Electro-Optics Center plays vital role in economy, national defense

When Penn State opened the Electro-Optics Center (EOC) in 1999, the University's vision was to create an entity that would foster economic development in the state and to provide research and development in areas critical to the nation's defense. Ten years later, the center has proven to be successful in meeting both of those goals and has helped in the development of some of the most sophisticated technology in use today.

The Electro-Optics Center is an applied research group, employing 125 scientists, engineers and staff. The center in western Pennsylvania works with companies and government labs throughout the state and nation to help them develop new technologies. The center specializes in electro-optics technologies — that is, the conversion of electricity into light, and vice-versa. The center promotes the development of electro-optics materials, and grows some of those materials on-site for use by U.S. defense forces. Some components of this electro-optics technology, critical to the nation's defense capabilities, at one time were available only from China and Russia. Having them developed here enhances our national security.

The EOC is a world leader in electro-optics technology, and many have benefited from its expertise and knowledge. EOC-sponsored programs and internal expertise include research and development, manufacturing process development and improvement, and the active transfer of new or improved technology direct to both military and commercial applications. The EOC also has provided education and training to government organizations to raise the level of knowledge in certain disciplines, and to industry to help develop the workforce expertise needed by our country in this complex field.

The EOC provides these advanced technologies to our national security interests through applied research, technology demonstrations, concept of operations development, program management, workforce development and collaborations with an alliance of more than 350 companies, universities and government laboratories throughout Pennsylvania and nationwide. To date, the nation's military services have benefitted from deployment of advanced electro-optic technologies because of the work done by the EOC.

One of the EOC projects involved improving two-color infrared focal plane arrays for Navy aircraft. The technology offers a greater detection range for surveillance, target detection, identification and tracking. The improvements saved $631 million on the production of more than 3,400 of the arrays. Another project developed improved night-vision components for military use, enabling new technology and at the same time saving $80 million in production costs. For the Army, the EOC developed clip-on thermal imagers for night-vision goggles, enhancing soldiers' ability to "see" in the dark. Because of the technological expertise of the EOC, the production of these devices was optimized, saving the Army $75 million in production costs.

The surrounding region has seen economic benefit from the EOC, as well. In the last decade, the EOC has directly brought between 300 and 400 high-quality jobs to the region. The center's presence also has attracted other business talent to the area, further stimulating the local economy. The government's return on investment in the EOC now totals $1 billion and is expected to go higher. Over EOC's 10-year period, expenditures have been about $233 million. For every dollar the government invested in EOC, it has received a $5 return.

The level of economic impact in the communities surrounding the EOC is consistent with Penn State's overall economic impact within Pennsylvania. A recent study on the economic power of Penn State has again revealed that the University is still the single largest contributor to the state's economy, generating more than more than $17 billion annually in overall economic impact. An independent report by Tripp Umbach & Associates Inc. shows that Penn State not only is responsible for directly generating nearly $8.5 billion in direct and indirect economic impact and supports nearly 67,000 jobs, but also influences an additional $8.7 billion through business services, research commercialization and the activities of alumni.

Economic development and outreach is part of what Penn State does as Pennsylvania's Land Grant institution. Centers such as the EOC in western Pennsylvania, the Research and Economic Development Center (REDC) in Erie and the University's facility in the Philadelphia Navy Yard Keystone Innovation Zone are located where they are specifically to aid in the economic development of those regions, as well as to offer expertise to companies located there.

In Erie, Penn State partnered with the state to build the REDC at its campus there, allowing the University to create a powerful and catalytic regional asset for economic development.

The U.S. Navy's closure of the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1996 dealt a huge economic blow to the city and its suburbs. Penn State's opening of a facility in the Navy Yard's Keystone Innovation Zone in 2008 is helping to re-establish the former government facility as a major center of economic activity for the region.

The EOC opened in Kittanning for similar reasons. Just as the facilities at the Navy Yard and in Erie focused on economic development of the specific industries of those regions, the EOC located near the electro-optics hub of Pittsburgh to provide technical assistance and expertise to companies in that field. In addition, the center was able to give the Kittanning area an economic boost by occupying a vacant building there, rather than building a new facility. The EOC since has expanded and has opened a second location in a building about four miles from the main site, which had at one time been a car dealership.

In addition to its work with electro-optics firms, the EOC fulfills the University's teaching and outreach missions through involvement in a number of community efforts. The EOC has assisted in the development of the curriculum and electro-optics program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Lenape Tech; and provided equipment, technical support and workforce development support to Career Link in Kittanning. The center purchases supplies and materials locally whenever possible. EOC employees visit elementary, intermediate and high schools to speak to students, parents, teachers and counselors about careers in science. The EOC also support internships for students attending local universities, both at the EOC and in local companies.

The EOC will continue to be an economic and technological force in western Pennsylvania, as it continues to provide its highly specialized expertise to companies.

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Last Updated June 30, 2011