Vice President of Tesla / SpaceX Joins Distinguished Panel to Celebrate the Year of Materials

What is the biggest crisis humanity will face in the next 50 years? A lack of water? A lack of arable land? Perhaps the answer lies within the field of materials engineering with a lack of new materials? The last option may seem a surprising choice, but if you’ve dedicated your life to the study of materials science, you understand the critical role materials play in all facets of sustaining human life. This very question of materials and sustainability was explored last month at the Jubilee Seminar: Material is evolution – Materials, society, industry and sustainability held in Stockholm, Sweden, on May 15, 2019 in celebration of the Year of Materials.

A panel of speakers standing at the front of the room

The one-day seminar discussed the future of materials in society from the perspective of sustainability. The event was hosted by IVA, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, the oldest engineering science academy in the world, and is part of a yearlong celebration in Sweden recognising 2019 as The Year of Materials (Materialens År in Swedish). The yearlong celebration marks the 100-year anniversary of the IVA, founded in 1919, as well as the 200-year anniversary of Sweden’s first higher technical school, now the Department of Materials Design at KTH in Stockholm, Sweden. The Year of Materials consists of events throughout 2019 celebrating the outsized role Sweden has played in the field of materials engineering and the role Sweden and sustainability continue to play in its future. The celebration culminates in the EUROMAT conference being held in Stockholm, Sweden, the first week of September 2019.

The Jubilee Seminar invited eight distinguished speakers to present on the future of materials in society and the role sustainability must play in ensuring a safe, lasting future for the planet. The speakers included preeminent professors and industry leaders working in a range of areas within materials science, including, among others, Charlie Kuehmann, Vice-President of Materials Engineering at Tesla and SpaceX; Tresa Pollock, Professor NAE, GASL, ALCOA Distinguished Professor, Materials University of California, Santa Barbara; Annika Borgenstam, Professor, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Director of the Hero-m 2i center; and Roger Reed, Professor, University of Oxford.

The day began with a short history of man’s interaction with materials, beginning with the central role materials played in shaping the lives of our ancient ancestors, allowing them to hunt for large prey in the stone age and gain control of the land and their environment in the subsequent metal ages, thus separating humans from all other animals and putting us on a course to the global domination we benefit from today. Unfortunately, with each advance we made in materials science, the world was transformed, starting with the mass extinctions caused when we learned to sharpen obsidian and hunt large prey and leading to today, when we face catastrophic consequences if we do not alter the current course. Thus, the stage was set for the rest of the day, which focused on the incredible advances that are currently underway in materials science and the role sustainability must play in these advances. 

A primary theme that emerged throughout the day was the need for increased speed in materials design. It generally takes 10-20 years to design a new material, which impedes our ability to improve a product’s sustainability. The faster we can design more sustainable materials, the faster we can apply these materials to more sustainable products by, for instance, reducing or eliminating the use of toxic elements, decreasing waste in processing, producing materials that are more durable, more easily recycled or contain parts that can be repaired or replaced, decreasing weight in order to decrease the need for fuel and designing better batteries and alternative energy sources. Several presenters discussed how they are tackling the issue of speed using computational tools such as Thermo-Calc. 

A group of people standing in a garden
Several Thermo-Calc Software employees attended the seminar. As a company, we work to support the drive for sustainable materials design and processing.

Annika Borgenstam, Professor, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Director of the Hero-m 2i center, discussed how she is using computational tools to change the design approach. Computational tools such as Thermo-Calc allow materials scientists to define the properties they want, such as improved hardness for durability, and then run models to work backwards to get the structure, a reversal of the traditional process of inputting the structure and working toward the properties. This approach allows materials scientists to define properties that focus on sustainability and then more quickly work toward designing those materials.

“Speed wins” was how Charlie Kuehmann, Vice-President of Materials Engineering at Tesla and SpaceX, phrased it. Tesla and SpaceX may be two of the best-known companies working on sustainability and, as he explained, their goal is not just to design better materials faster and transition to sustainable energy sources, but to do so on a scale large enough that it forces the market to follow. In his presentation, Dr. Kuehmann shared how his companies have transformed the design process by employing tools such as Thermo-Calc within an ICME framework to drastically reduce design time. Their results are undeniable, with the popularity of Tesla cars and their progress in developing reusable rockets standing as two celebrated examples.

The seminar concluded with a panel discussion in which all of the presenters were asked to consider questions around a sustainable future, such as the question posed at the top, ‘What is the biggest crisis humanity will face in the next 50 years? After much consideration, the room determined that it is not a matter of deciding which is the correct answer, but instead working collaboratively from all angles to ensure a safe, lasting future. Thermo-Calc Software are proud to do our part in this drive toward a sustainable future by developing products that assist in designing materials and processes that are better for the planet and supporting the organisations that are working toward this change.