Two floors below the physics department, the electrical and electronic engineers have a different attitude to their proposed area of excellence. Department head and project leader, Professor Philip Chan Ching-ho, says most of the requested $30 million would also be spent on research into the devices that form the backbone of information technology - but basic engineering research, unlike physics, usually has an applied goal in mind. Basic research at HKUST on the design and assembly of smaller, cheaper, more powerful microchips, new displays for items from televisions to laptops and electronic sensors all feeds into development centres funded by the Industry Department and companies. For instance, the Consumer Media Laboratory, funded by seven companies including hand-held computer and mobile phone maker VTech and battery firm Gold Peak, shows off an electronic way to put a dimmer switch into fluorescent strip lights; a cuddly toy that can learn stories from the Internet and 'read' them to children, even asking questions along the way; and a wireless CD system which 'hops' between frequencies when it spots any interference from other appliances such as your microwave. The Centre for Display Research works on improving the liquid crystal displays (LCDs) that are used in items from laptop screens to digital watches. LCDs usually work by passing light to the display between two polarisers. This has a disadvantage: looked at from the side, the display cannot be read. But the centre has a patent pending on a novel design that uses only one polariser where you can read the display even looking horizontally. Light-emitting diodes, in which electronics could replace filament bulbs, will also be 'the next growth area', says Professor Chan. Another exciting area of work is the microdisplay, in which microchips and LCD have been combined to produce images of digital video quality on a 'screen' the size of a stamp. The pictures can either be projected to a large screen or a computer screen, or used to make virtual reality goggles much smaller and cheaper than those used in the military or producing better quality pictures than those commercially available, according to assistant professor Huang Ho-chi. With support from LCD maker Varitronix, 'I think in one or two years we will have some impact,' says Dr Huang. These development projects are well funded, but the exploration that has to precede them is not, says Professor Chan. 'We feel there is enough funding up the food chain, but there is not enough on the basic research,' he says. Whereas physics chief Professor Sheng points to papers published in research journals as a sign of the nanostructures group's world standing, Professor Chan talks of papers presented at prestigious international conferences that have huge industrial input. He also puts more emphasis on technology transfer and development of local industry as a measure of success. There are several similarities with the nanostructures group, though: both groups intend to set up an international committee of peers to advise on the direction of the area of excellence. The microelectronics bid comprises 28 full-time staff - two from the University of Hong Kong and three from the Polytechnic University. And Professor Chan says, though some money would be spent on equipment too big to buy under single research grants, cash awarded would be concentrated towards funding staff as the university already has facilities 'as good as in the top US universities'. And like the materials bid, Professor Chan says HKUST must find niche areas to exploit and look five to 10 years ahead to beat other institutions with larger resources and firms with huge budgets but shorter horizons. One such area is the gene chip: using microelectronics to study biological molecules, an area Professor Chan sees as enormous. 'The gene chip may one day consume more silicon than [does] computer memory,' he says. For instance, to diagnose a genetic condition, a piece of DNA fixed on a chip could be treated with different solutions and the luminescence monitored to see what reaction had occurred. The technology is so sensitive that just one photon of light could be monitored, but any practical set-up would need a tiny chip and a way to drop tiny amounts of fluid on it, which requires the work to make it. 'We are late and our resources are minimal,' he says. 'So we have to look forward. And whatever work we do [should be] of local interest but the standard should be of world standard.'