The National Science Foundation said Tuesday it has tentatively chosen the UW as the host of one of six new science and technology centers, a designation that would place the University firmly at the leading edge of research to develop ground-breaking information technology.
The Center for Materials and Devices for Information Technology Research likely would receive $16 million in NSF funding in the next five years and could receive more than twice that amount over 10 years. However, NSF officials will work out specific details of the awards during the next several months.
With the NSF award, along with recent grants from other federal agencies and a substantial investment from private industry, the total investment in UW photonics research could exceed $100 million in the next decade, said Larry Dalton, a UW chemistry professor who is the director and lead scientist for the new center.
Dalton, a leader in the field of photonics, is best known for developing polymers that serve as electro-optic modulators and switches, or “opto-chips.” They are microscopic devices that can translate electronic signals such as television, computer, telephone and radar into light signals at rates up to 10 times faster than the current fastest speeds. Once translated from electrical to optical format, the information can be transmitted at light speed using fiber optic systems.
Dalton’s advances in photonics already have led to the creation of a Bothell-based company called Lumera Corp., a subsidiary of Microvision Inc., and have brought new UW faculty working in the area of photonics. Research by the academic participants in the new NSF center has stimulated the creation of a dozen companies in the last several years.
“The technology under research in this center is revolutionary and it is already affecting thinking at corporations around the world, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Corning and Lucent,” Dalton said. A center similar to the new NSF center has been established in Europe, and it is exploring a partnership with the UW-based center, he said.
UW Provost Lee L. Huntsman said the NSF award ensures the University’s photonics research will continue to grow.
“The possibilities and applications of this cutting-edge research are endless,” Huntsman said. “It has the potential to change the ways we communicate as much as the technology revolution that has taken place in the last two decades. The University is an international leader pioneering this field, and we can expect the state and region to become industry leaders in this arena as well.”
The NSF award is the latest in a recent series of grants to the UW for photonics research. They include:
- A $5 million Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative award from the Defense Department for a “smart” materials center.
- A $5 million defense award from the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Initiative for development and application of “biomimetic” materials (those that mimic biological function).
- A $2 million NSF grant for creation of a Nanotechnology Integrated Research Team.
- A multimillion-dollar award to The Boeing Co., the California Institute of Technology and the UW from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
- A multimillion dollar award from the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization for development of electro-optic materials.
The UW also is participating in a $5 million defense nanotechnology award for which the State University of New York is the lead institution, and a $6.7 million defense award for nanoscale materials for which the University of Southern California is the lead institution.
“If we’re right, this is where the future lies,” Dalton said. “The technology developed in this center should have a significant economic impact on the Seattle area and the nation. It will have impacts on telecommunications, defense, computing, transportation, and personal and home electronics.”
Because of the broad impact, business, academic and community leaders from across the country have agreed to serve on the center’s advisory board.
The NSF started its science and technology centers program in 1987. The new centers would share a total of $115 million over five years. There were 143 applicants, and each new center is expected to involve a number of institutions. The UW center has recruited partners from industry, various national laboratories (including the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland) and other schools, including the University of Southern California, CalTech, the University of Arizona and the University of California, Berkeley.
In addition, the work at the UW not only will involve chemistry and engineering but also will tap into the business and law schools for issues such as technology transfer, entrepreneurship and intellectual property.
Already the spate of significant awards is having a strong impact on graduate student recruitment, and even appears to be drawing more undergraduates, Dalton said. The NSF award includes money to allow students from historically black colleges and universities, women’s colleges and underrepresented groups to study in the UW program and at affiliated universities. It also provides money for educational outreach to elementary and high school students.
The NSF decision to finance the UW’s photonics research represents a significant change in technological focus, choosing an alternative approach to ultrafast information processing and communications rather than pursuing traditional semiconductor research.
“We won the center because nationally recognized experts sat down, compared proposals and selected ours over excellent and high-powered competition,” Dalton said. “This is a gratifying endorsement.”