UI Engineering institute to work with firms, government

CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois College of Engineering has launched a new research institute that aims to partner with companies and federal agencies to conduct applied research such as designing and testing products.

With office space now leased in the UI Research Park and two employees on board, the Illinois Applied Research Institute plans to work with agencies such as the Air Force Research Laboratory and Department on Energy on everything from radar technology and cybersecurity to hydrogen fuel cells. It could also partner with companies on a contractual basis to, for example, test products like fertilizers or design electronic devices.

Officially launched in mid-August, the institute already plans to conduct some electromagnetic-related research work with SAIC, the multibillion-dollar company and frequent recipient of Department of Defense contracts. Over the summer, SAIC closed its research park office at 1901 S. First St., C, and the Applied Research Institute is subleasing some of the company's space.

The building is considered secure by federal standards — a "sensitive compartmented information facility" — which will allow researchers to work on projects considered classified by the government, according to UI Vice President for Research Larry Schook, whose office oversees such facility clearances for the university.

Although the institute will be housed in a "secure building," meaning access is limited to certain people and firewalls have been established, "by no means" will a large part of the research be classified, said William Dick, the institute's director of operations.

But much of the research will be proprietary as staff take on specific projects for companies. And that puts the institute on a track different from the traditional route for research on campus. Employees will be research scientists, not graduate students working alongside their professors.

Since the 1970s the College of Engineering has focused on basic, fundamental research, Dick said.

"Basic research is about pushing the boundaries of knowledge," in which professors and graduate students conduct their work with the ultimate goal of publishing their results in a peer-reviewed journal, he said.

What ARI proposes to do is take that research to "the next step," by designing a material or product or evaluating or modifying an existing product or process, according to Dick.

Not to be confused with UI Labs, the Chicago-based university initiative envisioned to revolve around computational and information technology-related research, the Applied Research Institute is centered in Urbana-Champaign and proposes to include a variety of research areas.

The idea behind the campus' 10-year-old research park was to create a place where entrepreneurs could take the university's intellectual property, be it a pharmaceutical or a process that improves semiconductor performance, build a company and transfer the technology to the commercial or real world.

"We see the Applied Research Institute as an opportunity in another way to be able to have impact" on economic development and society in general, said Michael Bragg, interim dean of the College of Engineering. "We want to make an impact on the world and the community and state," he said.

The Applied Research Institute is currently part of the College of Engineering. In the future it could be a stand-alone institute on campus similar to the Prairie Research Institute. That institute falls under the umbrella of the vice chancellor for research, whose office oversees research activity on the Urbana-Champaign campus.

Two people are employed by the institute now, but a search for a director is expected to get under way soon. Over the first year, Dick said, he would like to build a staff of about eight to 10 core employees, and add many more after that.

The intent is for the institute to be self-supporting by the end of its fifth year, Bragg said.

An internal advisory group from engineering and units across campus has formed and Dick said he has been calling on federal agencies and companies with whom the institute could potentially partner.

A lead agency is likely to be the Air Force Research Laboratory, according to Dick. The Department of Energy is also expected to be a partner. Projects could look at radar sensors and human performance research, cybersecurity, cyber-resiliency, propellants and propulsion research, hydrogen fuel cell research and more.

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