Two Arizona State University engineers will have important roles in major new research projects aimed at producing technological advances considered critical to enhancing the nation’s military defense systems.

Nikhilesh Chawla and Nongjian Tao are members of separate research teams that recently earned grants from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research through the U.S. Department of Defense Multi-University Research Initiative (MURI). Chawla is the Fulton Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Tao is a professor in Fulton Engineering’s School of Electrical, Computing and Energy Engineering, and director of the Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors at ASU’s Biodesign Institute.

Tao will work with colleagues from the University of Texas, Austin, the University of Washington, the University of Utah, Queens College-City University of New York and Northwestern University, the lead institution for the project.

When final funding figures are approved, the MURI grant for the entire project could provide as much as $12.5 million over five years for the project. ASU may be allotted as much as $1 million.

Competition for MURI grants is intensive, with multi-university teams of members from the science and engineering programs of leading research institutions typically vying for support.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research received 28 full MURI grant proposals for the program’s 2013 awards. Only seven teams’ proposals were selected for funding.

Tao’s part in his team’s project will focus on gaining a more comprehensive understanding of the fundamental aspects of electrochemical processes at the nanometer scale.

He’ll work at developing a new form of microscopy – optical electrochemical microscopy, which converts an electrochemical signal into an optical signal – that will produce more precise imaging of what takes place during electron transfer, the fundamental trigger for electrochemical processes.

The research is designed to reveal new knowledge of the spatial aspects of electron-transfer dynamics in real time on the nano-scale.

Advanced understanding of those dynamics can help enable development of improved chemical analysis, sensor technology and electroplating processes (used to create metal coatings for corrosion-resistance), as well as more effective energy and fuel devices.

Tao’s work for the project will be performed in his Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors.

Electrical engineering post-doctoral research associate Xiaonan Shan will assist Tao, along with two graduate students.