The 21st century presents a novel set of challenges to the engineer: intensive global competition, increasing carbon emissions, and a ballooning population drawing from a finite resource base. No engineer is better positioned to address these challenges than those who work with materials. Fundamentally, materials engineers manipulate matter to deliver new properties or develop novel processes to realize those forms of matter. However, materials are not simply a bundle of physical properties; materials influence the manner in which a product is fashioned, the form of that product, and, ultimately, its performance while in use. As a result, manipulating materials can change the nature of commerce, the interaction with the environment, and the character of resource-use. Materials can change the rules of the game.
The last several decades have seen the creation of robust analytical tools that map engineering decisions to their impact on technological performance. Moving forward, these tools will have to be complemented with ones that map to other characteristics. Dr. Kirchain's research attempts to address this need for two such characteristics: (i) economic performance and (ii) environmental performance of materials technologies. Mapping these properties is challenging because of the far-reaching implications of materials to the realization of a product; materials can change the economic and environmental characteristics of nearly every stage of the product life-cycle, including raw materials production, product design, manufacture, use, and disposal/recovery.
Dr. Kirchain's research has shown that by building an integrated approach around the tools of engineering, economics, and operations research, it is possible to link materials decisions to their broader implications; it is possible to measure the economic and environmental performance of materials. To date, Dr. Kirchain has developed measurement methods that address each of the major product life-cycle stages (see figure). His vision is that these methods will someday find their way into the toolkit of every graduating materials engineer and materials technology decision-maker.