In The Lab, Serendipity On Demand

MATERIALS SCIENCE IS THE cornerstone of most high-technology industries--from electronics to plastics to automotive engineering. But advances in the field can be painfully slow. Typically, it takes a full day for researchers to concoct just one new candidate material and put it through a battery of tests.

Now, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed a clever method for screening new compounds that promises to transform materials research. It can radically accelerate the one-a-day pace--to 10,000 per day.

This is crucial, because the number of possible compositions is almost endless. A material that combines five elements, for example, has millions of permutations. That's why the bulk of important discoveries has been "serendipitous," says physicist Xiao-Dong Xiang.

To automate serendipity, Xiang and chemist Peter G. Schultz have developed a "combinatorial" approach that resembles chipmaking technology. A little checkerboard pattern of thin films is deposited through a "mask," or stencil. The first ingredient's film covers the entire grid, but the masks for following films block out certain squares. Result: Each tiny square ends up as a different composition.

The technique has already been used to create a library of high-temperature superconductors. And now it is being used to examine various magnetic and optical materials.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.