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  April 16, 2001

Engineering Professor Lands Two National Awards

Wilson Chiu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, was recently awarded two highly prestigious honors: the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award and the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program Award.

Both awards recognize exceptional young scientists and engineers who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. The awards, in the amounts of $385,000 and $330,025 respectively, will fund Chiu's research on optical fibers.

Competition for the awards is intense and, in receiving both, Chiu is accorded a rare distinction. The NSF typically receives more than 1,800 CAREER proposals each year from scientists and engineers nationwide. Of these, roughly 300 are funded, with approximately one in three going to engineering faculty, according to Alison Flatau, NSF program manager for the CAREER program.

The ONR Young Investigator Program is also very competitive. Only 26 Young Investigator awards were made this year across all engineering and scientific disciplines nationwide, of which three went to mechanical engineering professors.

Chiu's research focuses on optical fiber technology, which involves data transmission by light through hair-thin strands of glass fiber. Optical fiber technology was first developed for telecommunicati ons in the 1960s. Optical fibers offer many advantages over conventional copper media used in telecommunications, including immunity to electromagnetic interference, a dramatically higher data transmission rate, lower signal loss, and smaller cable size needed to carry the same amount of data.

Scientists envision a wide spectrum of future applications that include chemical, biological, environmental and industrial sensing; ultra-high speed data transmission; aerospace and aeronautics; and high performance computing.

Chiu's five-year CAREER award will support his research into enhanced coatings for optical fibers that will be used primarily in telecommunications and sensing. The global market is estimated to grow to more than $1 trillion within the next five years, and the demand for superior optical fibers is significant. A major obstacle in this technology is the reliability of optical fiber, however.

"With a transmission bandwidth thousands of times greater than copper, optical fibers can carry significantly more data," says Chiu. "But harsh environments have considerably reduced the life expectancy of current optical fibers."

The polymer coatings traditionally applied to optical fibers are effective only over a limited range of temperature, pressure and chemical tolerances. Extreme temperatures of 300¼C or higher - not uncommon for sensing of industrial processes, for example - can quickly erode an optical fiber.

Chiu and his research group will seek new coatings capable of protecting optical fibers under extreme temperature, pressure and chemical exposure.

Lucent Technologies and Sandia National Laboratories will partner with Chiu on his CAREER research project, which will also involve undergraduate and graduate students.

The three-year ONR award will support related research into the development of optical fibers used in underwater acoustic arrays. The U.S. Navy is keenly interested in optical fiber sensing because of its tremendous acoustic sensitivity gain over conventional sensors. Currently, however, optical fibers could not tolerate the high stresses experienced during array deployment, and have a short sensory life in the extreme marine environment.

The challenge facing Chiu is to develop high strength optical fibers that will survive under such harsh conditions. The Naval Undersea Warfare Center will work with Chiu on this project.

Although the Navy is interested in using optical fibers for underwater sensing, once improved the same technology can be applied in detecting geothermal, geological and weather activity; medical sensing; aerospace applications; and detecting failure in industrial machinery, bridges and other structures.

Nan Cooper

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