“Advanced materials are essential to clean energy, national security and global competitiveness,” said ORNL Director Thom Mason. “Key energy technologies like solar cells, superconductors and batteries all have shortcomings that next-generation materials might overcome.”
By focusing expertise from ORNL's diverse science portfolio, capabilities in high-performance computing, and success in creating new tools for discovery, the institute promises to speed the arrival of next-generation materials.
“In battery materials, for example, the grand challenge is looking at ions as they move and changes in electronic structure at the same time,” said Associate Laboratory Director for Physical Sciences Michelle Buchanan. “We are bringing together leading researchers in imaging, computing and materials science to meet this challenge.”
The new institute creates a focal point for ORNL’s core capabilities. The national lab in Tennessee is home to several major DOE Office of Science user facilities, including America’s fastest supercomputer, the world’s most intense pulsed neutron beam and world-class facilities for electron/atom probe and scanning probe microscopy; mass spectrometry; and optical, X-ray and chemical imaging. Its Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, Chemical Sciences Division and Materials Science and Technology Division provide state-of-the-art imaging capabilities. ORNL also has one of DOE’s largest theory groups, with researchers in materials science, chemistry, physics and computational science who can find the missing links needed to put together a fuller understanding of materials.
“Advances in imaging over two decades make it possible to observe and identify individual atoms in materials, but knowing the position and chemical identity of the atoms is not sufficient to understand how these atoms function in a material,” said Sergei Kalinin, IFIM’s inaugural director. “Advances in imaging are now catalyzing a major transition in this field—making it possible to determine not only where things are, but what things do.”
When scientists use multiple imaging tools to explore a material, the resulting data is immense. ORNL’s newest institute will integrate computing and experimentation in real time to allow researchers to capture and analyze those data streams.
“Through computing tools we’ll be able to quickly find the needle in a haystack of big data—think Google for materials,” Kalinin said. “Today our imaging studies generate much more data than we can possibly process, and we’re throwing most of it away. Real-time data analytics will allow us to build a bridge between materials theory and function.”
That new knowledge will enable tailoring of materials to improve efficiency of such tasks as converting solar energy to electricity (in solar cells), transporting energy to the grid (superconducting cables), or converting chemical to electrical energy (batteries).
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.