QuesTek Innovations LLCEvanston, Ill.

Materials by Design

The real world is an expensive place -- especially when it comes to creating the alloys that are an essential ingredient of so many of today's tools and machines. Now developers will be able to do their work in cyberspace. Advanced alloys can have an enormous impact on everything from the durability of the gears in transmission to making dental tools that can survive corrosive cleaning processes. However, development of super-advanced alloys has been limited because of the cost of traditional invention processes. Materials modeling systems have had a tremendous impact upon the pharmaceuticals industry by allowing it to conduct investigations on computers instead of in the lab. QuesTek Innovations Inc.'s goal is to bring the same benefits to substances from steel to concrete. Its Materials by Design software and methodology will allow inventors to design new substances in relatively inexpensive computers instead of costly labs. Mistakes will mean wasting brief moments of data processing time instead of long hours of lab effort and costly material. Manufacturers are so intrigued by Materials by Design's potential that many of them refuse to say how they're planning to use the product. Those who will speak are enthusiastic. "We have great expectations," says Neil Paton, vice president, technology, at Whitehall, Mich.-based Howmet Corp. Howmet has just begun using the software to design super-alloys for use in aviation and ground-based turbines. "You can come up with the right answer by design rather than by successive approximations arrived at through a large number of trials, many of which might be failures," Paton says. "You not only come up with a better product, but you get there a lot faster." More than a decade and at least $10 million have gone into developing QuesTek's products. Gregory Olson, professor and associate chair of the department of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University, has been the driving force behind the venture, which is a faculty-led spinoff. Materials by Design is initially focusing on steels, in part because of the enormous databases of information assembled by Northwestern's Steel Research Group. Results have been promising, QuesTek says. GearMet C69, one of three new alloys developed for use in gears and transmissions, is 40% harder than conventional materials. In a sign of the software's increased flexibility, a second alloy, GearMet C61, was designed specifically with CART Indy Car racing in mind. Its features include extraordinary toughness and tolerance of flaws. Ferrium CS61 is designed for bearings operating in high-intensity environments, and is resistant to corrosion. It also has an extended wear life and a flexible core. Plans are already underway to broaden Materials by Design into nickel and ferrous superalloys, refractory alloys, weld metals, and concrete and shaped memory alloys. The software has a ferocious appetite for computing power. It relies on advanced thermodynamic modeling systems, materials databases, computational tools, and analytical characterization. The system wouldn't have proven as effective in days when powerful computers were rare and costly. But "everybody has sophisticated computational capabilities these days," Paton says. Predicting the potential impact of this latest result of the information revolution is difficult, but the implications are vast. Steps will be cut out of the manufacturing process, dramatically reducing costs and pollution while increasing productivity. Designers will be able to create the materials they want instead of settling for whatever is available. One factor that could slow Materials by Design's acceptance is the fact that its software is highly complex and requires intensive training to use effectively. The company expects that to change, however, as its products grow more advanced and computing power becomes ever cheaper and more available.

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