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A Saudi Connection

Collaboration leads to research partnership.

AS A STANFORD GRAD, Prince Turki Saud Al-Saud's close associations with the Farm include serving on the school's engineering advisory council, a role that has kept him coming back to campus. But his motivation in crafting a new collaboration between Saudi and Stanford scientists is national progress, not alumni pride.

Saudi Arabia, he says, is embarked on a 20-year plan to move away from petroleum and toward a knowledge-based economy. And that includes partnerships with universities and laboratories around the world in fields they lead, including MIT, Michigan and Cambridge.

The result here is the Stanford Center of Excellence in Aeronautics and Astronautics, a six-year agreement backed by $18 million in Saudi money that partners Stanford scientists with Saudi researchers, including Turki.

Turki, PhD '97, is vice president of research institutes at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, the national laboratory of Saudi Arabia, and a scientist whose principal research interest is satellites. Under the center's auspices, he's working with engineering professor Brian Cantwell, looking for green alternatives to current satellite fuels, especially hydrazine, a highly toxic, highly carcinogenic propellant.

Other center projects include micro-air vehicles inspired by birds and insects; new algorithms to improve computer flight simulation; a control system to help pilots who stall into deadly tailspins; and new satellite technology.

For the Saudis, the benefits go beyond expected discoveries—a major goal is the continued training of its scientists in top-level research. For Stanford, the relationship brings a welcome supplement to a shrinking pool of research dollars and increases the chance of further funding, says Charbel Farhat, chairman of aeronautics and astronautics. "It was a wonderful opportunity—we found someone interested in research topics we were interested in doing anyway."

Saudi Arabia's push to reinvent itself as a center of innovation has resulted in vast investments in academia and research. In 2008, Stanford was one of several American universities that signed multimillion-dollar contracts to help launch King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a graduate-level, internationally staffed research university on the Red Sea. The university opened in 2009 with a reported $10 billion endowment, one of the largest in the world.

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