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UCLA Engineering Opens New NSF-Funded Collaboratories

By Bill Kisliuk | June 5, 2013

Researchers developing sustainable fuels, pollution solutions and nanomaterials for harnessing energy and improving healthcare are the latest to move into state-of-the-art “collaboratories” at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science (HSSEAS).

In April, with the support of the National Science Foundation, UCLA Engineering completed four new collaboratories  – as well as a virtual lab in which sensors track energy and water usage in the new facilities – in Boelter Hall.

The facilities were designed to encourage cross-disciplinary research and communication at a time when experts in fields ranging from healthcare to computer science find they are pursuing inter-related solutions to pressing problems.

“Academic departments once worked independently, but now they must cross disciplines to address the multifaceted problems of our society, especially the challenge in sustainability,” said Jane P. Chang, who is the principal investigator of this NSF-funded project and also UCLA Engineering Associate Dean for Research and Physical Resources. “These dramatic shifts have created an urgent need for a new kind of space capable of serving today’s needs and accommodating future research.”

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Professor Jennifer Jay and her team move into their new collaboratory.

The new collaboratories overhaul aging labs in Boelter Hall and place researchers doing related work in close proximity to each other.

The sixth and seventh floors of Boelter Hall were bustling in April as staff, researchers and professors moved sensitive lab equipment and other gear into the new collaboratories.
Yunfeng Lu, a professor in the Chemical and Bioengineering Department, clambered to the top step of a ladder to make sure a refrigerator unit for biological materials was secure and operating safely in his new sixth floor lab. Jennifer Jay, an associate professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, worked alongside students as they unpacked box after box of materials from their prior lab.

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The new Boelter Hall collaboratory for the research team led by Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Jennifer Jay.

“The new laboratories create a better working environment for researchers and will allow students to talk and interact casually,” said James C. Liao, holder of the Ralph M. Parsons Chair in Chemical Engineering and chair of the UCLA Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department. Liao’s team of researchers will now work in the Bio-sustainability Collaboratory in Boelter Hall. “Working close together and even just seeing each other in the corridor will be beneficial.”

In Liao’s lab, researchers are developing methods for converting CO2 into liquid fuel. Jay’s sixth-floor lab will house her team’s efforts to minimize the environmental damage done by contaminants including mercury, arsenic and harmful bacteria. Yunfeng Lu and his researchers are focused on developing nanoscale materials to improve energy storage devices and delivery of healthcare therapies.

The new collaboratories also facilitate research that has little to do with what is inside the beakers and bottles. Electrical Engineering Professor Mani Srivastava is using embedded sensors to monitor the efficiency of energy and water use in the labs.

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Professor Yunfeng Lu, center, and his team set up their new collaboratory in Boelter Hall.

The opening of these new labs marks the end of the first phase of collaboratory construction. Previously, new collaboratories were built out on the second floor of Boelter Hall for use by soils and seismic safety researchers supervised by Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Chair John Stewart, Associate Professor Scott Brandenberg, Professor Woody Ju, Professor Mladen Vucetic and Professor John Wallace.

Collaboratory construction started in February 2011. The $11.9 million cost is funded in part by a $7.5 million National Science Foundation research grant awarded under the Academic Research Infrastructure Program: Recovery and Reinvestment (ARI-R²) through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

UCLA and the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science provided the remaining $4.4 million.

The second phase of work, revamping the Boelter Hall spaces recently vacated by Lu, Liao and Jay, is now under way.

In a separate project, the school of engineering created an undergraduate collaboratory for chemical and biomolecular research on the sixth floor of Boelter Hall. 

Chang expressed gratitude to UCLA facilities management, capital program and contract administration professionals for their roles in the collaboratory project. “Their efforts will support our faculty and students for their cutting-edge research for many years to come,” she said.
UCLA Engineering Dean Vijay Dhir said the collaboratories are just one example of how the school is enhancing the culture of collaboration and effective use of space.

“The collaboratories, as well as Engineering VI, the new 150,000-square-foot facility now under construction, are symbols of our commitment to provide the best for our renowned faculty, their dedicated students and engineers of the future,” Dhir said.