UA Gets $18.5M NSF Grant to Create Engineering Research Center
A National Science Foundation grant will allow the UA to establish a research center.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
Sept. 18, 2008

The National Science Foundation has awarded a five-year, $18.5 million grant to establish an engineering research center based at The University of Arizona.

The center, or ERC, will focus on removing one of the last bottlenecks in the Internet by developing optoelectronic technologies for high-bandwidth, low-cost, widespread access networks.

The UA and nine partner universities will collaborate as the Center for Integrated Access Networks, or CIAN, to create an advanced optical access network capable of delivering data more than a thousand times faster to users at lower cost than they now pay to connect to information data bases and communication networks.

"NSF is pleased to welcome The University of Arizona and its partner universities into the ERC program,” said Lynn Preston, NSF deputy division director and leader of the Engineering Research Center program.

“As the world increasingly relies on communications networks, we anticipate that CIAN will contribute the understanding and innovations needed to extend the reach and expand the capabilities of these networks. We expect this area of research to interest many pre-college students in the program and in engineering, and we look forward to CIAN graduates becoming leaders and innovators in the creation of future communications systems," Preston said.

"I am very enthusiastic about this ERC," said Leslie P. Tolbert, UA vice president for research, graduate studies and economic development. "The University is proud to be the lead institution in this important collaborative endeavor that is aimed at generating the edge network of the future."

Partner universities in CIAN include the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Stanford University, the University of Southern California (USC), University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University, Norfolk State University and Tuskegee University.

The new center brings together leading researchers and world-class educators who will work to create "truly transformative systems that are of critical importance to the foundation of our national information infrastructure," said CIAN director Nasser Peyghambarian, UA professor of optical sciences and of materials science and engineering.

National Science Foundation funding for the new UA-based center is timely, Peyghambarian added, citing a recent study. Analysts at Nemertes Research, an Illinois-based firm that specializes in information technologies research, predict that demand for Internet access, especially in North America, will exceed existing Internet capacity within the next three to five years.

Failing to invest in new access infrastructure won't cause the Internet to collapse, the analysts said, but it will throttle innovation and "painlessly and invisibly leach competitiveness out of the economy."

"Our vision is to create the 'PC' equivalent of the optical access network," Peyghambarian said.

His analogy refers to the revolution in electronic computing.

Forty years ago, the first commercially successful supercomputer was the size of a room, cost more than a million dollars and performed five hundred million operations per second. Today's personal computers sit on desk tops, typically cost about a thousand dollars each and process more than a billion operations per second.

CIAN's goal over the next decade is to devise and adapt chip-scale optoelectronic integration technologies for an advanced optical access network capable of delivering data at 10 gigabits, or 10 billion operations per second, to single users "anywhere, at anytime," and at lower cost, Shaya Fainman, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCSD and CIAN deputy director, said. The current data transfer rate is about 10 megabits, or 10 million operations per second.

In a unique approach, CIAN vertically integrates research from developing nanostructured photonic devices to demonstrating advanced network services.

USC Professor Alan Willner and Columbia Professor Keren Bergman will lead the system and networking research thrust of CIAN. Caltech Professor Axel Scherer and Berkeley Profesor Ming Wu will lead the subsystem integration research thrust. Berkeley Professor Connie Chang-Hasnain and UA College of Optical Sciences Professor Hyatt Gibbs will lead the photonic material and device research thrust.

UCSD Professor Joseph Ford and UA optical sciences Professor Franko Kueppers will lead the CIAN’s “Grand Challenge Testbed,” the center’s system integration and network demonstration platform. UA mathematics/optical sciences Professor Jerry Moloney will develop modeling and design tools for the integrated optoelectronic chips.

CIAN will serve industry through innovative systems research. Multi-billion-dollar communications, commerce, entertainment and health care industries will benefit. UA optical sciences Professor Robert Norwood will head CIAN's industrial collaboration and technology transfer program. This part of the program gives industry a voice in various functions of CIAN including guiding the selection of research projects, enabling technology transfer and participating in student education.

The center will educate students from diverse backgrounds by piloting novel, multi-level "super courses" and student recruitment and retention programs. "Education is a significant part of our NSF engineering research center," Peyghambarian said. "These students will be the skilled workforce who will lead the next-generation communications industry."

UA College of Engineering faculty members Kelly Potter, Joseph Simmons and Supapan Seraphin and Meredith Whitaker of UA optical sciences will lead the education and outreach activities of CIAN, while Kimberly Sierra-Cajas of UA optical sciences and Professor Arlene Maclin from Norfolk State University will lead the diversity enhancement program. The CIAN team will partner with minority-serving institutions such as Pima Community College, Norfolk State University and Tuskegee University and Native American tribes in Arizona, including the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, in student education and outreach programs.

Outreach programs will include middle schools, high schools, undergraduate and graduate programs. CIAN student training also will go beyond the United States.

"Students need to realize that they're not on an isolated island. Understanding how research is done in other cultures is very, very important to our field," Peyghambarian said. "So each student funded through the center will have at least one international research experience before graduation."

Research exchange programs are being arranged with universities and companies in Germany, Japan, Israel, Finland and elsewhere.

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The University of Arizona's College of Optical Sciences is the world’s premier teaching and research institute in optical sciences and engineering.

Its 75 faculty members include Nobel laureates, professional society presidents, members of boards of directors, heads of industry, successful entrepreneurs and award recipients from local, national, and international governments.

Students worldwide are attracted to the college's challenging curriculum, pioneering research programs and close relationships with the optics industry.