The National Science Foundation (NSF) is pumping $74 million into four new “Gen-3” Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) – adding to a commitment from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on two of the centers – as the United States strives to maintain its dominance in scientific innovation and intellectual capital in a highly competitive global environment.
The new ERCs will focus on research into solar energy, energy transmission, neural engineering and water infrastructure, the foundation says, while working to boost the competitiveness of U.S. industry in the global market. The ERC program began in 1985, and has since served to prepare engineering graduates for real-world careers while giving students and faculties a place to collaborate on technological developments. Now, the NSF says, the four new centers will do more to support entrepreneurship, international collaboration and partnerships with small companies.
And because they are the third generation of ERCs developed, they have the added benefit of drawing from the knowledge generated by the previous two generations, points out ERC program leader Lynn Preston. She says that the new ERCs are “designed to speed the process of transitioning knowledge into innovation and to provide young engineers with experience in research and entrepreneurship, strengthening their role as innovation leaders in the global economy.”
Thomas Peterson, NSF’s assistant director for engineering, sees the ERCs as a way to renovate and refresh the existing energy industry and workforce by combining traditional research with industry objectives. “Jointly funded ERCs will have unique opportunities to advance basic and translational research and to shape the energy workforce – all of which will be essential for energy innovation.”
The four new centers bring the total number backed by the NSF to 17. The ERC for Re-Inventing America’s Urban Water Infrastructure will research the possibilities for an urban water system that will supply, treat, and reuse water in a sustainable manner. The ERC for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering will look to enhance the technology linking the human brain and machines for medical purposes. The ERC for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies will work towards making solar technology sustainable and more widely available for use. Finally, the ERC for Ultra-wide-area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks will be creating transforming technology for more reliable and efficient transmission of electricity over large distances. The ERCs will be led by Stanford University, the University of Washington, Arizona State University and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, respectively.