Rad Science: University of Arizona Breaks Ground on $85M Science Lab

An illustration of the Applied Research Building, which will contain a thermal vacuum chamber used to simulate space environments, an anechoic chamber designed to absorb reflections and electromagnetic waves for antenna testing, and a high bay lab for high altitude balloons.

The University of Arizona is strengthening its focus on engineering, space science and optics with a new Applied Research Building just off Speedway Boulevard. Construction on the three-story, $85 million building broke ground on Tuesday, June 29, and the university expects the building to open for occupants by spring 2023.

The 89,000-square-foot facility will be devoted to advancing research, and will contain a number of unique scientific tools. These include a thermal vacuum chamber used to simulate space environments, an anechoic chamber designed to absorb reflections and electromagnetic waves for antenna testing, a high bay lab for high altitude balloons, and a dynamic testing lab for large objects.

The ARB is located at the southeast corner of Helen Street and Highland Avenue, next to the university's Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Building, serving as a confluence for advanced manufacturing and technology.

"When you think about advanced materials, you may think about advanced manufacturing and advanced manufacturing methods like 3D printing. However, advanced materials are also key to almost all of our advanced energy technologies," said Betsy Cantwell, UA's senior vice president for research and innovation. "They are created in the laboratory, but this building will allow us to translate those scientific developments and advanced materials into products that can be built in the real world and turned into companies."

As with many scientific developments at UA, administration highlighted the building's role in the "Fourth Industrial Revolution," which involves the ongoing automation of manufacturing processes, smart technologies, and the internet.

"The Fourth Industrial Revolution is all about the world increasing our interconnectivity, and I can't emphasize that enough," said UA president Robert C. Robbins. "I think of the juxtaposition of this building right along Speedway. This is the merging that makes science and engineering work with business and law and medicine and pharmacy and nursing."

Research in the ARB will include work on CubeSats (or nanosatellites) that reduce the cost of access to space; additional space for UA's Imaging Technology Laboratory with advanced sensors for astronomy, satellite imagery and laboratory chemical analysis; 3D printing of aerospace parts; and stratospheric balloons potentially for observation, military sensor testing, and preparation for balloons on other planets.

"From the College of Engineering's perspective, the timing of this building is ideal," said College of Engineering dean David Hahn. "As we compete with other top universities for talent, like faculty talent and student talent, it's this type of facility that will allow us to improve those efforts and in fact beat out other universities for the very students and the very best faculty."

The ARB was built with the university's strategic plan in mind, which includes five "pillars" of focus. Specifically, the ARB is dedicated to research programs related to the "Grand Challenges" pillar, which deals with pressing issues for humanity like space access, artificial intelligence, health care technology and the environment.

"These are areas that drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And that revolution and change in how the world builds things, delivers them out into the real world, and recognizes economic impact is a core to the principles of the university going forward," Cantwell said. "We will not build new buildings at the university without some version of innovation space somewhere in that building."

The strategic plan's four other pillars are the Wildcat journey, Arizona Global, institutional excellence, and the benefits of Arizona.

"Beyond attracting and reinforcing our industry partners with companies including Honeywell, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, research conducted in the ARB will translate into major societal impacts, from the development of wearables and noninvasive imaging for better health care outcomes to the construction of advanced sensors for modern autonomy, robotics and AI applications," Cantwell said.

In total, the ARB will connect faculty across four colleges and eight departments: the College of Engineering (which includes the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Department of Systems and Industrial Engineering); the College of Science (which includes the Department of Astronomy and the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory); the College of Optical Sciences; and the College of Medicine.

The building was made possible through nearly $30 million in annual funding from the State of Arizona's Technology and Research Initiative Fund, which increased the state's sales tax via Prop 301 to promote university research, development and technology.

"There are less than 20 universities in this nation who have $1 billion in research expenditures. We're creeping up on $800 million... and we believe in the coming decade we will be one of those universities," Robbins said. "That's a tremendous asset, not only to the students, faculty and staff, but to the region of Southern Arizona. You can track economic development directly to the amount of research expenditure a university has."

The building will be constructed on what is now a parking lot, being designed and constructed by the McCarthy and SmithGroup construction firms. The building's construction will also involve realignment of the popular Highland Underpass, which students and faculty use to cross beneath Speedway.

"We have no idea what the next emerging world challenge will be, but buildings like this and this infrastructure will help us be prepared for whatever the future brings," Robbins said.