Nature’s way

Software-enabled science accelerates development of new materials

David L. McDowell and Reza Sadeghi
6 December 2017

5 min read

Over millions of years, nature has used a few basic elements to create materials that can heal themselves, change their structures and decompose at end of life. Now, computer science is helping researchers replicate such qualities in engineered materials – in a fraction of the time and with predictable results.

At Wake Forest University in North Carolina, scientists recently grew a human ear in a petri dish. They first used cellular material and a 3D printer to create the cartilage for the ear. 
Then they grew the ear – complete with the blood vessels needed to keep it alive – using a synthetic material designed to mimic human skin.

The breakthrough, a major step forward for medical science, promises to help people injured in accidents or suffering from severe burns. But the Wake Forest ear also significantly advanced the science of engineered materials: In many respects, the scientists produced the ear in the same way nature does, first by growing a scaffold out of rigid material and then by giving instructions to the synthetic skin material to assemble itself in response to various chemical triggers.

For those of us who work in materials science, the combination of organic and synthetic materials, 3D printing and natural growth, all arranged by a set of instructions encoded like human DNA, is the realization of a long-held goal. But the potential uses of engineered materials stretch far beyond the world of medicine.

A wide range of high-tech manufacturing industries is creating demand for made-to-measure materials that can be engineered to deliver a level of targeted performance that existing materials simply can’t match. And now materials science and computer science are teaming up to help researchers answer the call, fast and sustainably. 


Humanity’s creations require tremendous amounts of energy and generate massive amounts of waste. Think of the rubble generated during construction of a new skyscraper or the energy consumed in manufacturing a product. In contrast, nature creates new organisms with minimal energy and waste, optimizes them to their environments and makes them fully recyclable. If we can draw clues from nature, we can better position ourselves to solve most of the man-made sustainability issues threatening our planet and provide abundance for a rapidly growing population.

Of course, it took nature 4 billion years to develop amazing materials such as wood and lobster shells through the painfully slow, trial-and-error process of evolution. Obviously, it’s not practical to wait 4 billion years to develop the new materials that can help humanity be less wasteful.

Could spider silk hold the key to developing a renewable, biodegradable material strong enough to replace the metal cables in suspension bridges? Materials simulation software may help scientists find the answer. (Image © iStock/tillsonburg)

Instead, scientists have created software that mimics evolution in a virtual environment, a process we call in silico because the simulations happen in a computer. Instead of the time-consuming trial-and-error approach that tests thousands of possible combinations in a laboratory and discards what doesn’t work, the software’s sophisticated machine-learning capabilities identify the most promising combinations for a specific purpose in a matter of minutes.


Nature has given us the blueprint; the confluence of supercomputing and data science has given us the means to accelerate the process and to direct it toward a set of pre-defined characteristics. Together, material scientists at the Institute for Materials at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and experts at Dassault Systèmes are teaming up to enable this new science.


One of nature’s wonders is that it builds millions of different configurations of molecules and associated material systems from just four primary elements: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfate (plus minute amounts of a few common metals). Nature combines these elements to create 20 amino acids. From this small toolset, it engineers more than 100,000 different proteins, which it assembles into millions of wildly varied life forms with billions of unique characteristics.

By studying how nature assembles its organisms, scientists are learning how to engineer new materials with similar characteristics from these same basic building blocks. For example, scientists have long been fascinated by the sea cucumber, a marine animal that changes its leathery skin from soft to hard in response to the changing temperatures and acidity of its ocean environment. Now, a US government lab is working to mimic this capability in aircraft design, enabling the wings of a plane to be rigid for takeoffs and landings, then become more pliable when it encounters turbulence. Increased wing pliability will allow the aircraft to glide smoothly through rough air, improving passenger comfort.

Could spider silk hold the key to developing a renewable, biodegradable material strong enough to replace the metal cables in suspension bridges? Materials simulation software may help scientists find the answer. (Image © iStock/tillsonburg)

Another common quality of natural materials is self-healing. Break a bone and it becomes inflamed. In reaction, the body sends blood and stem cells to the fracture site, lays down a compound called callus and begins the healing process. Similarly, scientists have created synthetic materials with a vascular system that pumps “healing” agents to damaged parts of the material. Fluids such as resin and a hardener, which react when they mix, automatically seal the cracks to execute the repair.


Today, new solutions to old challenges are being created in mind-boggling ways. For example, developing more powerful, longer-lasting battery technologies is critical to many fields, including electric-powered cars. Current battery technologies, however, rely on corrosive chemicals and become dangerous waste at the end of their useful lives.

Rather than look for a new combination of current-generating metals, Angela Belcher and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineered a harmless virus to “grow” high-powered batteries. The team used a bactirophage, a special kind of virus that infiltrates bacteria. Instructions implanted in the phage’s DNA instructed the bacteria to collect carbon tubes a billionth of an inch wide and then use them to grow a battery electrode. For the first time, Belcher and her colleagues succeeded in creating batteries that can be “grown” at room temperature on a biological scaffold.

Although experiments like these are yielding significant advances, much work remains. We understand how basic compounds assemble at the nano level, but we need to discover more at the meso-level, the in-between range of length scales where cells exist. Using a combined strategy of multiscale modeling and experimentation, and by advancing the new field of materials data science and informatics, Georgia Tech’s Institute for Materials is leading efforts to model relations among synthesis, processing and accessible material structures at the meso-level, as well as effects of these meso-level structures on material properties and performance.

Numerous properties and responses emerge from the meso-level structure of materials, including strength, ductility, fracture resistance and toughness, energy emissivity, friction, light and color. Georgia Tech’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design, meanwhile, explores evolutionary adaptation as a source for materials design inspiration.

To reduce the effects of turbulence on aircraft, scientists are working to develop materials that mimic the sea cucumber’s ability to transform its body from rigid to pliable. (Image © iStock/naturediver)

Spider thread is a good example of the potential benefits of meso-scale research. The material is incredibly strong and tough but very flexible. Engineers have created synthetic spider silk, but only in volumes sufficient for small structures. With more understanding of the meso-level, we can create algorithms that will show us how to “scale” spider silk for use in massive structures such as bridges and scaffolding.


Our world faces constraints on energy, raw materials and methods of waste disposal, requiring more efficient alternatives to traditional materials and methods.


In response, scientists are asking: Can we find materials that assemble themselves and self-repair when damaged, using only minimal energy? Can we create biomaterials that help the planet become a better place to live rather than adding to the poisonous load of environmental toxins? Can we mimic nature’s processes to develop a class of truly sustainable materials? What can we learn from evolutionary adaptation to guide the way new and improved materials are made?

Increasingly, powerful computing technologies coupled with machine learning are helping scientists to discover and create new materials in months or years, not eons. Humanity and nature are the clear beneficiaries of this grand mission.

David L. McDowell is Regents’ Professor, Carter N. Paden Jr. Distinguished Chair and Executive Director of the Institute for Materials at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Reza Sadeghi is Chief Strategy Officer for Dassault Systèmes’ BIOVIA brand, which develops solutions for the process and life sciences industries.

Digital mining

To boost profits, mining companies look to digitalization for results

Michele Witthaus & Sean Dudley

5 min read

By digitalizing operations, mining companies can optimize operations and leverage new business models. Compass explores the technologies leading the digital shift, and how they are changing the ways that companies work. 

“For resource companies, navigating a future with more uncertainty and fewer sources of growth will require a focus on agility. Harnessing digital and other technologies will be essential for unlocking productivity gains.” McKinsey Global Institute, February 2017, Beyond the Supercycle: How Technology is Reshaping Resources

Years of boom-and-bust cycles and low margins have taken a steady toll on the fortunes of mining companies. As the deposits that remain to be mined continue to decline in quality and activity moves to increasingly remote locations, the industry is searching for new answers. 

In line with the advice from McKinsey Global Institute, many players are turning to technology for relief.

“Digital technologies are starting to have a critical impact in the mining industry today,” said Karin Jirstrand, product manager of Interoperability for Mining Technology at Atlas Copco, a global manufacturer of equipment, consumables and services for drilling and rock excavation for the mining industry headquartered in Sweden. “Knowing exactly what your machines are doing, where they are and if they are working correctly is becoming essential. Embarking on a digital journey can make any company more productive.”


Sabrin Chowdhury is a Singapore-based commodities analyst at BMI Research, which provides macroeconomic, industry and financial market analysis. Digital technologies, she said, will increasingly be a key enabler to success in the mining industry.

“The benefits of applying technology to mining operations are clear: increased efficiency lowers costs, improves safety records, and lessens waste and environmental impact,” she said.

Digital technologies have the potential to improve both mining operational management and safety and environmental governance, Chowdhury said. Technology can enhance how companies look after their workers’ safety and lower risk, while the combination of digital sensors on mining equipment with Internet of Things (IoT) platforms and analytics give mining firms the chance to boost their operational efficiency. “These enable better prediction of when equipment will break down, helping to decrease the downtime of operations and increase productivity,” she said.

Enhanced process control, asset monitoring and safety and security for miners in harsh operating environments are other potential benefits, she said. Communications among site, surface and underground mining operations also can be improved through digitalization, thereby streamlining and improving operational efficiency. Apparatus innovations, which help improve operational efficiency and lower production costs by increasing fleet utilization, also offer benefits, she said.

As in other industries, sensors can be fitted to mining equipment, drones or workers, making it possible to gather data across the entire production process. 3D visualization technologies also can be harnessed; by visualizing unmined ore deposits as 3D models for example, mine operators can improve their extraction plans, making deposits faster and easier to mine.


The digitalization of mining presents the biggest value-generating opportunity available to most mine operators, according to Gavin Yeates, principal of Gavin Yeates Consulting, which advises mining companies on digital mining. Yeates also is director of CRC ORE, which explores new technology in industry.

“Part of the reason the value can be so high is we’re coming off a low base,” Yeates said. “Many of the operational improvements we’ve seen in other industries, we haven’t yet applied in mining. The opportunity is to connect the value chain from modeling the ore body in the ground, through the production process, all the way to the product at the end.”

Technology used by Atlas Copco allows an operator to run a machine remotely from the mine’s control room. Data from the machine is then made available to users via Atlas Copco’s Certiq telematics solution. (Image © Atlas Copco)

Some mining companies have begun to translate potential into active benefits. Gold Fields Limited, a gold mining company with operations in Australia, Ghana, Peru and South Africa, for example, is already using remote rock-breaking and loading, drones, 3D visualization and big data collected via underground telemetry, CEO Nicholas J. Holland said in an address at a Future Mining conference in March 2017. Partnerships with IT firms and original equipment manufacturers will be critical to future mining success, he said.

Gold Fields Limited is among a growing number of mining companies that are incorporating digital technologies into wider innovation programs, Chowdhury said. These companies are investing heavily with the aim of enhancing their operations.

“In 2016, top copper miner Codelco increased its innovation budget by 25% year-on-year to US$75 million (€63 million), and in December 2016 created the Codelco Tech unit to drive its innovative efforts,” she said. “In September 2016, Barrick Gold partnered with Cisco to develop a flagship digital operation at the Cortez mine in Nevada, which will inform the eventual global rollout. Industry leader Rio Tinto rolled out the Processing Excellence Centre (PEC) in Brisbane, Australia, and autonomous fleet utilization in 2015.”

The PEC is a state-of-the-art facility that enhances monitoring and operational performance by examining real-time processing data from seven Rio Tinto operations around the globe.

BHP Billiton, a multinational mining, metals and petroleum powerhouse, also is leveraging digitalization to improve mining efficiency. Alan Bye, BHP Billiton vice president, Technology, speaking at a recent industry conference in Melbourne, Australia, cited an environment of distributed innovation, plus the democratization of information and data, as two driving forces of change.

“It’s important to remember that innovation requires big and small ideas,” Bye said. “Moon-shot innovation takes longer, but by engaging with our people and finding small gaps in our process, we’ve been able to deliver huge value over a short period of time. We are quickly becoming a more digital, integrated and connected business. And we’re looking at ways of improving the way we mine from every angle.”


To fully exploit the potential of digitalization, companies also need to train their miners to make best use of new technologies.

Julien Duquennoy, an associate professor in computer science at French engineering school UniLaSalle, is doing just that at the GéoLab, a digital innovation laboratory in the Spanish Southern Central Pyrenees Zone. His students learn to use 3D modeling of geological layers to examine structures such as faults and sedimentary bodies. The aim is to determine the validity of assumptions about conditions underground, before mining begins.

“We have to find out if automated modeling will work well on a geological area with complex geometries,” Duquennoy said. “The technological difficulty we face is to find the right balance between manual and automated work so that we can obtain a scientifically satisfactory result via the simplest method possible.”


Throughout the industry, however, change won’t come easily. A survey of more than 800 global mining leaders, carried out by digital transformation consulting firm VCI, identified several blocks to implementing innovative mining technologies in the next 15 years. These included resistance to change and difficulty finding suitably skilled employees, with another 20% of respondents citing industry culture as a major impediment to innovation.

George Hemingway, Growth Strategy & Innovation executive at strategy and innovation consultancy The Stratalis Group, believes much of this resistance is rooted in the way that financial markets work against the industry’s need for innovation and technology investment.

“Years ago, I used to say that the biggest challenge to innovation in mining was a disconnect between the incentives that mine managers and executives at the middle level in companies had, and the time horizon and risk appetite required by innovation,” Hemingway said. “However, I have found over time that the challenge now sits not with them but at the very top of the pyramid, with the CEOs and COOs. The reason is that they are slaves to the market, which requires them to return results on a quarterly or yearly basis. They’re no longer willing to invest for the long term in innovation because the market is not rewarding them for it.”


With so many challenges to face, there is no secret recipe for success in this space. Still, Atlas Copco’s Jirstrand believes companies that move toward digitalization ultimatel

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