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Accelerating Advanced Material Development

NERSC Science Gateway a 'Google of Material Properties'

October 31, 2011

Linda Vu, [email protected], +1 510 495 2402


Kristin Persson is one of the founding scientists behind the Materials Project, a computational tool aimed at taking the guesswork out of new materials discoveries, especially those aimed at energy applications like batteries. (Roy Kaltschmidt, LBNL)

New materials are crucial to building a clean energy economy—for everything from batteries to photovoltaics to lighter weight vehicles—but today the development cycle is too slow: around 18 years from conception to commercialization. To speed up this process, a team of researchers from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) teamed up to develop a new computational tool. Called the Materials Project, it launches this month.

The tool, which sits on the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center’s (NERSC) science gateway infrastructure, was developed with support from the Department of Energy and a Laboratory Directed Research and Development Grant from Berkeley Lab.

“Our vision is for this tool to become a dynamic ‘Google’ of material properties, which continually grows and changes as more users come on board to analyze the results, verify against experiments and increase their knowledge,” says Kristin Persson, a Berkeley Lab chemist and one of the founding scientists behind the Materials Project. “So many scientists can benefit from this type of screening. Considering the demand for innovative clean energy technology, we needed most of these materials yesterday.”

Taking a Genome-like Approach

The Materials Project employs an approach to materials science inspired by genomics. But rather than sequencing genomes, researchers are using supercomputers to characterize the properties of inorganic compounds, such as their stability, voltage, capacity, and oxidation state. The results are then organized into a database with a user-friendly web interface that gives all researchers free and easy access and searching.

“First-principles calculations have reached the point of accuracy where many materials properties, relevant for photovoltaics, batteries and thermoelectrics, can be reliably predicted,” says Gerbrand Ceder, an MIT professor of materials science and engineering and founder of the Materials Project.

A better battery—one that is cheaper and has more power and energy while being safe—could finally make possible the dream of an electric vehicle reaching performance and cost parity with a gasoline-powered car. But beyond batteries, novel materials could transform a host of other industries, from food packaging to buildings. For example, the Materials Project is working with several entities interested in making stronger, corrosion-resistant, lightweight aluminium alloys, which could make possible lighter vehicles and airplanes.

“Materials innovation today is largely done by intuition, which is based on the experience of single investigators,” says Persson, who works in Berkeley Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division. “The lack of comprehensive knowledge of materials, organized for easy analysis and rational design, is one of the foremost reasons for the long process time in materials discovery.”

President Obama has recognized the importance of advanced materials with his announcement in June of the Materials Genome Initiative “to double the speed with which we discover, develop, and manufacture new materials.” Many of the concepts of that initiative were inspired by the Materials Project, Persson said.

With the help of supercomputers at the Department of Energy’s NERSC, the Berkeley Lab Lawrencium cluster and systems at the University of Kentucky, the Materials Project database currently contains the structural and energetic properties of more than 15,000 inorganic compounds, and up to hundreds more are added every day. Researchers are continuously adding new properties to enable true rational design of new materials for a wide variety of applications.

A Gateway for Science

To build the Materials Project web tool, the team approached computer systems engineers at NERSC who have extensive experience building web-based interfaces and technologies. These science gateways make it easier for researchers to access computational resources and share data with the rest of their community.

“The Materials Project represents the next generation of the original Materials Genome Project, developed by Ceder's team at MIT,” says Shreyas Cholia, a NERSC computer engineer who helped develop the Materials Project tool. “The core science team worked with developers from NERSC and Berkeley Lab’s Computational Research Division to expand this tool into a more permanent, flexible and scalable data service built on top of rich modern web interfaces and state-of-the-art NoSQL database technology.”

The Materials Project, which will be hosted on NERSC's science gateway infrastructure, was developed with support from the Department of Energy and a Laboratory Directed Research and Development grant from Berkeley Lab.

In addition to Persson and Cholia, other Berkeley Lab contributors to this project include Michael Kocher, Daniel Gunter, Annette Greiner, David Skinner and David Bailey. MIT collaborators include Gerbrand Ceder, Shyue Ping Ong, Anubhav Jain, Geoffroy Hautier and Evgueni Chtykov. 

“At NERSC we have a long history of engaging with science teams to create web-based tools that allow scientists to share and access data, perform computations and interact with NERSC systems using web-based technologies, so it was a perfect match,” adds Cholia.

Research teams interested in initiating their own science gateway projects at NERSC should contact David Skinner at [email protected]

About Computing Sciences at Berkeley Lab

High performance computing plays a critical role in scientific discovery, and researchers increasingly rely on advances in computer science, mathematics, computational science, data science, and large-scale computing and networking to increase our understanding of ourselves, our planet, and our universe. Berkeley Lab’s Computing Sciences Area researches, develops, and deploys new foundations, tools, and technologies to meet these needs and to advance research across a broad range of scientific disciplines.

Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 13 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science.