It has been more than two decades since a Texas university was selected to lead one of the National Science Foundation's prestigious engineering research centers, but the University of Texas at Austin has broken the streak.
UT-Austin has been selected to receive an $18.5 million federal grant over five years to establish and lead a center it is calling the Nanomanufacturing Systems for Mobile Computing and Mobile Energy Technologies, or NASCENT. It will focus on developing manufacturing processes for microscopic computing technology that the center's leaders, Roger Bonnecaze and S.C. Sreenivasan, said could lead to foldable laptops and wearable devices.
The NSF's engineering research centers are strategically placed partnerships between the government, academia and industry. Led by UT-Austin, the partners that make up NASCENT include the University of New Mexico and the University of California at Berkeley as well as private companies like Texas Instruments, Lockheed Martin and others.
The last such center in Texas was the Offshore Technology Research Center, run jointly by UT-Austin and Texas A&M University and established in 1988. It graduated from the federal program and became self-sustaining in 1999.
California, Massachusetts and North Carolina all have multiple engineering research centers.
Asked about the state's decades-long drought for such a center, Sreenivasan, a professor of mechanical engineering at UT-Austin, noted the steep competition for the grant and said that, with concepts such as rollable batteries moving closer to reality, he believed the national mood had finally shifted in a way that favors the strengths of UT-Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering. "We've had a pretty strong background in electronics manufacturing," he said. "I think the national mood has changed toward manufacturing."
Gregory Fenves, the dean of UT-Austin's engineering school described the announcement as "game-changing," noting that it should be a boon to faculty recruitment as well as the school's national rankings. He also said he hoped the center would help bolster UT-Austin's case to rebuild a new $290 million engineering education and research facility.
The NASCENT center hopes to hire four new faculty members and plans to provide work for 20 graduate students and research opportunities for up to 20 undergraduates. It also plans to run a pre-college program to identify promising middle and high school students.
In addition to the $18.5 million grant, Bonnecaze and Sreenivasan said the center also anticipates developing intellectual property and spinning off companies that will bring in additional revenue.