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Program Identifies Four Technology Areas of National Interest

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NIST program invests in science and technology to promote innovation and industrial competitiveness.

Anne L. Fischer, Senior Editor

The Advanced Technology Program (ATP) of the US Commerce Department is managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) which, since 1990, has held competitions for funding of high-risk industrial research and development projects. The 2007 awards are the first since 2004 and are expected to total $60 million. The projects are selected during a peer-reviewed process that identifies technically challenging, high-risk research with potentially broad benefits.


Figure 1. Joint venture awards for photonics and optical technologies fall into many manufacturing segments, with displays and imaging receiving the highest level of funding from the ATP at just over $84 million between 1990 and 2004.

The ATP invests in early-stage innovative technologies because NIST sees America’s competitiveness in this domain as critical to economic growth and quality of life. Because few financial institutions or venture capitalists will fund unproven technologies, ATP’s goal is to help industry invest in longer-term, higher-risk research that will benefit the public as well as make a profit. Private companies can invest in their own development, but they generally do so to generate faster returns for the corporation and the shareholders.

The ATP anticipates funding approximately 60 awards in this year’s competition. A group is reviewing the proposals received in the spring, and the projects selected will be announced this fall. A single company can receive up to $2 million for a project that lasts up to three years. Joint ventures can receive unlimited funding for research and development for up to five years.

Technology areas

For this year’s competition, the following four areas of national interest have been identified as important for technological competitiveness:

• Technologies for Advanced and Complex Systems
• Challenges in Advanced Materials and Devices
• 21st Century Manufacturing

According to Lorel Wisniewski, deputy director of the program, these multidisciplinary areas are not given priority in the award selection process, which is based solely on technical and economic criteria.

Photonics and optics

Projects in photonics and optics are found in all of these categories. In the materials and devices area, for example, photonics plays a role in health care diagnostics, in energy technologies and in communications networks. As for 21st century manufacturing, optics and photonics are used in motor vehicle and electronic product manufacturing, bioprocessing and more.

Table 1. Between the years 1990 and 2004, nearly $775 million was awarded to 199 separate entities. The competition was last held in 2004. Table 2. Funding for photonics and optical projects has been awarded across several technology areas.

In past competitions, projects using photonics and optical technologies received a notable portion of ATP funding. For example, of the 768 projects funded between 1990 and 2004, 127 involved photonics and optical technologies. Typically, these projects involved either radiant energy-based products whose quantum unit is the photon or those that develop systems technologies for a variety of commercial applications that apply advancements in light-based technologies to solve a technical problem.

Table 2.
Funding for photonics and optical projects has been awarded across several technology areas.

Between 1990 and 2004, 78 of the photonics and optical projects fell under the manufacturing technology area, with an ATP award total of $246.7 million. In the same time period, five awards were given in the nanotechnology area, totaling $20.7 million.

ATP gave Cree Inc. of Durham, N.C., half the funding for a project to develop a white LED lamp package with an integrated chip approach, which the company estimated would more than quadruple the brightness and double the efficiency of existing systems while reducing the cost per lumen. The project was launched in 2004 and is scheduled for completion this year at a cost of nearly $7 million.

Another award was made to Sarnoff Corp. of Princeton, N.J., to partner with Autoliv Inc. of Ogden, Utah, and Ford Motor Company of Dearborn, Mich., to develop an auto safety system that detects approaching hazards and determines whether a collision is about to occur by measuring the rate of motion and the location. The system can trigger actions such as braking, tightening seat belts and firing side airbags. The $10 million project was cofunded by the ATP, launched in 2004 and is scheduled to be completed this year.

ATP project manager Gerald Castellucci, who worked with Sarnoff on this project, indicated that this proposal was chosen because it met the criteria for innovation and high risk, with feasibility. He explained that Sarnoff is undertaking new image processing projects and implementing them in an affordable package. Sarnoff developed the technology, with Autoliv providing the radar sensor.

Castellucci is confident that this project, which has stayed on track time-wise, will have a significant impact on auto safety and on the US auto industry, which has been struggling to remain competitive in the world market. However, although NIST wants to help the US remain competitive, the ATP does not have a quota for automotive-related projects, he said.

InPhase Technologies Inc. of Longmont, Colo., also was the recipient of ATP funding for the development of rewritable recording materials for holographic data storage systems. The project cost was estimated at $2.8 million, and InPhase requested $2 million. This project, launched in 2002, was completed in 2005.

According to Lisa Dhar, vice president of media development at InPhase Technologies, the company was in startup mode at the time of the funding, bringing a write-once product to market, so the funding accelerated the development of the next generation of products.

The InPhase project uses laser light to record blocks of data as holograms throughout a volume of space. By storing data in three dimensions, the rewritable recorder can store more electronic data in smaller spaces and read out millions of bits at once. Thomas Lettieri, an ATP project manager, indicated that the ATP was enthusiastic about the resourcefulness of this project — modifying materials to make the media rewritable.

Although it has been five years since the initial proposal, Dhar sees InPhase maintaining its status as the recognized leader in holographic data storage, although other companies in the US and Southeast Asia have shown interest in developing similar technologies. Currently InPhase is bringing a new write-once product to market, and the rewritable, the development of which was funded by the ATP, will be right on its heels. Being first out of the gate helps InPhase compete in the $60 billion market for data archiving, consumer electronics and mass storage.

The program’s awards have stimulated industry to spend more of its own funds on research and development than it would have otherwise. One-third of ATP awardees report that, without the program’s funding, they would not have pursued their projects. By helping companies to increase their research and development spending, the ATP also is helping them broaden the scope of projects, solve larger problems and take on a higher level of risk, which in turn can proportionately increase the technical success and level of competition in the marketplace.

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2007
The use of atoms, molecules and molecular-scale structures to enhance existing technology and develop new materials and devices. The goal of this technology is to manipulate atomic and molecular particles to create devices that are thousands of times smaller and faster than those of the current microtechnologies.
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