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News Release 96-070

New Awards for Optical Science and Engineering Span Many Disciplines

November 7, 1996

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

The National Science Foundation has announced 18 awards totaling $13.5 million under a one-time, multidisclipinary initiative in optical science and engineering. These three-year awards were selected from 76 proposals and 627 pre-proposals. Over a dozen NSF program areas participated in the initiative.

Optical science and engineering, the study of how light interacts with matter, is an "enabling" technology -- one that can be applied to diverse fields of research and education, from information infrastructure, advanced manufacturing, and remote sensing, to devising new optical tools for biotechnology and medicine.

For such a sweeping field, the broad approach of NSF's optical science and engineering initiative, emphasizing collaboration between disciplines, is particularly effective. By coordinating program efforts, the NSF has encouraged cross-disciplinary linkages that could lead to major findings, sometimes in seemingly unrelated areas that could have solid scientific as well as economic benefits.

Some highlights of the new awards:

  • Biological motors
    A project led by the University of California-San Diego uses optical methods to probe individual molecules or ions, in order to explore their internal structure and interaction with the environment, and to detect and manipulate tiny molecular "motor" proteins that may be important to cell functioning, including transport in the cell.

  • Imaging Living Tissue
    In a Princeton University-led project, researchers are investigating a new technology using laser-polarized gases to enhance magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of biological materials. Collaborating researchers from Princeton and Duke Universities recently used the technique to make the first MRI images of the gas space of a human lung.

    A related project led by Brigham and Women's Hospital and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory is exploring the technique's potential to characterize the integrity of liquid membranes to measure blood flow to tissue, both with potential for medical diagnosis. The group is also applying the technique to understand pore connectivity in reservoir rocks.

  • Controlling chemical reactions with light
    A University of Connecticut-led project is exploring the use of light pulses to control chemical reactions -- both the rate of reaction and the products that result. The techniques of laser manipulation, which have proven so fruitful in creating suspensions--or trappings--of atoms, will also be extended to molecules and molecular ions. The researchers expect to uncover novel chemical processes and physical behavior at ultracold temperatures at which the particles barely move.

  • Lighting up the atmosphere
    In a project spearheaded by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a new laser-radar system will be built to study the middle levels of the atmosphere -- specifically, probing iron and calcium in the mesopause region (85 kilometers altitude) and investigating the influence of tides and planetary waves on the atmosphere at that altitude. The measurements of Arctic temperatures will be the first ever made of the mesopause at extreme high latitudes.

  • Probing cells in living tissue
    This project led by Harvey Mudd College, an undergraduate institution, will build a new microscope to study fundamental problems in developmental biology, such as the formation of plant embryos in vivo. The microscope, based on optical coherence phenomena, will be able to image cells up to one millimeter beneath the surface of living tissue--an image that light-scattering would render opaque to a conventional light microscope.

  • Using lasers to explore molecules
    A project led by Columbia University in collaboration with researchers from industry and government laboratories seeks to use ultrashort-pulse laser sources to produce far-infrared radiation that can probe the spectra of molecules on surfaces and thin films. Because it is difficult to probe such small amounts of materials by other means, these techniques may lead to new analytical tools for investigating technologically significant materials systems, such as polymer and ferroelectric thin films used in advanced electronic devices.

  • X-ray Microscope
    A University of Maryland led project will develop an x-ray microscope based on the ability to generate coherent radiation in the x-ray spectral region from laser-excited plasmas. The instrument will be capable of resolving biological and other objects as small as 10 nanometers in dimension, and will be able to follow the motion of these objects on an ultrashort time scale.


Media Contacts
Carry Lee Hanes, NSF, (703) 306-1070, email:

Program Contacts
Lawrence S. Goldberg, NSF, (703) 292-8339, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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