A research team led by Cornell University faculty and alumni is reimagining design approaches to the materials that make up the world around us – polymers, textiles and semiconductors, among others – with the goal of mitigating often unintended social and environmental consequences.
“From the atomic and molecular level to the macroscale, materials design plays a critical role in large technological systems such as the built environment, transportation and water infrastructure,” said Jingjie Yeo, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and co-principal investigator on the research project, “Mind over Matter: Socioresilient Materials Design: A New Paradigm For Addressing Global Challenges in Sustainability,” (MoMatS). The project is enabled by a National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator Grant announced Dec. 19, 2022, and aims to improve environmental, social and economic sustainability through the emerging field of socioresilient materials design.
“While the field of materials has contributed enormous benefits to society, it has also been a key source and enabler of planetary damage and social inequities, which are increasingly amplified by climate shocks,” Yeo said. As an example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Environmental Justice Index highlights how low-income communities are disproportionately affected by pollution because of geographic and economic factors related to manufacturing plants.
“There is enormous potential at the intersection of emerging computational methods – artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example – and rigorous humanistic and social science research applied to materials design, to address critical environmental and social justice issues,” Yeo said.
MoMatS brings together collaborators from academia, industry, venture capital, the social sector, government and philanthropy. The project is led by Christine Ortiz, M.S. ‘95, Ph.D. ’97, who studied materials science and engineering at Cornell and is now the Morris Cohen professor of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It also includes Ellan Spero ’03, M.S. ’10, instructor at MIT, as well as researchers from the University of Swansea. Other participants include the software company Citrine Informatics and the non-profit higher education institution Station1.
MoMatS funding will enable the team to establish a new materials design framework through the incorporation of social considerations and metrics, develop state-of-the-art computational methods and software, and utilize nature-inspired principles to better assess the tradeoffs between the various properties contained within these systems. Ultimately, the researchers hope to foster more equitable and sustainable materials ecosystems through translation and education initiatives to advance socially-directed science and technology.
“This project is critical for, and has great potential to advance environmental protection and resource conservation, social well-being and equity, economic prosperity and continuity, and infrastructure resiliency,” Yeo said.