We may not always be able to identify advances in this sector in our everyday lives, but innovations in this category are often life-changing.
PADRAIC FOLEY Director, Strategy and Partnerships, Acceleration Consortium
Advanced materials have the potential to change our lives and our world for the better. For example, modified forms of silicon semiconductors developed in the 1950s led to the digital revolution that continues to define our age. The discovery of lithium-ion battery materials greatly impacted the global energy landscape. So, while the field of advanced materials and manufacturing is not new, it is an area that constantly needs to innovate, and quickly. Even in the last few years, there has been a revolutionary shift in scientific discovery that promises to accelerate technology development and commercialization.
One of these shifts is the emergence of self-driving laboratories, or Materials Acceleration Platforms (MAPs). MAPs leverage the power of AI, robotics, engineering, and chemistry, and they can radically fast-track the discovery and development of new materials and molecules. Given that so many of the problems we face in today’s world are time-sensitive, MAPs can make a major difference in finding solutions: Climate change and the COVID-19 vaccine are both issues that put a spotlight on our race against time. This is why there’s no time for science in silos.
This realization was a driving force behind the creation of the Acceleration Consortium (AC), a global coalition of academia, government, industry, and entrepreneurs transforming the development of advanced materials. Based at the University of Toronto and led by world-renowned AI and advanced materials researcher Alán Aspuru-Guzik, the AC will use self-driving labs to reduce the time and cost of bringing advanced materials to market, from an average of 20 years and $100 million to as little as one year and $1 million. This transformation is parallel to the relatively recent revolution in biotechnology driven by the development of rapid, low-cost genome sequencing — another global effort.
Largely material agnostic, MAPs use AI and computational modeling to predict which advanced materials or molecules will have the properties required for a particular application. A robotic lab then uses these predictions to autonomously synthesize, test, and refine for these target properties. By inverting the usual discovery process, this closed-loop technology allows you to first define the desired properties and then work backward to develop whole families of new materials.
The AC’s robust and agile innovation ecosystem will allow members to capitalize on shared knowledge to more easily commercialize technological breakthroughs that address real market needs. It will train the next generation of researchers, creating a talent pipeline that drives industry, launches startups, and attracts venture capital.
The global and urgent need for better materials is never-ending: Cheaper, more sustainable, and quicker to manufacture materials are required every day. New materials with superior performance characteristics are required for renewable and clean energy storage, sustainable polymers and packaging for consumer products, biomedical applications, drugs and therapeutics, lighter and stronger building materials, quantum computing, communication technology, eco-friendly transportation, and more.
COVID-19 has accelerated digitization across a wide variety of sectors. Many who embraced the digital world early have reaped the benefit of their investment and foresight. The field of advanced materials and manufacturing is no exception. If we are to truly compete, we need to pay attention to those pushing the boundaries of advanced materials development and manufacturing, including the ones making great advances right now in our own country.