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NSF Pumps $75M into New ERCs

September 04, 2006

Synthetic biology, quality of life technologies, fluid power, mid-infrared technologies, and structured organic composites are the five technology areas supported through the new Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) awards announced by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The centers will share $75.3 million to develop cross-disciplinary research programs advancing 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. States often incorporate ERCs and state-sponsored university-industry research centers into their tech-based economic development strategies. In each center, 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.

NSF supports ERCs for up to 10 years while the centers develop a strong network of collaborations with industry leaders and a base of financial support that can sustain the centers after graduating from the NSF program. With the new awards, NSF supports a total of 22 ERCs in the fields of bioengineering; earthquake engineering; design, manufacturing and processing systems; microelectronic and optical systems and information technology.

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.

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 to 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.

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. 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.

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.

More information on the NSF Engineering Research Center program is available at http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5502 or through the ERC Association at http://www.erc-assoc.org.