Strategic Research Initiatives

Research. Collaborate. Innovate.

At Illinois, collaboration is part of our culture and factors into our research success. Indeed, many of the most important innovations of the past century can be tied to new knowledge, discovery, and research advanced by the disciplinary excellence and interdisciplinary nature of our faculty, alumni, and students.

Today, Engineering at Illinois is well positioned and well prepared to respond to the critical needs of society and to develop solutions for our global challenges.

Current Strategic Research Initiatives

To expand research and support collaboration in new and emerging areas, the College of Engineering recently introduced its Strategic Research Initiatives program. SRI supports exploratory research in emerging fields and enhances existing capabilities for new interdisciplinary focus areas or centers. Funding for the SRI programs comes primarily from the College of Engineering.


Big-Data Analytics in Resource-constrained Regime: Statistical Limits and Computational Challenges

Yihong Wu, Bruce Hajek, and R. Srikant, electrical and computer engineering; Chandra Chekuri, computer science; Sewoong Oh, industrial and enterprise systems engineering

This project aims to address numerous challenges in the context of statistical inference for high-dimensional data streams. There are a plethora of inference problems in various models with diverse applications, including community detection on graphs, subspace clustering, learning Gaussian mixtures, and streaming PCA. Initial results on sketching and noisy clustering offers strong evidence for the feasibility of the approach.

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Detection of the Illicit Movement of Nuclear Materials with Big Data

Clair J. Sullivan, nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering; Roy H. Campbell, computer science; Shaowen Wang, geography and geographic information science

Detecting terrorist movement of nuclear or radiological materials is of paramount importance to society. Standoff detection of nuclear or radiological materials, shielded or otherwise, is challenging because the signal at large distances is small, the background and noise are large, and signal acquisition times need to be short (thus further hampering the statistics of detection). The project goal is to establish a first-of-its-kind collaboration between radiological engineers, computer scientists, and GIS experts to explore how the fusing of publicly available data with a radiation sensor network to locate radiation sources, either fixed or moving.

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High-Throughput Single-Molecule Biophysics and Biomolecular Sensing

Songbin Gong, electrical and computer engineering; Rohit Bhargava, Sua Myong, and Andrew Smith, bioengineering; Brian Cunningham, bioengineering/electrical and computer engineering

Recent advances in single-molecule imaging, detection, and manipulation have vastly expanded our understanding of biology. Optical tweezers, atomic force microscopy, and single-molecule optical microscopy are providing critical insights into the physical structure, function, and dynamics of proteins and nucleic acids, and revealing mechanisms of molecular dysfunction in disease. However, these techniques are notoriously low-throughput and require specialized, expensive equipment and extensive training. For these reasons, single molecule techniques remain a niche field inaccessible to non-specialists, and limited progress has been made toward commercialization.

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A New Paradigm in Ultrasonic Image Formation: Inverse Scattering

Michael L Oelze and Weng Chew, electrical and computer engineering; William Gropp, computer science

Currently more than 3 billion ultrasound exams are performed each year which far exceeds all other imaging modalities except for conventional x-ray imaging. However, while ultrasound has many advantages over other imaging modalities, the quality of conventional ultrasonic images is not competitive with magnetic resonance imaging, and X-ray computer aided tomography. For several decades, ultrasonic image formation has relied upon simple delay and sum beam formation. While such techniques have been highly developed and can provide real-time imaging capabilities, the resulting images are characterized by speckle and are affected by reverberation and aberration. Therefore, in order to improve upon existing ultrasonic imaging techniques a fundamental change in the paradigm of image formation must be adopted. The proposed research will dramatically affect how clinical ultrasound imaging is performed in the future.

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Civil Infrastructure Systems Big Data Innovation Hub

Nora El-Gohary, civil and environmental engineering; Chengxiang Zhai, computer science

Civil Infrastructure Systems (CIS) play an essential role in the U.S. economy. Efficient management of transportation infrastructure such as bridges calls for an effective decision-making process for understanding the contributing factors to deterioration and for selecting and prioritizing the operations necessary to maintain the reliability of a system. The use of Big Data analytics could transform the way civil infrastructure systems are operated and maintained so as to optimize decision making, improve safety, and reduce cost.

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Wide-Bandgap (WBG) Power Electronics Research Initiative toward a Center of Excellence and Entrepreneurial Opportunities

Kyekyoon (Kevin) Kim, Elyse Rosenbaum, and Philip T. Krein, electrical and computer engineering

Wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductors are recognized for their potential to revolutionize electric power systems, supporting disruptive changes in power electronics. The market for WBG power electronics is growing rapidly. While the initial emphasis has been on SiC, GaN holds the promise of better performance in high-speed and very high voltage applications and is, of course, uniquely suited for optical applications. It is projected that the GaN sector will top $2B within 5 years. With applications as diverse as hybrid cars, photovoltaic inverters, lighting, distributed generation, and communications – at voltages ranging widely from a few volts to tens of thousands of volts – WBG power electronics will take on a leading role over the next decade. This project proactively pursues strategic GaN-based power electronic device research, with a goal to establish a center for excellence and to explore entrepreneurial opportunities and attracting external funding for this growing research sector.

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Nanomanufacturing Paradigm Shift from 2D to 3D: Rolled-up Electronic and Photonic Devices and Sub-Systems

Xiuling Li, Xiaogang Chen, James J. Coleman, and Jose Schutt-Aine, electrical and computer engineering; Placid Ferreira and K. Jimmy Hsia, mechanical science and engineering; John A. Rogers, materials science and engineering

This project aims to develop a new nanomanufacturing platform—strain-induced self-rolled-up 3D architectures—for miniaturized on-chip electronic components for radio frequency and millimeter wave integrated circuits, and vertically integrated photonics. Utilizing an interdisciplinary approach, the team will develop key technologies for making complex 3D architectures with unprecedented small physical form factor and transformative device concept.

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Atomic-Scale Design of Oxide Heterojunctions for Energy Conversion

Elif Ertekin, mechanical science and engineering; Lane Martin and Angus Rockett, materials science and engineering; Ed Seebauer, chemical and biomolecular engineering

To produce dramatically improved photocatalysts for solar hydrogen production as well as energy-efficient environmental remediation, researchers are pursuing a transformative approach for designing and synthesizing oxide heterojunctions for photocatalytic (PC) energy conversion devices. Their unique approach combines semiconductor defect engineering to control the concentration and lifetime of photo-stimulated charge carriers, semiconductor band engineering to control the flow of charge carriers within the photocatalyst, the use of “hot” carriers with greater than thermal energies, and atomic-scale modeling of the free surfaces and solid-solid interfaces to optimize atomic defect profiles during synthesis and carrier flow during operation.

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Optimizing DNA Storage Efficiency via Joint Constrained and Error-Control Coding

Olgica Milenkovic, electrical and computer engineering; Jian Ma, bioengineering; Huimin Zhao, chemical and biomolecular engineering

The interdisciplinary team will address a set of problems with potentially far-reaching consequences for the future of DNA storage. The questions of interest include finding the ultimate theoretically achievable limits of DNA-based recording techniques; designing tailor-made joint constrained and error-control coding methods for DNA media that optimally exploit the properties of the system; designing universal coding methods invariant to the technology used for DNA synthesis and sequencing (Illumina versus Roche versus PacBio or some other emerging platform); and how significant will the cost savings ensured by near-optimal coding schemes be? The team will address these challenging questions both from an analytical and an implementation-based point of view—exploring how current design techniques may be improved, while developing new DNA sequence storage paradigms in an experimental setting.

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Powering Big Data - A Systems Approach to Future Computing Platforms

Robert Pilawa-Podgurski (PI), Philip Krein, Yi Lu, Naresh Shanbhag, electrical and computer engineering and Coordinated Science Laboratory (CSL); Roy Campbell, computer science and CSL

The goal is to develop a new class of computing and power management hardware, software, and control algorithms that dramatically reduce energy requirements in future datacenters and computers. By seamlessly unifying the intrinsic processes of energy conversion, information processing, and software organization, the project seeks to transform the design of robust and energy-efficient embedded platforms, computers, and data centers. The patent-pending technology to be explored can reduce energy consumption of computing processes by an order of magnitude or more, overcoming emerging barriers to next-generation computing.

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A Theory of Cognitive and Algorithmic Decision Making

Andrew C. Singer, Tamer Başar, and Maxim Raginsky, electrical and computer engineering; Karrie Karahalios and Svetlana Lazebnik, computer science; Angelia Nedich, industrial and enterprise systems engineering, Christian Sandvig, College of Media, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and Coordinated Science Laboratory

This project explores decision-making from a broad, multidisciplinary point of view, pairing recognized strengths in engineering decision theory and machine learning with the emerging science of social networks and expertise in human decision making to consider the next generation of human-machine (cognitive-algorithmic) decision systems.

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Interfaces at the Ultimate Limit

N. R. Aluru, mechanical science and engineering; David Ceperley and Lucas Wagner,  physics;  Joseph Lyding, electrical and computer engineering

Fundamental studies on interfaces—between hard and soft materials, between heterogeneous hard materials, between heterogeneous soft materials, between biotic and abiotic materials, and various other types of complex interfaces—have led to breakthrough advances in electronics, computer, mechanical, aerospace, energy, and health care sectors. This interdisciplinary research initiates fundamental studies on understanding interfaces between materials that approach their ultimate (smallest) thickness limit.

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Interrogation of Special Nuclear Material Using the Illinois Pulsed Neutron Facility

Brent J. Heuser and Ling-Jian Meng, nuclear, plasma, and radiological engineering; Matthias Grosse Perdekamp, physics

Nuclear security has become very important both domestically and internationally. The ability to monitor port-of-entry, to track fissile material across international borders, to properly safeguard the nation’s nuclear weapon stockpile, and to develop nuclear counterterrorism measures all require innovative technology and technical expertise in special nuclear material (SNM) detection.

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Beyond Speech: Towards an Interdisciplinary Study of Sound

Paris Smaragdis, computer science and electrical and computer engineering; Mark Hasegawa-Johnson, electrical and computer engineering; Rob A. Rutenbar, computer science; J. Stephen Downie, Graduate School of Library and Information Science; Heinrich K. Taube, School of Music

The University of Illinois has a long history of studying sound—pioneering sound-on-film, computer music, bioacoustics, hearing research, and speech studies within the College of Engineering and across campus. As a multifaceted science that is still not fully understood by any one discipline yet, the academic study and exploitation of sound is extremely broad, as are new applications.

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Digital/Cyber Security and Nuclear Security

Rizwan Uddin, nuclear, plasma, and radiological engineering; William Sanders, electrical and computer engineering and Coordinated Sciences Laboratory (with additional collaborators from NPRE and CSL)

The nuclear industry and homeland security establishments have an urgent need to continuously push the state of the art to develop new, advanced, and nuclear-grade digital control and cyber security technologies. Due to its existing expertise in nuclear engineering, and in digital and cyber security, the University of Illinois is uniquely positioned to develop a national center for digital instrumentation and control, and for cyber security for nuclear-specific applications.

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View our Previously funded Strategic Research Initiatives