Agents of Change: UNM Engineering partners in four ERC's expanding

UNM Engineering partners in four ERCs, expanding research and education

The National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) are change agents bringing together educational institutions and industry to address global challenges. One of the goals is to create new industries or transform existing industries; another is to expose graduate and undergraduate students to interdisciplinary research. A focus of every ERC is actively involving groups traditionally underrepresented in engineering to exceed the national engineering-wide averages.

The qualities that make UNM Engineering an excellent ERC partner — including proven research teams, a substantial underrepresented population, and a culture of discovery and innovation — have resulted in the School’s selection as a partner in four ERCs.

“UNM Engineering participates in four of only 22 active centers nationwide. Very few other schools have achieved this level of participation in these prestigious, highly competitive awards.”

STEVEN R. J. BRUECK UNM Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Director of the Center for High Technology Materials, UNM Lead for NASCENT and for the Smart Lighting ERC.

1. Innovations in Mobile Computing

In September 2012, NSF announced a new ERC to develop nanoscale manufacturing systems for mobile computing, the Nanomanufacturing Systems for Mobile Computing and Mobile Energy Technologies (NASCENT) Center. UNM is collaborating with the University of Texas at Austin, the lead institution, and the University of California Berkeley to develop innovative nanomanufacturing, nanosculpting and nanometrology systems that could lead to versatile mobile computing devices such as wearable sensors, foldable laptops and rollable batteries.

UNM activities will be led by Steve Brueck, distinguished professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of the Center for High Technology Materials. A testbed for nanomanufacturing metrology will be built at CHTM on UNM’s south campus.

“This grant is testimony to the research accomplishments and national competitiveness of our faculty,” says UNM President Robert Frank. “Mobile devices play such a big role in all of our lives now and our students will have an opportunity to participate in cutting edge research that will impact their future development.”

2. On a Quest for Revolutionary Materials 
The Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST) ERC is helping create revolutionary energy devices through the development of new photovoltaic technologies and materials. Ultimately, these materials could be integrated into everything from solar cells on buildings to tiny solar devices on backpacks and clothing. Led by Arizona State University with 11 universities from around the world, QESST is one of NSF’s largest ERCs.

UNM will serve as the integrated photovoltaic testbed for the QESST ERC and will lend expertise on quantum dot solar cells and novel semiconductor materials. “We will study how to combine the many different material designs from our partners into a single solar module that will be much more efficient than current technology,” says Olga Lavrova, assistant professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department (ECE) and ERC testbed leader.

Lavrova will use unique electrical circuits and optical techniques that will slice the solar spectrum into multiple bands and then direct the light onto photovoltaic devices that optimally harvest the incident energy. Testing results will help participating organizations refine their materials and transform them into marketable products.

3. Lights Get Smart
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute leads the Smart Lighting ERC and collaborates with four universities including UNM to produce “smart” lights, devices that not only generate light but emit it at wavelengths which can be modulated to transmit the Internet, play music, and much more. The ERC is now in its fourth year.

In one facet of the research, Payman Zarkesh-Ha, ECE associate professor, is focusing on Visible Light Communication (VLC) to create an LED light that will illuminate an environment for data communication. “VLC has become a very attractive research topic in the lighting industry,” he explains. “It’s projected that the new light version of WiFi, called LiFi, in conjunction with conventional WiFi technology, will become a major wireless communication technique for indoor applications.” Zarkesh-Ha is developing a new device that integrates LED and photo detector arrays on a single chip that can enable blazing fast data speeds for visible light communication.

4. Biorenewable Chemicals ERC
The amount of fossil fuel on earth is limited, and the energy we get from it will run out someday. Iowa State University leads the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) ERC, and the 12 universities are working to replace our world’s petroleum feedstocks with renewable feedstocks that can be transformed into bio-based chemicals. While energy can come from various sources such as the sun or nuclear reactions, all chemicals and liquid fuels are based on carbon-containing molecules. Recently, CBiRC made it past the important NSF three-year review and is now in its fourth year. At UNM, the CBiRC is housed in the Center for Micro-Engineered Materials (CMEM).

“What we bring to the table is the ability to synthesize and study catalysts at an atomic scale,” says Abhaya Datye, distinguished professor of chemical and nuclear engineering and director of CMEM. “Our role is in nanoscale engineering of these catalysts and how to modify them and make them better.” In conjunction with other ERC team members, Datye has already developed a new process that helps protect oxide catalysts from liquid water at high temperatures and pressures. Biomass always contains water, so the novel coatings developed at UNM serve as
a protective layer making the catalyst last longer and stay more active.

After UNM creates the catalysts, the other partners in the ERC use them in reactions that will ultimately make it possible for a biorefinery to replace the petroleum refineries we depend on today.

Industry Participation

A mix of international organizations, large and small companies, as well as start-ups help each ERC stimulate entrepreneurship and speed technological innovation for technology transfer. For example, QESST has attracted dozens of companies involved in manufacturing, materials, production and installation. Close to 30 industry members work with CBiRC, and through CBiRC’s Innovation and Industry Collaboration program, member companies leverage a unique network of highly respected expertise from academia and industry.

Reaching Out to the Community

Each ERC also seeks to engage and encourage pre-college students in the engineering enterprise. During the summer of 2012, for example, UNM participants in the QESST ERC sponsored a residential camp for economically disadvantaged incoming freshmen. The students learned how to fabricate and solder solar cells as well as design and race solar cars. At the weeklong UNM Smart Lighting camp, middle and high school students explored light emitting diodes. These ERCs also mentor high school interns who conduct research in UNM laboratories.