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A stronger ‘innovation ecosystem’

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Updated: July 10, 2012 6:03AM

Students, scientists and researchers in the Chicago area have a new outlet to delve into supercomputing, green energy, the human genome and other hot topics, and to work with manufacturers to try to put the ideas into action.

The Northwestern-Argonne Institute for Science and Engineering is settling final details this week before launching the partnership unique to Chicago: Its mission is to combine Argonne National Laboratory’s supercomputing and nanoscale materials prowess with Northwestern University’s engineering, chemistry and materials science specialties to bring research to life in the factory. The institute will also work with the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Fermilab and others to draw expertise.

“We need Chicago to be a place where we bring together the best people to work on science problems and then tackle the biggest issues we face,” said Pete Beckman, co-director of the Institute. Beckman is a supercomputing expert and director of the Exascale Technology and Computing Institute at Argonne.

Paired with Beckman is Institute Co-Director Peter W. Voorhees, a professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern.

Both Northwestern and Argonne are contributing an undisclosed amount of seed money to create the institute, which will hire a management team and offer visits and research opportunities to high-school, college and post-doctoral students as well as researchers and scientists.

Said Voorhees, a computational mathematics expert, said the institute aims to strengthen Chicago’s “innovation ecosystem” by linking materials science experts with Argonne’s tools, including soon-to-open “green” supercomputer Mira, the world’s first “petascale” machine capable of churning through 5 billion computer hours of scientific data in a year. Mira, which is turned on and being tested before going live in a couple weeks, will be 20 times faster than Argonne’s current supercomputer, Intrepid.

One of the institute’s first projects is to help tackle a new Obama administration initiative aimed at doubling the speed and cutting the cost of discovering, developing and deploying high-tech materials.

The so-called Materials Genome Initiative is part of a broader effort to create jobs and revolutionize manufacturing by creating lighter and safer cars, produce packaging that keeps food fresher and make lightweight bullet-proof vests for police officers, among other applications.

“Picking the right material is a very difficult process, so if we can improve our ability to design materials and move that into manufacturing, we can solve real-world problems,” Beckman said.

The same kind of thinking can figure out stumbling blocks such as how to create a cheap electric battery to make electric and hybrid cars affordable; how atoms and proteins work inside people’s bodies as a way to fight disease; and what’s going on in the earth’s soil to get a better understanding of carbon emissions and global warming.

Argonne and Northwestern are already working on several cutting-edge projects that will be enveloped into the institute, including finding a way to take hydrogen from water in a way that could create a fuel for hydrogen-powered vehicles.

“What if we could convert sunlight directly to a fuel that could be easily stored and used in a hydrogen-powered car’s engine? It’s solar energy we hope to use for cracking water to create hydrogen,” Beckman said.

The researchers also are trying to figure how calcium and potassium go in and out of a human cell to better understand how certain therapies work against diseases, he said.

The institute isn’t about pie in the sky, however.

“Early on, we will be looking at ways to partner with local industry to offer meaty science projects for postdocs and scientists to work on,” Beckman said.

Argonne already works with the Big Three auto companies to develop battery technology for hybrid cars; General Electric on working to reduce jet-engine noise; and with Caterpillar to halve energy use and more efficiently run a casting process in its foundries.

Cyrus Wadia, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, academic and a senior policy analyst with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told a recent conference on materials science research that the United States needs to remain a leader in technological innovation, and the only way to do that is to speed the time from a material’s discovery to its introduction in the marketplace.

“We have a lot of discovered materials, including many laying dormant, so our mantra is to go twice as fast at half the cost” to find solutions to issues such as global warming, the need for clean water in developing countries and inefficient manufacturing processes, Wadia said.

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