December 22, 2013
The National Science Foundation has named the Air Force Academy the nation's top undergraduate research university for the seventh straight year.
The ranking is based on cash raised to fund research. The academy's $56 million in annual research grants looks small next to places like Johns Hopkins University, which rakes in $2.1 billion per year.
But the schools with the deeper research pockets aren't aiming those programs on undergrads - the bulk of research is done by master's and doctorate students.
At the academy, cadets toil away on projects that include turning algae into gasoline and preventing rust on aging military planes.
"All research we bring in is for cadet development," explained Col. Bob Kraus, the academy's chief scientist.
The academy has long prided itself on having cadets do research that's useful to the Air Force as they earn their degrees.
The school recently added a transonic wind chamber to its aerodynamics lab that will allow cadets to probe high speed flight, rocketry and future engine technology.
The academy also is building a research satellite that will test telescope technology.
The Photon Sieve uses a thin plastic membrane to do the work of heavy glass lenses.
The academy's latest effort is to study ways to make troops more efficient on the battlefield through training and technology.
The academy's research program outstrips the other two major service academies combined.
The U.S. Military Academy got $12.2 million in 2013 and the U.S. Naval Academy brought in $9.6 million in 2013.
Kraus said the academy is looking for ways to have its research make a splash in the private sector.
The eventual hope is that academy inventions can drive off-base jobs and industry., he said
But with undergraduate researchers spending months rather than years on the job, going from laboratory to market is difficult, Kraus said.
"How do you get over this gap to build a commercial product?" he said.
To answer that question, the academy is looking to partner with private industry to polish its products.
"We need a partner to take it to the next level," Kraus said of cadets' research.