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Broadening the range of material rewards

Headed by Carl Thompson, the newly formed Materials Research Laboratory opens up opportunities for industrial partnerships.
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Carl Thompson is the Stavros Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and co-director of the Materials Research Laboratory at MIT.
Carl Thompson is the Stavros Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and co-director of the Materials Research Laboratory at MIT.
Photo: David Sella

Inside a high-performance integrated circuit, the copper wiring is tens of nanometers in diameter, with a coating that is a few nanometers thick. “If you took all this wiring and connected it and stretched it out, it would be about 20 kilometers long,” says Carl Thompson, MIT professor of materials science and engineering. “And it all has to work, and it has to work for years.”

That’s just one sample, from his own work, of the challenges MIT’s enormous spectrum of materials research — ranging from quantum devices all the way to buildings and roads. “There’s one researcher in metallurgy who makes objects that weigh a ton, in the same laboratory where people make objects that weigh nanograms,” Thompson notes.

Formed in 2017 by combining two longstanding MIT centers, the Materials Research Laboratory (MRL) acts as an umbrella for this work. About 70 faculty members are directly involved in the MRL. The total materials research community at MIT includes about 150 faculty, from all departments in the School of Engineering and many in the School of Science.

Materials research spans many disciplines, and projects often bring together researchers with very different sets of expertise, Thompson says. He emphasizes that the MRL’s strengthened ability to foster and accelerate such interdisciplinary work will boost partnerships with industry, where interdisciplinary collaborations are a norm.

Incentives for collaborations

Corporate connections have been central to Thompson’s own research, which focuses primarily on making thin films, micromaterials, and nanomaterials and integrating them into microelectronic and microelectromechanical devices.

“I’ve found that I can have impact on real systems that people can buy only by being deeply involved with industry,” Thompson says. “Industry partnerships have informed not only my research but my teaching, because I can talk about why some of the more fundamental problems in materials science and engineering are very important in applications that we all depend on.”

“It’s incredibly important for students and postdocs to interact with industry, and to understand the real problems and the real constraints,” he adds. “Many things sound great in the laboratory, and many of them are great, and eventually will become part of devices and systems. But there are many steps in between, and it’s very important for everybody in an academic community to understand that.”

Thompson’s research also underlines the necessity for cross-discipline collaborations — for instance, in his current research on thin-film batteries.

“There are projections that by 2025 there will be hundreds of billions of sensors out there in the internet of things, and we can't do that if we have to change the batteries on all of those all the time,” he remarks. “If you can make them with batteries and an energy source, then they can be autonomous, so you don't need to ever change the battery.”

His group seeks not only to develop thin-film battery materials but to integrate these materials with other components such as circuits, sensors and microelectromechanical devices.

“There’s a relationship between how you make the materials, what their structure is, and the performance of not only the material in the device but also the device itself,” Thompson says. “That work is very highly collaborative with people in other disciplines, such as electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. Materials research is critical; chemistry and physics are critical. So is understanding the factors that lead to the failure of batteries, and a mathematician here at MIT in collaboration with engineers and physical scientists has made a very important contribution to that topic.”

“In batteries, a small interdisciplinary working group has blossomed into an area of great expertise that is very highly interactive with industry,” he says. “Now the MRL is ideally positioned to help make collaborations like this happen.”

Merging into the MRL

The MRL combines MIT’s long-established Materials Processing Center (which was funded by industry, government agencies, and foundations) with the Center for Materials Science and Engineering (which performed basic science with experimental facilities supported by the National Science Foundation). Geoffrey Beach, associate professor of materials science and engineering, is MRL co-director.

“One of the main reasons we did the merger was so that we could do all these complementary activities together,” Thompson says. “Academics tend to work in silos, and you want to take people out of them to see how what they do is relevant to applications that other people do. MIT is very good about that. But the MRL, which takes the two communities together, will be an even better place to make those matches.”

Importantly, the MRL is also tightly joined to the new MIT.nano facility, a 200,000-square-foot center for nanoscience and nanotechnology, scheduled to open this summer, that was designed as a global powerhouse for research expertise and equipment. MRL researchers will be able to leverage the newly assembled MIT.nano resources that are unique within academia, Thompson says.

Even more broadly, Thompson and his colleagues are using MIT’s convening power to provide leadership outside the Institute as well. One set of efforts will be workshops in industrial sectors such as aerospace and microelectronics, which will bring companies, academics, and often government agencies to discuss research opportunities and current development challenges.

Other projects will build consortia designed to create a sustained mechanism for companies to collaborate to support pre-competitive research that benefits them all. For example, one existing consortium studies the use of carbon nanotubes to create stronger and lighter aircraft fuselage materials.

On a larger scale, MRL can sponsor meetings with industry, academia, and government to address global challenges, such as sustainable materials processing and supply of critical materials. “For instance, cobalt is mined primarily in the Congo, which is not a good situation on many levels, but are there alternatives?” Thompson says. “And how can you make material with lower energy costs, not only in making the material but over the period of its use? How do you make it in a way that doesn't affect the environment? And how do you recycle the materials?”

“There's been a real renaissance in looking at these questions, at the same times in the same laboratories where people are doing fundamental innovations at the atomic scale,” Thompson adds. “That's one of the exciting aspects of materials research.”

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