NSF Awards $75.3 Million for Five New Engineering Research Centers
Partnerships will pursue breakthroughs in synthetic biology, fluid power, air monitoring, drug manufacturing, and technologies for older adults and people with disabilities
The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded $75.3 million for five new Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) that will develop cross-disciplinary research programs to advance technologies that address major societal problems and provide the basis for new industries.
For more than two decades, the ERC program has fostered interdisciplinary research and education collaborations, in close partnership with industry, based on the realities of technological innovation and the development of new products and services. Scientists and engineers from a variety of disciplines collaborate on broad-based high-risk engineering research, developing fundamental engineering knowledge and test beds for important emerging technologies.
"These centers will build on a well-developed understanding laid down by previous ERC generations about how to foster a collaborative, interdisciplinary culture in partnership with industry and other practitioners," says NSF Deputy Division Director for Centers Lynn Preston. "Through these relationships, the centers provide rich educational and research environments for preparing new generations of engineering leaders."
NSF supports ERCs for a maximum of 10 years while the centers develop a strong network of collaborations with industry leaders and a base of financial support that can sustain the center after "graduation" from the NSF program.
Including the new awards, NSF supports 22 Engineering Research Centers in the fields of bioengineering; earthquake engineering; design, manufacturing and processing systems; microelectronic and optical systems and information technology.
Brief descriptions of the new centers follow.
Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC)
SynBERC will focus on synthetic biology, fabricating new biological components and assembling them into integrated, miniature devices and systems such as microbial drug factories or tools for seeking out and destroying cancerous tumors, pollutants or airborne warfare agents. Center researchers envision devices that incorporate "off-the-shelf" biological parts--whether enzymes, cells or even genetic circuits--with standardized connections that can even be integrated into non-biological systems.
The ERC will push synthetic biology engineering from time consuming, one-of-a-kind development efforts to the rapid creation of new products from standardized components. The efforts could impact the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, genetics and chemical fields, potentially leading to an entirely new landscape of diagnostic, therapeutic, and synthetic chemical industries.
SynBERC is based at the University of California at Berkeley, in partnership with Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Prairie View A&M University, and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). The ERC will also partner with the University of California Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) and the California Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) at Berkeley and UCSF to increase involvement of underrepresented minority students in the field.
The ERC has industry partners that include 12 firms committed to membership and representing suppliers of genetic tools and custom DNA components, pharmaceutical and chemical firms, and firms interested in developing simulation software and computational tools. Venture capital firms will advise SynBERC on start-up business opportunities.
Quality of Life Technology Engineering Research Center (QoLT)
QoLT will develop a range of technologies that will allow people with limited mobility or other physical and mental restrictions to live more independent and productive lives. Working in design partnerships with older adults, people with disabilities and their care providers, the ERC will target new technologies advance machine perception, intelligent robotics and miniaturization to craft devices ranging from wearable health monitors for older people to novel "intelligent" home systems that allow people with restricting disabilities to operate household appliances or drive a car. The center will also develop modifications, such as navigational aids, for wheelchairs and other existing technologies. The ERC includes a strong partnership between engineers and computer scientists, social and cognitive scientists and rehabilitation practitioners to help assure the technologies will meet user needs.
QoLT is based at Carnegie Mellon University with the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) as its core partner. Through this partnership, the center engages faculty from Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, and the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy & Management, along with the Pitt Center of Assistive Technology in the Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology, Pitt's Human Engineering Research Laboratories at Highland Drive VA Medical Center, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and several residential and institutional facilities for older adults and people with disabilities. To increase the diversity of engineers and scientists engaged in this field, the ERC will partner with the Florida/Georgia LSAMP, Chatham College, Howard University and Lincoln University.
Industry partners include 18 companies representing various fields including robotics, medical devices, consumer electronics, information technology and assistive technology.
Engineering Research Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power (CEFP)
CEFP will develop compact, low cost next-generation, fluid-powered devices--systems that use pressurized liquids or gases to transmit power. Fluid power is already a multi-billion dollar global industry with uses in aerospace, agriculture, construction, health care, manufacturing, mining and transportation. Researchers intend to develop a range of new technologies, such as hybrid vehicles with efficient fluid power components and wearable fluid-power assisted devices that run for extended periods without external energy sources--ideal mobility aids for people with disabilities or power sources for compact machines such as rescue robots.
CEFP is based at University of Minnesota in partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Purdue University and Vanderbilt University. Outreach universities include the Milwaukee School of Engineering and North Carolina A&T State University (NCAT). Outreach institutions include the National Fluid Power Association, Project Lead the Way, and the Science Museum of Minnesota. The ERC will form partnerships with the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Partnership (LSAMP) headquartered at NCAT, the Tennessee LSAMP headquartered at Tennessee State University; and the AGEP headquartered at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Industry partners will augment NSF funding with $3 million. With help from the National Fluid Power Association, more than 50 companies have agreed to provide support for the research center.
Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment (MIRTHE)
MIRTHE researchers will develop technologies that use mid-infrared quantum cascade lasers as the backbone for a wide range of next-generation air-monitoring sensors. Mid-infrared light reveals the presence of key gas molecules--such as carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, and benzene--to specialized sensors. Such sensors have the potential to be accurate, extremely compact, affordable and easy for non-specialists to operate. In widespread use, such systems could revolutionize how people understand the air around them, revealing toxins released by smokestacks, monitoring greenhouse gasses and even alerting governments of possible chemical attack. The systems would also introduce a new class of affordable breath analyzers for routine diagnostics by primary care physicians. Doctors could monitor breath for byproducts of protein metabolism, indicators of kidney dysfunction, liver dysfunction, cancer detection or stress.
MIRTHE is based at Princeton University in partnership with Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), Rice University, Texas A&M University and the City College of New York.
The center is collaborating with dozens of industrial partners and several educational outreach partners, including the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, a competitive program at UMBC that challenges gifted, underrepresented minority students to become leading research scientists and engineers, the UMBC and Rice University AGEPs, LSAMPs, Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education and others.
Engineering Research Center for Structured Organic Composites (C-SOC)
C-SOC will study the nature of finely ground granular materials and other substances that form the core of drug tablets, processed foods, agricultural chemicals and other "composite organic" products. In addition to improving the quality and consistency of such materials, the center will develop more consistent and cost-effective manufacturing techniques than methods based largely on trial and error.
C-SOC is based at Rutgers University in partnership with the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Purdue University and the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez. Outreach partners include the City University of New York (CUNY) AGEP; the Midwest Crossroads AGEP; the University of Puerto Rico AGEP; and the Indiana, Puerto Rico, and CUNY/NYC LSAMPs. Pre-college outreach programs include high schools near the partner universities in New Jersey, Indiana, and Puerto Rico and a vocational high school in Puerto Rico.
Industry partners include 28 companies that are providing a total of $2.5 million in research funding in the first year. They include pharmaceutical and food manufacturers along with suppliers of manufacturing and analytical equipment.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.
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