NSF Science & Engineering Messengers

It’s Only Natural: Science for Arkansas’s Future

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The GREEN Mobile Solar Energy Laboratory; photo credit Russell Cothren

As everybody who lives here knows, Arkansas is the “Natural State.” The phrase refers to our magnificent outdoors, from the Big Woods to the Ozarks. But if more people knew about the science being done at Arkansas universities, it might take on quite a new meaning.

Consider: Arkansas researchers are growing life-saving drugs in crops. They’re developing new ways to get the energy that powers our society from plants, and from the sun. In other words, they’re tapping into a whole new kind of natural resource. And best of all, this science has the potential to create a much needed infusion of high-paying jobs right here in the state. In fact, that’s already happening.

To understand the significance of Arkansas’s recent science investments, you first need to know that for years, per capita income in the state has lagged behind the national average. In 2011, for instance, Arkansas ranked 45th nationwide in per capita. That’s why Accelerate Arkansas, a group of state leaders dedicated to achieving economic advancement, has set the objective of having Arkansas catch up by the year 2020. That means creating a lot of new jobs in higher paying, hi tech or knowledge industries—which, in turn, will demand scientific innovation.

But how to create that? In 2009, the Batelle Report, commissioned by the Arkansas Research Alliance (ARA), identified nine scientific areas where the state had key strengths already in place, and where further investments would be likely to lead to job creation. Enter the ASSET Initiative—a program of the Arkansas Science & Technology Authority, recently funded to the tune of $ 20 million by the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR program (with $ 4 million in state matching funds), and now poised play a critical role in the push to improve economic conditions for Arkansas’s citizens. The initiative focuses on three promising research areas identified in the Batelle Report: plant biotechnology research, leading to new ways of generating drugs and chemicals; solar energy innovation through nanotechnology; and modernizing our energy grid.

The first of these initiatives is based at what we call our “P3” Center: The Arkansas Center for Plant Powered Production. Here, the scientific focus is on better understanding plants so that they can be literally turned, through bioengineering techniques, into factories that produce chemicals, drugs, and sources of energy. To see how this can help the state economy, look no farther than BioStrategies, LC, a local biotech that has genetically engineered tobacco plants to produce a human enzyme called “glucoceribrosidase,” which is needed to cure a rare but deadly genetic condition known as Gauchers disease. The company was founded by Drs. David Radin and Carole Cramer of Arkansas State University, currently director of the P3 Center. Both recently received the prestigious Tibbetts Award from the Small Business Association for their innovative work.

Arkansas scientists are also innovating in another area—advancing our capacity to capture the sun’s energy through nanotechnology. At our “GREEN” Center, we’re building thin-film solar cells that will be more energy efficient, and less expensive. How? Arkansas researchers are working to design thinner types of silicon coating that cost less because they use less pricey semiconductor material. The goal is to create “next generation” solar cells that will be measured in nanometers, rather than in microns. In the meantime, the Green Center has also created a mobile solar energy laboratory out of a converted Winnebago—an education and public outreach project whose onboard computers and research facilities are powered by solar panels. And it’s collaborating with state-based solar startups like Silicon Solar Solutions and MesoLight.

There’s getting energy from the sun, and then there’s getting that energy to people—which is where our third project comes in. It’s called VICTER, short for Vertically Integrated Center for Transformative Energy Research, and the goal here is to do the science that can help in modernizing the American energy grid. Particularly when it comes to solar, getting more energy into the grid will require building new storage technologies, since after all, the sun doesn’t always shine right when you need it to. Once again, the goal here is to do science that can pave the way for a transition into business development.

The sum of these projects is a $ 24 million, five year investment in innovation and, ultimately, in high quality jobs. Here’s betting that it will help create an entirely new “natural state” for Arkansas’s economy.

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Written by nsfmessengers

September 26, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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