincula said. The discovery won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Now, the field is flush with developments in organic light-emitting diodes and flexible electronics. “If you have a smart phone, or a TV with an LED screen, that is really the product of this period,” he said.
Much of the exploration of new materials is possible thanks to advances in the ability to look at them, even at the atomic level, said Susan Trolier-McKinstry, at The Pennsylvania State University; these include electron microscopy, aberration correction in microscopy, new ways of controlling electron beams, massive advances in the ability to resolve space and time.
Peter F. Green, at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, highlighted progress in perovskite solar cell technology. First developed in 2009-2012, they are the highest efficiency solar cell ever made on plastic. Their efficiencies have increased from 3.8% in 2009 to almost 30% today. Their light weight, long lifetimes, and high defect tolerances make them attractive for many solar applications, including space missions. Scientists are hoping production can be scaled up cheaply and widely commercialized.
Looking toward the next 50 years in materials science, all research will be accelerated by advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning, the group agreed.
With this power comes responsibility. Scientists are now thinking about how their research affects society and the impact on the world, Phillips said, “not just this really cool materials research problem.” Doing this, she added, requires bringing in disciplines beyond sciences and engineering, including the social sciences and the people who will be impacted and the planet itself.
Crucial to this philosophical shift, the group agreed, will be to engage students in STEM early in their education, even elementary school. “Materials science is a great entry point for young kids,” said Phillips.