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US lawmakers get an earful about materials research—and now they want more

By William G. Schulz July 14, 2017

Despite partisan gridlock on nearly every issue facing the country, a June 28, 2017 hearing of the Energy and the Research and Technology Subcommittees of the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology revealed a rare area of agreement: Lawmakers from both parties want to find ways to better support US materials research.

Witnesses at the hearing on materials research held by members of the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on June 28, 2017.

“To quote Madonna, we are living in a material world,” quipped Rep. Mike Weber (R-Texas), chair of the Energy subcommittee, who noted the full committee’s long support for basic science research, including materials research.   

Ranking Member of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said, “Every day we see the tangible results of this federal support. Only this month, researchers at the University of Michigan funded by NSF published a report on the development of a new semiconductor alloy that could revolutionize the solar power industry by lowering the costs of solar power dramatically. This new alloy is able to capture the sun’s near-infrared light and is on track to achieve nearly 50% efficiency. Compare that to the less than 30% efficiency we see in traditional solar panels and you will understand why it has been called ‘magic’ by some on the research team.”

Other countries, such as China, are moving to advance materials research areas such as quantum materials science for advances in computing, testified Matthew Tirrell, deputy laboratory director for science and chief research officer at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. He pointed out that advances in computer science and information processing have been a backbone of the US economy for decades.

“Quantum technologies based on fundamental particles of nature such as individual atoms and photons are natural targets for innovation, as they hold great promise to become the computers, networks, and sensors of tomorrow,” he said.

But it is not only computing science and industry that can benefit from materials science research, Tirrell said. Energy storage and better use of stressed water resources will also result.

“Breakthroughs will enable the type of reliable, high volume energy storage we need to make our electric grid more stable and give hybrid and all-electric vehicles longer range and greater safety,” Tirrell said. “The co-design of new materials and fluids to exploit specific material-fluid interactions will enable processes in energy-water systems.”

The automobile industry, another bedrock of the US economy, can benefit from materials science research, testified Laurie E. Locascio, acting deputy director of the Material Measurement Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md.

Industry “has asked for our help in adopting new aluminum alloys, high strength steels, polymer composites, carbon fibers, and other materials while avoiding traditional and costly trial-and-error build cycles,” she said.

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who chairs the Subcommittee on Research and Technology, said she would like to see more public/private sector prize challenges that might complement government support for materials research. She cited a NIST example—the Head Health Challenge—a prize partnership that included NIST, General Electric, and Under Armour to support a search for advanced materials that better absorb or dissipate energy, work that could ultimately result in better helmets and other protective sports and work equipment products.

At Ames National Laboratory, in Ames, Iowa, materials researchers have developed a lead-free solder that will reduce toxicity hazards for the ongoing boom in the personal electronics industry, testified Laboratory Director Adam J. Schwartz.

“This advanced alloy was ultimately licensed to over 65 companies in 23 countries with an economic benefit to the private sector estimated at $610 million per year and is a key component in manufacturing mobile phones, tablets, and almost every consumer electronic device,” Schwartz said.

New technologies in medicine will be yet another result from materials science research, testified C. Fred Higgs, a professor of mechanical engineering at Rice University in Houston. Many older Americans have artificial joint implants for hips and knees, he pointed out. “Novel materials such as diamond-like carbon and nanocrystalline diamond may lead to longer-lasting artificial joint implants due to their ability to provide the ultimate wear-resistant coating.”

When the US Congress approves a budget this year, the true amount of support for materials research will be revealed. Many democrat members of the House Science Committee have sounded alarm about the massive budget cuts for nondefense-related research proposed by the current Administration.

But there may be good reason for optimism. Sources on Capitol Hill say legislators were so impressed by testimony on quantum computing materials research alone that they are poised to consider another hearing of the full committee on that topic in the fall.