POETS may change the world

POETS may change the world

URBANA — You've felt it in your phone or laptop: the heat that builds up as the processor handles all those texts, emails and streaming videos.

Every electrical device, no matter how efficient, gives off heat, a process known as "thermal buildup." And if the temperature builds up too much, electronics stop working and things tend to melt.

Breaching that "thermal barrier" to build smaller, more powerful electronic devices — for everything including electric cars, tractors, solar panels and power tools — is the goal of a new $18.5 million research center at the University of Illinois funded by the National Science Foundation.

The UI center represents a "powerful collaboration" between universities and industry, part of an NSF program created 30 years ago to bridge the gap between research and "real-world deployment," NSF Director France Cordova said Thursday. "Building these types of innovators and trailblazers is paramount" to a growing economy and global competitiveness, said Cordova, who visited campus for the UI center's grand-opening celebration.

A diverse team of scientists at the UI and three other universities — Howard, Stanford and Arkansas — will team up with a dozen industry partners, including Caterpillar and John Deere, on the Power Optimization for Electro-Thermal Systems center, or POETS.

"We believe at POETS we will be able to change the world," said the center's director, UI engineering Professor Andrew Alleyne.

The project will bring electrical engineers together with materials scientists to find new ways to pack more power into smaller and lighter devices. It will require a change of perspective and mindset for both sides, Alleyne said.

"You're trained to look at a problem in a certain way," he said. "It's hard to step back and say, 'Let's look at the whole.'"

The payoff could be enormous, industry representatives said Thursday, estimating the economic impact in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

"There is sort of a tremendous existing market for this type of technology," Alleyne said.

Consumers could see the fruits of the project within two years, but the technology will improve continuously after that — just as semiconductor chips have grown smaller and more powerful over time, he said. Consider the development of smartphones, or a MacBook Air compared to the 12-pound laptops of a decade ago.

With the new thermal technology, he said, "maybe I can start mounting solar cells inside my car roof panel."

"You might find yourself in an electric vehicle now that doesn't have 'range anxiety.' You might find yourself on an aircraft where the cost of operating that flight might go down significantly. If you care about the environment it's a whole lot less fuel and CO2 being dumped into the air," Alleyne said.

NSF officials said they were impressed by the proposal because it addressed a broad industry need and made a compelling case for the potential technological advances. The UI-led team also had strong private sector partnerships and was committed to education and diversity in terms of its research partners and the inclusion of students and faculty "from all backgrounds," said Pramod Khargonekar, assistant director of NSF's directorate of engineering.

"This is what we at NSF like to call a really big deal," said UI President Timothy Killeen, former assistant NSF director for geosciences. "These (grants) are incredibly difficult to get."

The UI ranked first in terms of NSF grant dollars for the past five years, and "we don't want to lose that," Killeen said.

The center is part of NSF's Engineering Research Centers program, founded 30 years ago to revolutionize engineering education and research by bringing industry, universities and government together to translate innovative technologies into valuable, industry-ready products and services, Cordova said. The 57 research centers have spawned 193 spinoff companies, 739 patents and developments such as the artificial retina, mp3 recording technology, surgical robots and earthquake damage assessment tools, she said.

"They link scientific discovery to technology innovation and support engineering graduates who develop into creative pioneers and our next generation of future leaders in emerging technological areas.

That's what we're investing in," she told the UI audience.

Cordova says her agency has made contingency plans for a potential shutdown if Congress doesn't approve a new spending plan by Dec. 11. Legislators averted a government shutdown at the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1 by approving a temporary spending bill.

"We're funded through Dec. 11," Cordova said.

NSF receives $7.3 billion a year in federal funding.

Agency officials said fiscal 2015 research grants have already been awarded. Grants for fiscal 2016 aren't endangered yet, as the first quarter of the fiscal year is mostly spent soliciting and reviewing proposals. Grants are awarded during the last quarter.

But the budget standoff does hinder innovation and creates uncertainty, and if it isn't resolved in December the situation will worsen, officials said.

"This not a new situation. We just continue our planning. We try to anticipate where the funding needs are going to be and where money is being obligated and make sure we have enough funding to sustain the community while we have a continuing resolution," Cordova said.

"We never have a shutdown that's very long," she said, noting the 16-day shutdown two years ago.

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