This strain sensor, made with carbon nanotubes using aerosol printing technology, was developed by professor Chuck Zhang of the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering to help the aerospace industry improve the quality of parts made with composite materials, while also lowering production costs and ensuring long-term structural integrity.When scientists and engineers use the word materials, they mean any naturally occurring substance manipulated by humans to make things. Beginning with the first metals, discovered by trial and error thousands of years ago, the drive to develop materials that better serve human needs has played a central role in the rise of complex societies.

Modern researchers have moved past haphazard experimentation. Today they examine materials at every level – from the nanoscale to the visible and tangible macroscale – to understand why a material behaves as it does.

At Georgia Tech, investigators unite research capabilities with powerful new tools to develop and characterize novel materials. By pinpointing the complex physical and chemical interactions that control performance, they are creating materials with unique properties.

The White House recently stressed the economic importance of materials expertise when it launched the Materials Genome Initiative, aimed at speeding the pace with which advanced materials move from discovery to industry applications. Georgia Tech is well positioned with the Institute for Materials (IMat), established in 2013 as one of nine interdisciplinary research institutes on campus.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is a critical concept at Georgia Tech, explained David McDowell, a Regents’ Professor who is founding executive director of the new institute. Accordingly, IMat is emphasizing collaboration throughout campus and beyond.

“At Georgia Tech we have some 200 faculty who focus on materials research,” said McDowell, who is the Carter N. Paden Jr. Distinguished Chair in Metals Processing in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, with a joint appointment in the School of Materials Science and Engineering. ”They tackle a broad range of areas including materials for electronics, infrastructure, energy, environment, transportation, biotechnology, aerospace and defense. The very breadth of that research makes multidisciplinary collaboration both possible and desirable.”

The campus is home to numerous interdisciplinary materials groups – including the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, the Center for Organic Photonics and Electronics, and the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology – that bring together dozens of faculty researchers to focus on core problems.

Materials research at Georgia Tech addresses every type of material, including metals, ceramics, polymers, textiles, composites, nanomaterials, bio-molecular solids – even familiar yet indispensable concrete. And cutting-edge structures that combine very different materials can offer unique capabilities – as in the case of spider silk and graphene oxide, which yield a light, flexible material stronger than steel.

“In the past, materials progress was highly empirical, based largely on trial and error,” said professor Naresh Thadhani, chair of the School of Materials Science and Engineering, which is the largest single locus of materials research at Georgia Tech, with 37 full-time faculty and 20 courtesy faculty appointments. “That approach is now widely regarded as excessively slow and costly.”

Instead, Thadhani explained, researchers are using microstructural tools, including optical and electron microscopes and neutron and X-ray scattering techniques, combined with time-resolved experimentation, mathematical and numerical modeling and computational simulations, to characterize materials. The aim is to predict how they’ll perform in real world applications, to accelerate the pace from discovery to deployment.

The ability to develop new materials for advanced manufacturing is essential to the United States, said Stephen E. Cross, executive vice president for research at Georgia Tech. In the new global economy, novel materials will be a key to the nation remaining competitive.

“From the day it opened, Georgia Tech has stressed support for industry, and interdisciplinary research is something we believe in very strongly as well,” said Cross. “I’m confident that our broad materials research capability, fostered by our Institute for Materials, can deliver innovations that will promote economic growth for both the state of Georgia and the nation.”

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