Tuesday August 15, 2006

A Milestone

The University of Dayton Research Institute is celebrating 50 years of sponsored research, earning national renown and more than $1 billion of contracts.

In 1949, a Marianist priest and a mathematics professor at the University of Dayton saw an Air Force request for research assistance as an opportunity to play a role in America's postwar reconversion economy — as well as to provide new opportunities for faculty and jobs for students paying their way through school. Their vision proved prophetic.

Three years later, UD hired five full-time researchers to support its growing number of contracts - a bold move for a small Midwest Catholic university focused on undergraduate teaching — and in 1956, with 20 sponsored projects under way, the need for a centralized research organization became clear.

On Sept. 1, 1956, the University of Dayton Research Institute was born and, after 50 years, has emerged as a globally recognized leader in research and development of technologies that have advanced science and benefited mankind. Sponsored research has grown from $1 million from those 20-plus contracts in 1956 to more than $70 million from 1,300 contracts in 2005; cumulative research revenue topped the $1 billion mark in 2003. This is especially significant in that UDRI, its research and its 390 engineers, scientists and support staff, are funded solely by contracts and grants from external customers.

"Our researchers are all entrepreneurs," said John Leland, director of the Research Institute. "Their livelihood — as well as that of the support staff and the Institute itself — depends upon their aggressively pursuing and winning contracts. That makes customer service priority one."

The Research Institute has excelled in materials research — the National Science Foundation recently ranked UD second in the nation among colleges and universities in sponsored materials research for a third consecutive year - while also developing significant expertise and capabilities in the fields of aerospace, nanotechnology, fuels, energy, environment, aging systems, structures and impact physics.

"The work performed by our scientists and engineers has and will continue to fulfill the research and engineering needs of our nation's government and industry," Leland said. "In addition, our efforts to transition research from the lab to the marketplace has fostered economic development in the Dayton region and Ohio, and is playing a key role in helping position our community as a national resource for advanced commercial technologies."

One of those advanced technologies centers on nanostructured materials, which are engineered at the atomic level and contain a superior strength-to-weight ratio and novel properties. Polymers, for instance, can be made to efficiently conduct heat and electricity, and researchers at UDRI have been investigating ways to replace heavy copper wiring in aircraft with polymer wiring. Theoretically, the weight of a Boeing 747 could be reduced by more than one ton by replacing the wiring alone, which would increase its flying range and fuel efficiency. UDRI is also involved in several projects that build on Ohio's existing strengths in polymers to help the state regain its manufacturing edge based on high-tech products.

In other noteworthy research, scientists and engineers are working to:

* reduce dependence on foreign oil by developing alternative energy sources, including jet fuel from coal, extended-life batteries and superior insulating materials capable of heat storage and energy conversion;

* extend the life and improve the safety of America's aging aircraft fleet;

* develop a bio-agent detection and filtration system to safeguard the nation's drinking water from a bio-terrorist attack;

* develop new, lighter-but-stronger armor to protect America's troops;

* develop technologies that will facilitate high-speed access to space; and

* develop Web sites and tools that allow people who are blind to navigate the Internet.

When people ask him how research at a Midwest, Catholic university has achieved national renown, Leland tells them the answer lies within the question. "It is the very nature of Marianist servitude that has brought us to this point and that continues to serve as the foundation for our work," Leland said. "When the Air Force first came to the (Marianist) brothers at UD for assistance, their response was, 'How we can help? How can we be of value to society in this way?' That established the culture we maintain to this day. It keeps us very customer-focused and allows us to bring unique capabilities to our sponsors - and that brings them back to us time and again."

As part of its anniversary celebration, UDRI will host an advanced technology symposium Sept. 13 and 14 at the National Composite Center.

Contact Pamela Gregg at 937-229-3268.