The US Office of Naval Research has been tapped to spearhead a new public-private research effort that will bridge the “Valley of Death” between cutting edge foundational research and the marketplace, all in the name of commercializing the next generation of ultra lightweight metals. Among other things, that translates into a huge cut in the weight of a typical car, leading to greater battery range for EVs and a spike in fuel efficiency for gasmobiles.
Actually, the initial goal of the new Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Institute (LM3I) is to develop “the kinds of materials that can make an armored vehicle strong enough to withstand a bomb blast yet light enough to be carried on a helicopter,” but the long term effort is also aimed at making up ground in the emerging global market for advanced materials.
Catching Up On Lightweight Metals: The Start-Up Connection
LM3I will work with a sister organization, the newly formed American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Institute, a nonprofit that will open its headquarters in the Detroit area later this year. LM3I will focus particularly on reaching out to and collaborating with small and medium-sized enterprises.
The focus on smaller firms and start-ups is important because the mainstream metals industry is primarily focused on efficiency and competitiveness to serve growing markets in developing economies.
The more future-looking but less lucrative market in advanced economies has been left to a “cottage industry” of smaller, non-traditional research companies. The problem is that this sector typically faces serious obstacles to commercialization including scale-up issues and the absence of design guides, guides, certifications, and other standardized platforms.
As the Office of Naval Research (ONR) explains:
The hyper-competitive global marketplace for metals has created a paradox for the lightweight modern metals industry: it can continue to invest in technology that promotes cost competitiveness and global market share against developing economies, or it can invest in new alloys that promote market expansion based upon the demand of new consumers of lightweight products.
Expanding The Market For Lightweight Metals
As for the LM3I structure, the idea is to share knowledge in a format that enables engineers and designers to integrate product design, materials, and fabrication methodologies. This concurrent process can chop costs and design time in half.
While not ignoring conventional metals (another LM3I area of focus is advanced manufacturing processes), the new institute will be concentrating on expanding the market for next-generation metals and attracting new consumers to that market, in addition to developing the metals themselves.
In that regard, LM3I is similar to the Navy’s biofuel initiatives, in which the Navy has served as a public sector funder, research partner, and eager customer for next-generation biofuels, to help expand the market for petroleum alternatives.
We Built These New Lightweight Metals!
As for why our taxpayer dollars should go to assisting private-sector manufacturers, that’s a matter of longstanding practice in terms of national defense, where there’s an obvious benefit to having reliable domestic allies in the supply chain.
That’s on top of the general economic benefit of providing domestic companies with support to innovate, scale up, create new jobs, and compete in the global marketplace. There’s also a direct consumer benefit to lighter vehicles and other products, including wind turbines and other alternative energy devices, where stronger, lighter materials can lead to greater efficiencies.
The global competition is fierce, and the clock is already running because federal funding for LM3I will begin phasing out in just five years. By way of contrast, the German government funds that country’s well known Fraunhofer Institutes indefinitely, to the tune of about 1/3 of their total budgets annually.
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By way of comparison, federal support for LM3I is already scheduled to
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