BOV’s Latest Strategic Investment Looks to Extend the Frontiers of New Technology

Jefferson statue with the sun coming up over the statues right shoulder

University of Virginia scientists and engineers are launching an initiative to reduce, reuse and recycle heat and energy and create new functionalities in many technologies that form the backbone of modern society.

The University’s Board of Visitors today approved a $10 million investment from the Strategic Investment Fund in “Multifunctional Materials Integration,” an interdisciplinary initiative bringing together a team of more than 40 researchers from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and the School of Medicine. The researchers will collaborate on developing new, advanced and complex materials and devices that – from their atoms all the way to their finished products, and systems of products – have a built-in level of energy efficiency and functionality that does not exist today.

The initiative addresses an enormous challenge: Humans are racing for more and better technologies, health care, communications, transportation, entertainment and a wide range of other needs. But we are also on a collision course with the basic limits of energy. As technologies become more powerful and pervasive, the need to better manage the energy they consume and produce becomes more important.

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New materials, and a deep understanding of how these materials work, could provide the next giant leaps in critical technologies and industries. The new materials the group will develop will be able to measure and control electricity, heat, light, magnetism, charge and electron spin. They will serve as the fundamental building blocks for new circuits, devices and systems.

“This initiative maximizes our unique, interdisciplinary expertise in building advanced materials, controlling energy and heat, fabricating sensors, reducing corrosion, building biomedical systems and developing advanced manufacturing approaches,” said Arthur W. Lichtenberger, a research professor in UVA’s Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and one of the leaders of the initiative.

“Circuits from these building blocks will move far beyond the present-day, semiconductor industry-produced electronic chip, enabling revolutionary devices with high performance and energy efficiency to enhance our communications, control our critical systems and monitor our safety and health,” said Patrick Hopkins, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, who last year won the U.S. government’s highest honor for early career scientists and engineers for his work on nanoscale energy transport.

Lichtenberger and Hopkins use the example of smartphones that have been in the news recently for overheating. Better engineering and management of energy flows will result in faster, lighter and safer personal devices, they said.

Another promising area of research is in “manufactured senses,” such as artificial vision.

“Artificial vision can bring sight to those without it, give human-like sight to robots and autonomous vehicles or provide enhanced vision capabilities in critical situations faced by first responders and soldiers on the battlefield,” Hopkins said.

Developing artificial vision will require collaboration from researchers working across disciplines on advanced materials, materials that can withstand hostile environments, high-sensitivity detectors, high-density data storage, energy harvesting, batteries, efficient communications and system-level integration of hybrid technologies, Hopkins said.

“Achieving this would require significant improvements across the board,” he said. “Energy efficiency and thermal management could enable compact, wearable artificial-vision devices that never need to charge or change batteries.”

The initiative is an outgrowth of UVA Engineering Dean Craig Benson’s call for faculty to work with colleagues across the University to brainstorm new, cross-disciplinary research thrusts that could be game-changers in solving big, societal problems. The Engineering School hired three faculty members last year who are adding to the Multifunctional Materials Integration group, and three more are in the process of being hired for this initiative.

The multidisciplinary approach to solving pressing technological challenges is reflected in the composition of the core group of Engineering School faculty whose work ultimately led to the Board of Visitors’ investment. This includes Lichtenberger and Hopkins; professors James Howe, Petra Reinke, Leonid Zhigilei and Jerrold Floro from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; electrical and computer engineering professors Steven Bowers and Robert Weikle; and mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Xiaodong (Chris) Li.

The Board of Visitors’ investment will fund advanced equipment and upgrades to University laboratory space, serving UVA faculty and colleagues at partner institutions and potentially attracting industry collaborations.

“The faculty on this interdisciplinary team will address novel engineering integration in electronic device design to realize innovative solutions to the challenges of energy efficiency in a technology-dominated world,” Benson said. “The faculty involved are world-recognized leaders in key disciplines and the board’s investment will further position UVA as an international leader in this area.”

Dr. David S. Wilkes, dean of the School of Medicine, added, “In coming years, wearable devices and similar technologies will be increasingly valuable to help preserve, monitor and protect patients' health. Developing devices that are both more efficient and highly effective will be critical, and this project can help make that a reality.”

Authorized in 2016 by the Board of Visitors, the Strategic Investment Fund could result in as much as $100 million invested annually in initiatives with the highest promise to significantly improve the University and enhance quality and access for students. These investments will align with strategic priorities of the Academic Division’s Cornerstone Plan and the Medical Center’s Strategic Plan and will be consistent with the University’s long-term financial plan and Affordable Excellence initiative.

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