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‘Sputtertron’, among latest CFI-funded U of T projects, could help develop new materials for a greener economy

From keeping wind turbines ice-free to catalytically converting waste carbon dioxide into useful products, advanced materials will be critical to the development of future sustainable technologies.

And a new system called ‘Sputtertron’ could help find them.

“This materials acceleration platform will be a unique, AI-controlled tool that combines both the synthesis of new materials and their characterization,” said Prof. Jason Hattrick-Simpers of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, who is leading the team developing the new platform.

“This will allow us to increase the rate of discovery of these new materials by a factor of 1,000.”

The project is one of 16 across U of T’s three campuses that was announced this week by the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans received support from the Leaders Fund. Another 10 projects led by faculty affiliated with T’s partner hospitals also received funding.

See the full list of projects

Named after a former U of T president, John R. The Evans Leaders Fund helps institutions recruit and retain outstanding researchers and provides the tools and technology they need to carry out their work.

“The federal government’s ongoing support for Canadian research through the John R. Evans Leaders Fund allows researchers to tackle some of the world’s most important problems and greatest challenges,” said Leah Cowen, T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives. “These strategic investments will support projects ranging from testing how fatty acids are metabolized to the development of advanced materials needed for sustainable technologies, at the Sputtertron.”

The sputtertron’s name comes from the word ‘sputtering’, a technique that involves bombarding the surface of a material with energetic particles and analyzing what comes up. Sputtering is often used in industry to coat one material with another in a process called “physical vapor deposition” – an example is the manufacture of computer chips.

But the sputtertron will not only be able to create new alloys through sputtering, it will also autonomously analyze and characterize the electronic properties of those new alloys. Using artificial intelligence, the platform can extrapolate from those features to imagine the next component to be created and direct its creation – all without human intervention.

Hattrick-Simpers and his team will use the funds to buy the equipment and software needed to build the sputtertron, which they hope will be operational by December 2023. They are particularly interested in a class of materials known as compositionally complex alloys/oxides, or CCAs

“CCAs are interesting in that they typically contain five or more primary alloying elements,” Hattrick-Simpers says. “Even if you limit yourself to only 30 useful elements, billions of possible alloys and oxides can be explored, of which the community collectively has over 10,000. understudied.”

Such materials could be used to extend the lifespan of electric vehicles and their components, or to make infrastructure such as wind turbines more resilient. They can also be used as catalysts, speeding up chemical reactions that convert captured CO2 into fuels, commodity chemicals or other valuable products.

Hattrick-Simpers says a key aspect of the project is that its data and findings will be made available to other researchers around the world.

“We enable scientific equity by providing functional knowledge and computational tools to anyone interested in building on what we’ve done, and hopefully finding other new and promising materials as well as commercializing new technologies,” he said.

The team even plans to run an annual competition to design new computer models that can predict the properties of advanced materials. The top three finishers will collaborate with Hattrick-Simpers and her team to verify their predictions using the Sputtertron.

For her part, Hattrick-Simpers is excited about the potential for collaboration raised by the new project.

“Having the Sputtertron here at U of T, where people from the National Research Council, Natural Resources Canada, the Acceleration Consortium, A3MD and the Vector Institute can directly access and provide input on the latest AI technology, is absolutely amazing,” he said.

“We look forward to continuing to work with our collaborators and moving forward from demonstrating the effectiveness of these materials to using them to change the world.”

Here is a list of U of T projects announced in the latest round of JELF funding:

  • Enabling rapid evaluation of the WDR family of proteins as human drug targets – Cheryl Arrowsmith Temarti Faculty of Medicine
  • Exploring the effects of skill on perception, encoding, and retrieval of complex, dynamic events – Alexander Burnett Faculty of Arts and Science
  • Biophotonic wearables and implants for clinical translation – Daniel Franklin Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering
  • Collaborative Sequential Robots – Jessica Bergner-Kahrs U of T Mississauga
  • Harnessing the activity of secreted blood-borne factors to restore synapse formation and function in aged human neurons – Kathleen Gann U of T Scarborough
  • Strong learning-based autonomy in a dynamic environment – Igor Gilitsensky U of T Mississauga
  • Prototyping a fully autonomous mobile robot for building digital twinning with high order DNNs – Daeho Kim Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering
  • Understanding and Treating Cancer, Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease in Women: A Holistic, Lifestyle Approach – Amy Kirkham Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education
  • Intelligent and Interactive Building (IIB) Laboratory – Seungjae Lee Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering
  • An Advanced Optical Instrumentation Laboratory for the Development of Next Generation Spectroscopic Surveys – Ting Lee of Faculty of Arts and Science
  • High-throughput automated phenomics platform for improving plant and soil health – Shelley Lumba Faculty of Arts and Science
  • Framework for the Study of Gender Differences in Omega-3 Fatty Acid Metabolism – Adam Metherell Temarti Faculty of Medicine
  • Environmental effects of sexual dimorphism – Rosalind Murray U of T Mississauga
  • Physical Vapor Deposition Materials Acceleration Platform – Jason Hattrick-Simpers Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering
  • Enhancing micro/nanofabrication capabilities of TNFC – Wai Tung Ng Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering
  • Single-molecule detection of blood-based protein biomarkers for disease diagnosis – Alan Ogata U of T Mississauga

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