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Sept. 17, 2021

NSF Awards UArizona Combined $10M for Solutions-Based Research Projects

TUCSON, Ariz. — The National Science Foundation's Convergence Accelerator Program, which fast-tracks multidisciplinary efforts to solve real-world problems, awarded two University of Arizona-led projects $5 million each. Only 10 projects were chosen nationally.

Laura Condon, an assistant professor of hydrology and atmospheric sciences, and her team will use machine learning to build fast and precise forecasting models of watershed systems. Zheshen Zhang, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, leads a quantum technology project to advance navigation for autonomous vehicles and spacecraft, as well as measurement of otherworldly materials.

In September 2020, 29 teams received phase I funding. Over the next two years, the teams will participate in phase II curriculum focused on entrepreneurial concepts to include product development, intellectual property, financial resources, creating sustainable impact beyond NSF funding, as well as communications and outreach.  


As extreme weather events such as flooding and drought become more common in a climate impacted by humans, understanding and predicting water resources and systems becomes increasingly imperative. 

HydroGEN, short for or Hydrologic Scenario Generation, will combine machine learning and modeling with real problems to create new hydrologic data and put it in the hands of policymakers and landscape and resource managers so they can make informed decisions.

Advanced hydrological models are often only used in an academic setting because they are time consuming, expensive and require extensive expertise. Many of the tools used by decision-makers are oversimplified. HydroGEN, on the other hand, allows any user to build national-scale fast-running, scientifically rigorous hydrological models of stream flow, soil moisture and groundwater. This information is crucial for managing wildfires, pumping water for agriculture and more.

"Our team has expertise in building really advanced hydrological models that cover everything from the bedrock to the treetops, over a national scale," Condon said. "We model hydrological systems that are changing and evolving really well, but these are hard to build and require huge computational resources."

To handle the model and large data transfers needed for this approach, Condon and her team have partnered with CyVerse, a UArizona-led NSF-funded organization dedicated to providing life scientists with computational infrastructure to handle and analyze large datasets. CyVerse co-principal investigator Nirav Merchant is also a HydroGEN project co-principal investigator and director of the UArizona Data Science Institute.

"In today's complex and changing world, it is increasingly necessary for solutions to come from the convergence of disciplines and a diversity of thinkers coming together," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "We need tools that can connect science directly to decision-makers and speed the pace of innovation. HydroGEN will be a platform that can help water managers make decisions using the best available science."

Read more about the project at University of Arizona News.

Quantum Sensing

The Quantum Sensors project will take advantage of quantum states to create ultrasensitive gyroscopes, accelerometers and other sensors. Gyroscopes are used in navigation of aircraft and other vehicles to maintain balance as orientation shifts. In tandem, accelerometers measure vibration or acceleration of motion. These navigation-grade gyroscopes and accelerometers are light-based and can be extremely precise, but they are bulky and expensive.

Many electronics, including cellphones, are equipped with tiny gyroscopes and accelerometers that enable features like automatic screen rotation and directional pointers for GPS apps. At this scale, gyroscopes are made up of micromechanical parts, rather than lasers or other light sources, rendering them far less precise. Zhang and his team aim to develop chip-scale light-based gyroscopes and accelerometers to outperform current mechanical methods. However, the detection of light at this scale is limited by the laws of quantum physics, presenting a fundamental performance limit for such optical gyroscopes and accelerometers.

Rather than combat these quantum limitations with classical resources, Zhang and his team are fighting fire with fire, so to speak, by using quantum resources.

"The fundamental quantum limit is induced by quantum fluctuations, but this limit can be broken using a quantum state of light, like entangled photons or squeezed light, for the laser itself," said Zhang, director of the university's Quantum Information and Materials Group. "With this method, we can arrive at much better measurements."

The benefits are numerous. If a self-driving car could determine its exact location and speed using only a compact, quantum-enhanced, onboard gyroscope and accelerometer, it wouldn't need to rely on GPS to navigate. A self-contained navigation system would protect the car from hackers and provide more stability. The same goes for navigation of spacecraft and terrestrial vehicles sent to other planets.

"As a leading international research university bringing the Fourth Industrial Revolution to life, we are deeply committed to advance amazing new information technologies like quantum networking to benefit humankind," Robbins said. "The University of Arizona is an internationally recognized leader in this area, and I look forward to seeing how Dr. Zhang's Quantum Sensors project moves us forward in addressing real-world challenges with quantum technology." 

Read more about the project at University of Arizona News.