Princeton, Rowan University to lead NSF-funded, multistate photonics initiative

Princeton, Rowan University to lead NSF-funded, multistate photonics initiative

Robert V. Chimenti, Rowan University photonics program coordinator, and Jamison Engelhardt, a doctoral student in Materials Science & Engineering, work in the photonics lab at Rowan University’s Advanced Materials & Manufacturing Institute.

A new Princeton University-led collaboration to drive economic and technological advancements in photonics—the branch of science that includes lasers, optical fibers and cutting-edge light-based innovations—has been awarded a development grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation's Regional Innovation Engines, or NSF Engines, program.

The grant will lay the groundwork for a multistate collaboration called Advancing Photonics Technologies that aims to advance research, transition discoveries into the economy, and build the region’s technological workforce. 

Co-led by Rowan University, the collaboration includes universities and community colleges, leading photonics companies, statewide economic and workforce development programs, and technology accelerators and incubators that help transition research into startup companies.

Photonics, which involves the control of light for use in technologies, has applications in healthcare, clean energy, computing, telecommunications, advanced manufacturing, and more. It has the potential to improve cancer detection, food safety, smart phones, computing and self-driving cars, among other uses.

The Advancing Photonics Technologies collaboration is one of 44 teams across the nation selected to receive one of the first-ever NSF Engines Development Awards, which provide up to two years of funding toward the planning of a multistate initiative to create economic, societal and technological opportunities for their regions. The awards enable the teams to prepare strong proposals for becoming future NSF Engines, which will each have the opportunity to receive up to $160 million to implement their plans.

“These NSF Engines Development Awards lay the foundation for emerging hubs of innovation and potential future NSF Engines,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “These awardees are part of the fabric of NSF's vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere. They will build robust regional partnerships rooted in scientific and technological innovation in every part of our nation. Through these planning awards, NSF is seeding the future for in-place innovation in communities and to grow their regional economies through research and partnerships. This will unleash ideas, talent, pathways and resources to create vibrant innovation ecosystems all across our nation.”

Launched by NSF's new Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships and authorized by the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, the NSF Engines program aims to catalyze robust partnerships, accelerate technology development, address societal challenges, advance national competitiveness and create high-wage jobs.

“Photonics is one of the unseen gems of the New Jersey economy, providing thousands of good-paying jobs and leading global innovation,” said Governor Phil Murphy. “Congratulations to Princeton University, Rowan University, and the many other New Jersey institutions of higher education, companies, and state agencies that are joining forces on this effort to affirm our state’s long-standing role as a leader in innovation.”

“This initiative unites colleges and universities, startups, and established companies across our region to catalyze research, develop new technologies, create jobs and strengthen the economy,” said Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton University. “Princeton is proud to be part of this National Science Foundation program, which is helping to grow scientific research and technological innovation in every part of our nation.”

“Public-private partnerships between industry and higher education institutions are critically important for driving economic growth and workforce development,” said Rowan University President Ali Houshmand. “We are pleased to share in this effort and look forward to translating research into opportunities for our region.”  

The collaboration will be led by principal investigator Craig B. Arnold, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Princeton’s Vice Dean for Innovation. Arnold’s research expertise spans materials synthesis and processing in areas including advanced manufacturing, energy storage and conversion, and optics and photonics. A holder of 13 granted patents, Arnold is the co-founder of two companies and leads Princeton’s campus-wide initiative to broaden opportunities in innovation.

“Photonics will play a crucial role in pushing 21st century applications to be cleaner, smarter, and more secure,” Arnold said. “To enable this technology and expand its reach, we aim to grow a robust, diverse photonics workforce that is tightly integrated within an ecosystem of continuous innovation and use-inspired research.”

The collaboration’s co-principal investigator Robert V. Chimenti is a visiting assistant professor and photonics coordinator at Rowan University. An experienced industry expert, Chimenti's research focuses on new laser and spectroscopy applications, with an eye toward developing novel instrumentation for commercialization. As a community college alumnus, Chimenti is deeply committed to workforce development opportunities and alternate pathways for non-traditional students. 

“The mid-Atlantic region has a long history of photonic innovations ranging from the light bulb to the color TV to the modern liquid crystal display, making it the ideal choice for this venture,” Chimenti said. “We have a diverse talent pool, exceptional resources with a high density of companies producing and using photonics technologies and devices, as well as an established academic and technical research ecosystem. In short, we’re at just the right time and place.”