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Leaders of a new center to spur collaboration between the Missouri Department of Transportation and the University of Missouri System promised Tuesday that research will develop transportation technologies that will benefit Missourians in the immediate future.

MoDOT and the UM System announced at a joint ceremony on Tuesday at MoDOT’s Central Laboratory in Jefferson City that the Missouri Center for Transportation Innovation had been formed.

Instead of a ribbon cutting to celebrate the center’s grand opening Tuesday, there was a dipping of roses into liquid nitrogen and a shattering of the frozen flowers on a table.

The transportation innovation center is not really a physical space — other than an office at the University of Missouri, maybe another at the Missouri University of Science & Technology, and existing MoDOT and university labs, MoDOT’s research Director Jen Harper said.

Instead, the center will allow for work as a collective group that builds upon the existing close research partnerships with universities, but that no longer has MoDOT choosing between each schools’ research teams, Harper said.

She added there will also be better capacity to communicate research, through seminars, webinars and possibly a conference, as well as opportunities for professional development and student involvement.

MU will lead the innovation center for the first three years, while also sharing research from each of the four UM schools — MU, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Missouri S&T and the University of Missouri-St. Louis — according to a UM System news release.

The center’s work with MoDOT will seek to “maximize the impact of state-funded transportation research, and to attract large-scale federal grants to pursue research on the cutting edge of transportation,” the news release added.

Bill Buttlar, who will serve as the center’s director for the first three years, said research may include “smart materials” for road surfaces that can sense and repair micro-cracks and technologies related to autonomous vehicles.

Buttlar is a professor — the Glen Barton Chair in Flexible Pavements — at MU’s College of Engineering.

He added with the interstate highway system, “we’re trying to find innovative ways to take care of what we have,” by finding materials that can be sustainably re-used, with lessened financial costs and impacts on the environment.

The center’s budget is approximately $3 million a year from MoDOT, but the goal is to at least double that as quickly as possible, including with university funding, he said.

John Myers, who will be the center’s deputy director, said federal highway and science funding will also be leveraged.

Myers is a professor of civil engineering and associate dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at Missouri S&T.

The innovation center’s efforts would be separate from Missouri’s desire to spearhead the development of Hyperloop technology.

The Missouri Blue Ribbon Panel on Hyperloop released a report in October on the work that would be needed to establish Missouri as a pioneer in Hyperloop technology, and the recommendations included the UM System partnering with other universities in an International Tube Transport Center of Excellence.

While separate, UM System President Mun Choi said, however, Hyperloop tech innovation could also be applied to other vehicles.

Choi said the state has received a request for proposals from Los Angeles-based Virgin Hyperloop One, adding two proposals will be submitted — one from Kansas City and the other from St. Louis — and he expected Missouri would get word of Virgin’s decision in a few months.

Back on the subject of the innovation center and collaboration with MoDOT on other technologies, Choi was open to involving other colleges and universities in the research; “we would love to explore those opportunities,” including with State Technical College and Lincoln University.

According to the UM System’s news release on the new innovation center, “Buttlar estimates less than a quarter of U.S. states have similarly formalized transportation partnerships between higher education and state and local agencies. In addition, national funding agencies have trended toward supporting more collaborative and interdisciplinary efforts over the last several years.”

In terms of research, Choi talked about developing pavements that can reduce vehicles’ braking distances and bridges that can last for hundreds of years.

Myers said when new materials tech is developed, smaller-scale projects such as a county bridge are done to demonstrate and monitor the material until it’s proven to be ready for wider use.

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