UC Berkeley partnership may reach the edges of the cosmos

Every so often, the search for functional materials—materials designed with properties and characteristics that allow it to do something spectacular—delivers a fundamental change to the way we live. 5000 years ago, the discovery and use of bronze enabled no less a task than the ushering in of modern civilization. More recently, we've seen silicon's properties give rise to the Information Age, and the advent of products we now take for granted: plastic, stainless steel, composites, titanium, Gorilla Glass, even clothing that will not stain.

Yet discovering new materials is a lengthy process, and Joshua Agar, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Lehigh University, says it comes about in one of three basic ways.

"Throughout human history," he says, "we've seen materials development occur over thousands of years of trial and error that advances across generations and entire civilizations. Efficiencies began to improve dramatically when society began to conduct physical experiments in increasingly-specialized laboratories. This is certainly an improvement, but this approach comes with significant costs as we conduct time-consuming, expensive experiments. Even more recently, though, scientists have begun to use computational simulation to drive research in a wide array of fields, including material discovery. This use of digital technologies is far more efficient than either of the previous methods—yet even here, we can do better."

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