Many of the pressing challenges facing governments today transcend national borders, and thus require deeper and newer forms of international collaboration. CNRS and MIT have now created one such alliance by forming an International Joint Unit (UMI MIT-CNRS), a laboratory bringing together French and MIT researchers on MIT’s Cambridge campus. Last June MIT President Susan Hockfield and CNRS President Alain Fuchs inaugurated the UMI “Multi-Scale Materials for Energy and Environment” (MSE), and also indicated that it would mark the beginning of a broader partnership between the two organizations in the areas of education, training and research.

MSE expands on the important work undertaken by MIT teams at the Concrete Sustainability Hub and the X-Shale Hub research centers. The laboratory studies structurally complex porous substances such as cement, shale gas and nuclear fuels employing what is called the “bottom-up” method. This involves holistic analysis over both scales of length (from nanometer to micron) and time (from nanosecond to hour) in order to gain snapshots of behavioral properties that can vary based on life span and molecular level.

The recent disasters in Japan and the Gulf of Mexico emphasized the need for renewed technology in civil engineering. By using fundamental physics to better understand molecular structure, we can produce materials and energy sources that are more durable, more stable and, ultimately, more sustainable.

Producing the ubiquitous building material concrete, for example, contributes approximately 5 to 10 % to the world’s CO2 emissions. Scientists and R&D departments have long tried to formulate better versions with little success, primarily because the main component, calcium silicate hydrate (CSH), resisted traditional forms of investigation. Combining neutron and X-Ray scattering, electron microscopy and nano-indentation with computational physics, MIT researchers including Pellenq were able to model CSH nanoscale texture and modify it to make concrete that lasts longer and has a lighter ecological footprint.

Another exciting application is in the production of shale gas, a cleaner-burning alternative to coal or petroleum. MSE’s multi-scale approach looks at shale formations all the way down to the level of nanopores, where the methane is stored, to discover why the gas is sometimes retained rather than released. This knowledge can help render extraction techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing, less intrusive and more efficient.

In the wake of the Fukushima accident, nuclear fuels will also be explored with an eye to ensuring safety. One concern is that the uranium bars used in reactors tend to form pockets of rare gases. Reliably predicting the multi-scale fracture mechanisms of nuclear fuel with such gas inclusions can make reactors safer.

We are encouraged by the promising leads and applications of our joint research and look forward to partnering with industry in both France and the United States to quickly bring these innovations to global markets.