June 9, 2021 – Nebraska is well known for corn and beef, but the small towns in the region are also home to Charles Lindbergh’s early flying lessons and the invention of the vise grip. Now, the National Science Foundation is betting on Cornhusker State to help lead an era of high-stakes innovation as America prepares for next-generation computer and security technology.
This bet takes the form of a $ 20 million grant, spread over 5 years, to be shared between four universities in Nebraska. The foundation’s program was created to stimulate competitive research that targets scientists in certain fields – currently 25 states and three U.S. territories – who have the ambition and expertise to conduct research in the field, but who generally have been neglected in favor of larger centers on the coasts.
A global race is underway in the emerging field of materials science and technology that will change the way we see and measure our world and change the way we communicate, store and protect data.
The award is “one of the greatest achievements” in the career of Christian Binek, PhD, professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and director of the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience.
“Quantum science and technology is the next big thing. Missing out on that is not an option,” he says. The basics of modern life, such as computers, smartphones, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and lasers, are all based on quantum mechanics, Binek explains.
And some of the projects the grant will support will lead to medical breakthroughs, he adds.
Medicine turns to quantum
Quantum science enables the development of new drugs and helps improve diagnostic tools, such as MRI scanners that photograph the inside of the human body.
Among the projects Nebraska scientists are working on is low-field MRI. If they can eliminate the superconducting coils that require liquid nitrogen for cooling, today’s large, bulky and prohibitively expensive MRI machines could become obsolete, Binek says.
Patients would still need to be scanned, but it could happen with a portable device, he says. Advances could also pave the way for 3D X-rays with vivid detail and color.
Nebraska’s potential workforce is among the “missing millions” between the coasts that could advance the global quantum revolution and advance other sciences, but who are struggling for funding and resources, says Tomasz Durakiewicz, PhD , Program Director in the Materials Research Division. at the National Science Foundation.
There is a “painful shortage” of quantum experts, so building a skilled workforce is critical, says Durakiewicz. “You need people who understand quantum mechanics, who understand coding and vacuum technology in one package, and we don’t have a lot of people like that.” And for some projects, the requirements for a high security clearance and US citizenship narrow the pool of available experts.
From the Old Oregon Trail to the Silicon Prairie
Nebraska grant money will be shared by four universities: University of Nebraska-Lincoln; University of Nebraska Omaha; University of Nebraska at Kearney; and Creighton University in Omaha. These institutions will partner with community and tribal colleges in Nebraska, including Nebraska Indian Community College, Little Priest Tribal College, and Central Community College, as part of the education and workforce building components of the grant.
Near the old Oregon Trail, where pioneers crossed Nebraska in boxcars, a new type of settler is settling in what is sometimes called the Silicon Prairie, attracting investment from the giants of the high technology.
The state’s proposal on what it could do with the $ 20 million “was excellent,” but the region was also chosen because the state government supports the collaboration and because the infrastructure is already there. in place to strengthen research efforts, says José Colom-Ustáriz, PhD. , program director at the National Science Foundation.
“It’s a good sign that these scientists can build a workforce that could potentially stay in the state,” he says.