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NSF & Congress


Dr. Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Assistant Director for Engineering
National Science Foundation

Before the House Science Committee
Energy and Environment Subcommittee
July 30, 1996

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, I am very pleased to be here today to discuss the National Science Foundation's role in the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV). I would like to present a brief explanation of the nature of NSF's investment and participation in this effort.

The National Science Foundation promotes the progress of science and engineering generally, rather than focusing on a specific mission involving a narrowly defined science or technology area. Research and education concepts proposed to NSF are initiated by the investigators and involve all science and engineering disciplines of scholarship and all levels of education and human resource development. This breadth of coverage gives NSF both the ability and the responsibility to foster the different types of linkages, synergies and connections that are essential to enabling the Nation's capacity to perform.

NSF has identified four core strategies that are designed to guide its investments in fundamental research and education:

  • Develop Intellectual Capital -- invest in the best ideas and the most capable people to carry them out, including groups and regions that traditionally have been underrepresented in science and engineering, and contribute to developing the capacity for scientific and engineering excellence among all members of our society
  • Strengthen the Physical Infrastructure -- improve the physical resources and information technologies available to pursue creative, innovative ideas and to create an environment in which effective progress is possible
  • Integrate Research and Education -- support fundamental research in an education-rich environment and infuse education with experiences in discovery and exploration through directed inquiry, careful observation and analytic thinking at all levels
  • Promote Partnerships -- collaborate with the academic community, industry, elementary and secondary schools, other Federal agencies, state and local governments and other institutions involved in science and engineering

Through its ongoing programs, NSF has supported a wide array of fundamental research and education projects at U.S. universities. Many of these projects have led, directly and indirectly, to advances in automotive technology. Consistent with its mission, NSF does not issue requests for proposals explicitly focusing on PNGV and does not define a budget category around PNGV. However, university researchers are often excited by research directions that could yield important breakthroughs in technological areas on which U.S. industry depends and that are identified as national needs. When they submit proposals to NSF, their proposed work often concerns issues that PNGV has also identified as being of interest. Thus there is significant NSF investment in areas that either directly or indirectly advance the PNGV research agenda, originated both by researchers well conversant with the PNGV efforts through NSF-supported PNGV-related workshops and also by those research investigators unaware that their work fits PNGV's defined categories, or even that this interagency effort exists.

Since major criterion for funding by NSF is the potential for the discovery of new knowledge, it is difficult to predict at the proposal stage which specific projects will result in the critical understanding needed to make a particular technology feasible. However, experience has shown that if we select the most promising research ideas across a broad spectrum of engineering and science disciplines, many of the research results will be useful to industry, including the automotive industry. Indeed, the current portfolio of NSF-funded projects includes many that may influence the design, manufacture and use of future automobiles. In a careful study of NSF's investment portfolio, NSF program directors have estimated that approximately $54 million of NSF support in FY 1995 was for projects with the potential to improve the future design, production, use, disposal and recycling of automobiles, their accessories or components. We are continually working with the other PNGV agencies and with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to refine these estimates of NSF funding that is directly or indirectly relevant to PNGV. Most of these projects are integrated research and education awards involving individual university researchers or small groups of faculty along with graduate and undergraduate students, but the inventory also includes a number of small business innovation research (SBIR) projects, university-industry collaborative projects and centers.

NSF proposals are initiated by the investigator, reviewed by experts who can assess their quality, novelty and potential significance and awarded on the basis of overall merit. While the work itself aims to create new knowledge fundamental to many application areas, the researcher is often aware of a potential long-range goal.

The connection between a long-term, fundamental search for new knowledge and its ultimate impact on industry is exemplified by the search for new, more efficient ways to manufacture metal and thermoplastic composite joints -- critical for many components in an automobile -- without the need for a bonding agent or epoxy to hold the parts together. To achieve this goal, certain very fundamental questions about the microscopic surface characteristics of metals and thermoplastics must first be answered.

Currently, many of the manufactured components within an automobile contain metal and thermoplastic molded parts whose surfaces must be tightly bonded together. These component parts are now molded separately and then attached with epoxy. An NSF-supported researcher at Purdue University, Professor Karthik Ramani, and his students have been studying the microscopic surface characteristics of several commonly used metals and thermoplastics. They have discovered that under certain thermal and pressure conditions these different material surfaces can be made to bond well without epoxy. Their NSF-supported work will determine the fundamental mechanical and chemical properties of the oxidized surfaces of these metals and the detailed polymer chemistry of the thermoplastics. Using this knowledge along with sophisticated numerical modeling and multimedia simulation of the bonding process, these researchers may be able to suggest possible surface treatments for the two kinds of materials, as well as modified hot-melt and compression molding processes for manufacturing these components, that could be used to achieve maximum strength for the metal-thermoplastic bond.

The outcome of this fundamental research may be critical to how private industry will manufacture the next generation of automobiles. If the Purdue research team determines that the epoxy step could in fact be eliminated, this would decrease the overall cost and time required to manufacture any components with metal-thermoplastic composite joints, and could also make these components operate more reliably in automobiles and other systems. Of course, in addition to advancing PNGV needs, results from this research could also contribute to improving certain classes of biomedical implant devices, suspensions linkages, airframe structures and metal bearing sleeves. Finally, an integral part of NSF support for this project is brining the generalized concepts, knowledge and research techniques to the classroom and teaching laboratory in a new composites processing, design and manufacturing course sequence that will be offered to both graduate and undergraduate students, preparing them to compete well in the global job market.

Mr. Chairman, the Science Committee has been a strong advocate for better cooperation and collaboration between private industry and the academic community. NSF shares this goal. We also feel that research in the area of automotive technology is a natural avenue for industry and university cooperation.

As a result, NSF staff have begun to work informally with representatives of Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and other manufacturing companies to explain the merit review process, expose the university research community to PNGV-related technical issues, broker matches between industry experts and university researchers and encourage the participation of manufacturing industry experts in the review of research proposals. An NSF/DoE conference on "Basic Research Needs for Vehicles of the Future" was held in January, 1995, in partnership with major U.S. automobile manufacturers and their suppliers. 188 participants, from 34 different U.S. universities, 18 government agencies and 24 different companies in the automotive industry, worked together for three days to define the key research problems in the six most critical long-term research areas defined by the research staffs of Chrysler, Ford and GM. A follow-on conference in January, 1996, on "Basic Research Needs for Environmentally Responsive Technologies of the Future" identified industry-specific basic research opportunities in five industries, including the automotive industry. A third conference is being planned for late 1996 or early 1997 to focus on long-term engineering research issues relevant to PNGV.

The dialogue between the automotive industry and university researchers has already had positive effects. For example, NSF is negotiating a new five-year award for an Engineering Research Center (ERC) at the University of Michigan which can be considered an investment in PNGV research goals. This center was one of four new ERCs selected in competitive merit review from among more than 100 candidates in FY 1996. It brings Chrysler, Ford, GM, Caterpillar, General Dynamics, Boeing, United Technologies and 24 of their technology suppliers together with a team of university researchers to develop a new generation of low-cost machining systems that can be easily reconfigured to increase the flexibility of automotive, heavy vehicle and aircraft production. The ERC's research and education agenda directly and specifically addresses the long-term needs of three related industry sectors: Aerospace, Heavy Vehicles and Automotive end users. The companies representing the industry supplier base that have joined this ERC effort are focused on Controls (7 members), Sensors (5), Machine Tool Builders (9) and Tooling (3). NSF also supports the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at Michigan State University, a partnership between Michigan State, Chrysler, Ford and GM established by NSF in 1994 to provide a focal point for fundamental research on materials and devices with high potential for application in vehicular sensing systems. Eleven NSF-supported Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRC) have attracted membership by the major U.S. automobile manufacturers because of their focus on research themes consistent with the long-term interests of these companies.

It is also important to point out again that all these NSF projects were awarded through a competitive merit review process in which there was no targeting of technology areas by NSF. Nevertheless, the range of technical topics covered among the proposals NSF receives correlates well with PNGV emphasis areas. Leadership from the federal government, in partnership with industry, is having an impact on how the long-term research needs of U.S. industry are made known to the academic community. This in turn influences how academic researchers plan their own individually-conceived research and education goals.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, I would like to thank you for holding this hearing on the PNGV program and hope to work with you and the Committee to help foster greater cooperation between the university research community and private industry, especially in the area of automotive research and development.

Thank you.

See also: Hearing Summary.