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Two Engineering Professors Win Research Grant of Nearly $1.9 Million to Improve Infrared Sensing

March 6, 2000 -- Travis Blalock and Michael Reed, two professors of electrical engineering at the University of Virginia, have won a grant of nearly $1.9 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to study ways of making infrared cameras more sensitive.

Improving infrared technology, which has both military and civilian applications, is a priority at DARPA, which funds basic and applied research projects for the U.S. Department of Defense, Blalock said.

"We will focus on improving fundamental sensing technology rather than applications," he said. The researchers plan to produce a prototype to prove their concept by the end of the three-year project.

"There is a tremendous amount of interest currently in the development and improvement of environmental sensors," said Gene Block, vice president for research and public service. "The successful efforts of Travis Blalock and Michael Reed in securing support for this important fundamental research project is strong evidence of the research competence in our electrical engineering program. This is a wonderful opportunity for these talented investigators and for the University."

Infrared sensing -- also known as heat sensing or thermography -- is already advanced. But improving the technology so that devices can perform closer to their theoretic limits can lead to new or improved capabilities.

"Trying to improve the sensitivity of sensors is a constant challenge," Reed said. "We’re trying to make them more sensitive, cheaper, more compact, and more highly integrated with electronic circuitry."

"The microelectronics revolution of the past 40 years has led to an incredible shrinkage and enormous increase in the capabilities of electrical circuitry and spawned a new field -- microelectromechanical machines (MEMs)," said Haydn Wadley, associate dean for research in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. "MEMs have resulted in a similar shrinkage of mechanical machines like gears, levers, and rotors, which are now so small many can be fitted to the head of a pin.

"Michael and Travis have married microelectronics with MEMs and started on a new path of discovery and invention that promises exciting new technologies. It is an outstanding example of the kind of developments we hoped to see when the engineering school formed the University of Virginia Institute for Microelectronics in 1996."

The technology has a multitude of civilian uses, including: wildlife observation and control, wildfire hot-spot detection, oil spill location, search and rescue, predictive maintenance of industrial machinery, circuit board analysis, crime fighting, navigational aids, and human and veterinary medicine. Military uses include missile guidance systems and night vision aids.

The Blalock-Reed research team will be working specifically to improve a microbolometer imaging array, a device that measures heat. Similar to a digital camera, the device is sensitive to infrared radiation rather than visible light.

Current models of bolometers lose heat, and therefore sensitivity, through their wiring and physical support structures. The Blalock-Reed project proposes to create a wireless model that would eliminate the problem of such heat loss. Instead, their "flying carpet" model would be levitated by electric field forces. Measurements would be taken during brief, touch-and-go contacts between the heat sensors and measurement electronics, again reducing heat loss.

The University of Virginia is providing $330,300 in matching funds, a show of support the researchers believe gave them an edge in the nationwide competition for the federal grant. Funds will be spent primarily on laboratory equipment, materials, supplies and student research assistants.

For more information, contact Travis Blalock at (804) 924-1331, or blalock@virginia.edu. Or, contact Michael Reed at (804) 924-6309, or reed@virginia.edu.

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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