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Acc Chem Res. 2018 Jan 16;51(1):59-68. doi: 10.1021/acs.accounts.7b00490. Epub 2017 Dec 15.

Discovery of Intermetallic Compounds from Traditional to Machine-Learning Approaches.

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Department of Chemistry, University of Alberta , Edmonton, AB T6G 2G2, Canada.


Intermetallic compounds are bestowed by diverse compositions, complex structures, and useful properties for many materials applications. How metallic elements react to form these compounds and what structures they adopt remain challenging questions that defy predictability. Traditional approaches offer some rational strategies to prepare specific classes of intermetallics, such as targeting members within a modular homologous series, manipulating building blocks to assemble new structures, and filling interstitial sites to create stuffed variants. Because these strategies rely on precedent, they cannot foresee surprising results, by definition. Exploratory synthesis, whether through systematic phase diagram investigations or serendipity, is still essential for expanding our knowledge base. Eventually, the relationships may become too complex for the pattern recognition skills to be reliably or practically performed by humans. Complementing these traditional approaches, new machine-learning approaches may be a viable alternative for materials discovery, not only among intermetallics but also more generally to other chemical compounds. In this Account, we survey our own efforts to discover new intermetallic compounds, encompassing gallides, germanides, phosphides, arsenides, and others. We apply various machine-learning methods (such as support vector machine and random forest algorithms) to confront two significant questions in solid state chemistry. First, what crystal structures are adopted by a compound given an arbitrary composition? Initial efforts have focused on binary equiatomic phases AB, ternary equiatomic phases ABC, and full Heusler phases AB2C. Our analysis emphasizes the use of real experimental data and places special value on confirming predictions through experiment. Chemical descriptors are carefully chosen through a rigorous procedure called cluster resolution feature selection. Predictions for crystal structures are quantified by evaluating probabilities. Major results include the discovery of RhCd, the first new binary AB compound to be found in over 15 years, with a CsCl-type structure; the connection between "ambiguous" prediction probabilities and the phenomenon of polymorphism, as illustrated in the case of TiFeP (with TiNiSi- and ZrNiAl-type structures); and the preparation of new predicted Heusler phases MRu2Ga and RuM2Ga (M = first-row transition metal) that are not obvious candidates. Second, how can the search for materials with desired properties be accelerated? One particular application of strong current interest is thermoelectric materials, which present a particular challenge because their optimum performance depends on achieving a balance of many interrelated physical properties. Making use of a recommendation engine developed by Citrine Informatics, we have identified new candidates for thermoelectric materials, including previously unknown compounds (e.g., TiRu2Ga with Heusler structure; Mn(Ru0.4Ge0.6) with CsCl-type structure) and previously reported compounds but counterintuitive candidates (e.g., Gd12Co5Bi). An important lesson in these investigations is that the machine-learning models are only as good as the experimental data used to develop them. Thus, experimental work will continue to be necessary to improve the predictions made by machine learning.

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