CULLOWHEE – The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded a $4.725 million grant to Western Carolina University for a research project that could lead to the mass production of intricate components necessary to bring high-speed fiber optics communications to the consumer desktop.

U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor announced the grant Monday, Feb. 24, during a signing ceremony between representatives of Western Carolina and the University of Southern California, Western’s newest high-tech partner. Through the federally funded venture, Western Carolina will be responsible for running a battery of tests on prototypes of optoelectronic components made by USC.

The award from the defense department’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, in support of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, represents Western’s single largest grant for research. Depending upon the next federal fiscal year budget, DARPA may fund up to another two years of applied research, increasing support to up to $14.175 million over three years.

The grant also may lead to the production of working components, perhaps through spin-off companies that could be located at Western’s developing Millennial Campus, a “knowledge enterprise zone” designed to enable the university to develop public/private partnerships, incubate small businesses, and utilize existing electronics infrastructure to support economic development efforts.

Much of the DARPA funding will be used to outfit Western’s engineering technology laboratories with new equipment that will be needed for the research project, and that will enhance undergraduate instruction in the areas of electronic and computer engineering technology, telecommunications, manufacturing engineering technology, and computer graphics and animation.

The initial applied research will be directed by Western’s Center for Integrated Technologies, a federally funded facility focusing on the “ultra-high technologies” of photonics and opto-electronics. Core technologies in the future of electronics in such areas as communication and computing, photonics and opto-electronics have been called “electronics at the speed of light.” The emerging technologies involve the generation and harnessing of light and other forms of radiant energy, and a key capability is the transmission of information via waves of light.

“Until now, the only mass produced optical components for consumer use have included such applications as CD-ROMs and DVDs,” said Duane Dunlap, head of Western’s department of engineering technology. “In terms of telecommunications, the use of fiber optics has been primarily limited to long-distance applications, between cities and other ‘long-haul’ portions of fiber networks. But now the shift is toward bringing fiber to the end user – to individuals, to homes, to business, to the desktop.”

“The implications for this project are tremendous, not just for the university, but for the mountain region,” said Chancellor John Bardo. “If our research indicates that it is practical to develop and produce these connectors, receivers and other components in mass quantities, Western could spin off the companies that would make those parts. The potential economic impact on a region beset by hundreds of lost manufacturing jobs is truly incredible.”

Announcement of the Department of Defense grant comes on the heels of national studies calling for regional universities and community colleges to play a more active role in supporting economic development efforts.

“Recent reports by the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Governors’ Association make it clear that investment in appropriate technology-related disciplines in the local area universities and community colleges is one of the most critical, if not the single most important, element in an effective regional economic development plan,” Bardo said. “We owe Congressman Taylor our thanks for his untiring efforts to obtain federal funds to set the stage for regional prosperity.”

In the photograph...

Western Carolina University Chancellor John W. Bardo (left) and Anthony Levi of the College of Engineering at the University of Southern California sign a partnership agreement establishing an inter-institutional effort to discover cost-effective methods to mass-produce optoelectronic components.  The research conducted through the partnership will be made possible by a $4.725 million grant announced Monday by U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor.

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Last modified: Monday, Feb. 24, 2003
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