A scientist in a lab in Milan examines what looks like an ordinary piece of plexiglass, running a gloved hand along its edge. But if the team at this Italian startup is on the right track, this brown-tinted semi-transparent sheet of plastic could become a skyscraper window that produces electricity from sunlight.
The idea of using glass to produce energy has been around for some time, but Israeli startup Materials Zone is working with colleagues at Glass to Power in Milan to find the precise combination of tiny nanoparticles to embed in the plastic to make this dream a reality, producing windows for high-rise buildings that generate electricity from the sun.
“This will allow the world’s skyscrapers to use the vertical surfaces of their buildings to create energy, making cities much more green,” says Sergio Brovelli, president of Glass to Power’s scientific committee and a professor at the University of Milan-Bicocca. But first the scientists must review a vast amount of data from experiments to determine the exact composition of the new energy-generating material.
“Every time we adjust or change any small thing, we have to again look at the material’s performance, and the correlation between the actual performance and the required performance, and basically it’s tons of data to record and to analyze,” Brovelli says, highlighting one of the biggest challenges in the field of materials science, which uses chemistry, physics and engineering to develop new and innovative materials.
The science needed by Glass to Power and many others can now move much faster thanks to the Materials Zone platform, which uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to collect and analyze the results of multiple lab experiments, enabling data-driven and guided research.
“If we didn’t have this tool from Materials Zone, we would need more people and more time to get our work done,” Brovelli says. “This platform is helping us move forward on our current project and will be key to allowing us to expand our solutions to other fields, including making better X-ray machines, safer self-driving cars and greenhouses that give plants exactly the amount of light they need.”
Groundbreaking products like these are all dependent on new materials.
“Much of innovation’s future depends on breakthroughs in material science,” says Jon Medved, CEO of OurCrowd, a Jerusalem-based equity investment platform currently investing in Materials Zone.
Creating new materials requires countless hours of lab research that produce reams of data, which must be tracked and analyzed in order to move on to the next step, with numerous more experiments to find the perfect combination of ingredients.
“It takes years to discover new materials,” says Assaf Anderson, founder and CEO of Materials Zone. The company hosts an interdisciplinary team of materials scientists, data scientists and software engineers. “You need hundreds of experiments, and today it’s basically trial and error.”
Improved data collection and processing can help speed things up and cut costs, says Anderson, pointing to how the pharmaceutical industry has embraced big data to help drive drug discovery and development, leading to the emergence of bioinformatics.
“You don’t really have material informatics, but that’s exactly what we need,” Anderson says. That is what Materials Zone provides.
Other companies using Materials Zone include Colorado-based Forge Nano, which makes custom nanoparticle-based coatings that can do everything from protect products against corrosion to improve their ability to conduct electricity; and Israel-based 3DB, which is working on making better lithium-ion batteries that power small machines, like wearable medical devices. Research institutions focusing on developing new materials, including the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia and Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin, are also using the platform.
At its most basic level, Materials Zone collects and organizes experiment data from scientific instruments, outdated or legacy systems and databases, lab notebooks, Excel sheets and other sources. “Data is the key, not only gathering it more efficiently, but making sense of it,” says Yair Arzi, the company’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer.
Then, a series of algorithms suggests which tests or experiments should be conducted next – and their expected results.
“It creates a matrix of different options and different outcomes, and creates a picture of what will be the best strategy going forward,” Brovelli says.
In some cases, experiments can be skipped, or steps reduced.
“Not only does our platform reduce the number of experiments and shorten time to market, but it also saves on costs and pollution caused in some cases by further experiments,” Arzi says. He gives a simple example of an experiment to check how material holds up to heat; first the material is heated to 50 degrees to assess its strength, then the system can crunch data and tell scientists to do the next experiment at 70 degrees, cutting out all the tests between 51 and 69 degrees. It is even more powerful when scientists try to solve problems with more inputs and variables.
“We were able to demonstrate that by using our platform, within just two months, results became five times better than previous results achieved after five years of work,” Arzi says.
Materials Zone’s platform works for research in many fields, including energy storage, semiconductors and the automotive industry. It is especially useful for companies working on sustainable energy, and developing materials with less environmental impact, such as concrete that can be manufactured with less carbon output. The data tool can also be useful to those looking to improve manufacturing processes, or to scale up to make more of a product.
Brovelli expects Materials Zone to be even more useful when his team moves from concentrating on energy-producing skyscrapers to other similar applications of its new material. He says the same idea of special nanoparticles embedded in plastic or other materials to help absorb, measure or detect light energy has many applications: allowing greenhouses to filter light in exactly the right way for each plant; allowing self-driving cars to use light particles to detect and communicate with each other on the roads; and enabling medical radiation and X-ray machines to deliver more exact rays suitable to each patient’s case.
“Even though the core materials are the same, the different applications require slightly different features and combinations, which is very time consuming to figure out,” Brovelli says. “Materials Zone will allow us to do this, to find this balance.”
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