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NIST funds high-risk ventures

05 Oct 2004

Thirty-two projects are the lucky recipients of funding totalling over $80 million.

The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is ploughing $80.1 million into 32 high-risk projects as part of its 2004 Advanced Technology Program (ATP). NIST judges the proposals on "the basis of difficulty, technical innovation and the potential for significant benefits to the nation's economy."

The annual ATP awards support projects that have difficulty in attracting industrial funding because of their high-risk nature. Technology areas receiving NIST's financial backing this year include everything from fuel cells and carbon nanotubes to stem cell research and imaging systems for oil and gas exploration.

Here's a selection of the projects that involve photonics:

•  US firms Cree and Nanocrystal Lighting have been given $3.4 million to help them develop white LEDs for solid-state lighting. The firms are aiming to demonstrate "integrated white LED lamps that more than quadruple the brightness and double the efficiency of existing LED lamps as well as significantly reducing their cost per lumen."

Cree and Nanocrystal will combine high-efficiency blue LEDs with phosphor nanomaterials that convert the emission into broadband white light. If successful, the partners say the work will accelerate the development of affordable, solid-state white lighting by at least three years.

•  Nanospectra Biosciences will receive $2.5 million to produce near-infrared (NIR) absorbing particles called nanoshells, which have applications in cancer therapy.

The nanoshells preferentially accumulate in tumors once injected into the bloodstream. NIR light can then pinpoint the location of the tumor. Additional NIR light can then be pumped into the nanoshells causing them to heat up and destroy the tumor cells. Although widely applicable to many solid tumors, Nanospectra says its initial plan is to develop a diagnostic and therapeutic product for breast cancer.

•  OFS Fitel will use its $2 million award to build high-power pulsed fiber lasers. Problems with energy storage in the gain medium and nonlinear optical effects in the fiber currently limit the use of fiber lasers in applications such as materials processing.

"The key is to increase the effective area of the laser amplifying portion of the fiber while suppressing energy losses to unwanted frequencies that normally increase as area increases," says the company. It plans to work on new glass fiber fabrication and processing techniques to overcome these hurdles.

•  wTe Corporation is using its $2 million award to produce an instrument that measures the chemical composition of molten pools of metals and alloy in real-time. The instrument will combine the spectral analysis techniques of energy dispersive X-ray fluorescence and laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS).

wTe says the system could help US produces make better use of low-grade scrap metal, which has an unpredictable composition. Liquid-metal composition is currently analyzed offline in an iterative process as alloys are added and the metal reanalyzed to meet a final chemical composition.

"An online sensing system would provide complete liquid-metal chemistries in seconds allowing rapid adjustments to the melt mix," says wTe. "The technology is aimed at increasing production capacity in some sectors by as much as 15%."

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