UA System to lead on tech, workforce solutions with $20 million NSF grant

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 170 views 

The new Center for Advanced Surface Engineering, a collaboration between the University of Arkansas and Arkansas industries, will be funded from part of a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation directed to 10 Arkansas colleges and universities.

The funds will be used to support the ASSET project (Arkansas Advancing and Supporting Science, Engineering and Technology), a multi-institutional statewide program with research areas that impact education and workforce, cyberinfrastructure, and engineering research.

The project also includes a cyberinfrastructure component that aligns with Governor Hutchinson’s computer science initiative for K-12 education by expanding the connectivity of high-performance computing clusters throughout the state into a single unified system.

“This award will go a long way in strengthening STEM-based research and workforce in Arkansas,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. “All eyes are now on Arkansas because of the strides we are making in science and technology. We must continue to build on this momentum to ensure our current and future workforce has the skills they need to succeed.”

The Fayetteville research center at the University of Arkansas works to create new products for use in manufacturing, aerospace and defense, agriculture, forestry, oil and gas, food packaging and health care. Min Zou, Twenty-First Century Professorship in Mechanical Engineering at the UA, will serve as the center’s director.

“We look forward to showcasing our faculty expertise and ability to develop solutions for our industry partners that will create jobs for the state of Arkansas,” Jim Rankin, the UA vice provost for research and economic development, said in a statement. “The center will be in good hands under the leadership of Dr. Zou, a nationally recognized scholar in mechanical and surface engineering.”

The center will comprise four research teams made up of about 40 faculty members from 10 Arkansas institutions. The center will feature a curriculum integrated with industry leaders through internships and seminars, providing educational programs for students.

Plans also include establishing start-up companies to commercialize technologies developed by the center, creating new products and new jobs to bolster the knowledge-based economy in Arkansas while also creating a workforce with the specialized skill-sets necessary to sustain industries that can utilize the center’s research.

Center researchers and laboratories will mentor students from high school through graduate school in an integrated science, technology, engineering and mathematics pipeline that feeds directly into the center and out to industry.

The mechanical team will be led by Zou and Ajay Malshe, founder of NanoMech and a UA  professor. It will focus on durable, low-friction and self-sharpening multifunctional surfaces. Nanoscale research in this area would be applied to developing low-friction coatings for mechanical systems and self-sharpening coatings for manufacturing tools.

The cellulose team will be co-led by Julie Carrier, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the UA, and will focus on the surface modification of cellulose material for the development of new antimicrobial packaging material, among other applications.

Seven other UA faculty will conduct research in the center: Jingyi Chen, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry; Jamie Hestekin, associate professor of chemical engineering; Jin-Woo Kim, professor of biological and agricultural engineering; Paul Millett, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Arun Nair, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Greg Salamo, Distinguished Professor of of physics; and Shannon Servoss, associate professor of chemical engineering.

The center’s other participating institutions are University of Arkansas System universities in Little Rock, Monticello and Pine Bluff; the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; Arkansas State University, the University of Central Arkansas, Southern Arkansas University, Ouachita Baptist University and Philander Smith College.

Previous ASSET projects have produced three new companies as well as 11 filed patents and 11 federal SBIRs awards to six ASSET-associated companies totaling $2.6 million, with three additional pending awards that could add another $1.7 million.

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