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Biggest, fastest, best: new Saudi tech university has it all

(AFP) / 23 September 2009

RIYADH - A three-dimensional room that takes you inside a living cell, an archaeological dig or a coral reef; the second fastest supercomputer at any educational institution in the world; the largest nanotech clean room.

It may be far from global techno-hubs like Silicon Valley, but Saudi Arabia’s new KAUST research university has facilities and equipment that would wow scientists from anywhere.

One and half billion dollars is being spent on kitting out the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in hopes of powering the kingdom into the heady ranks of global research.

Chemical science professor Niveen Khashab, a PhD graduate of the University of Florida in the United States and one of five women on the faculty, said she was impressed by the resources and instrumentation available.

‘KAUST has everything that any assistant professor — regardless of gender — would look for.’

For scientists like Khashab who have signed on to KAUST, built from scratch in two years on the Red Sea coastal desert, the amount of state-of-the-art equipment is overwhelming.

There is a nanotechnology fabrication unit larger than any other university’s. KAUST has eight nuclear magnetic resonance measuring machines — used for testing any material at the molecular level — with better specifications than almost anywhere.

‘We have or will have the biggest machines,’ a scientist said.

The wow factor is biggest in the German-made ‘Cave’: a six-walled ‘immersive three-D environment’ that takes a person wearing stereo goggles inside any environment programmed into it.

The room is created by 24 projectors delivering a 100 million pixel display — giving it the brightest and highest resolution of any such room in the world.

KAUST researchers will use it to simulate environments of any kind, from a subterranean oil and gas structure targetted for drilling to a subsea reef just off the KAUST coastline.

‘You can dive on the coral reef without having to put on any gear,’ said KAUST scientist Steve Cutchin.

These are only a few of the features of a campus where scientists are in awe at the biggest, fastest, and finest equipment to be bought with Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth.

Saudi Arabia felt it had to have something special to draw top scientists and post-graduate students to KAUST, isolated from global science’s mainstream and in the restrictive social and educational environment of Saudi Arabia.

That applies doubly to the women scientists, given Saudi Arabia’s strict controls on women — though these will be absent at the KAUST campus.

The spanking new 36 square kilometre campus sports hyper-modern buildings and labs, generously large housing, a golf course, boat marina and schools for dependents, much of it free on top of the generous and tax-free salaries the Saudis dangled in front of applicants.

The campus aims to be at the forefront in many ways: extensive solar power capacity, guards scooting around on two-wheeled Segways and a planned campus network of recharging stations for electric vehicles.

But it is the research equipment and the funding behind it that has attracted researchers to join untested KAUST’s first class.

‘What KAUST is after is the best minds of the world,’ said Ali Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Petroleum, who had the responsibility for the fast-track project of building and staffing KAUST.


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