NSF Science & Engineering Messengers

Archive for November 2012

The Scientific Tide: Using Research to Drive Alabama’s Economy

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This is a sample post prepared for the November 27 “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Follow our tweets at #nsfmessenger.

When people from outside of the state think about Alabama, they probably think of our top ranked college football team. Or—like it, hate it—that Lynard Skynard song. Here’s what they’re probably not thinking about: The state’s scientific endeavors. In fact, they might be surprised to learn that Alabama research promises to help spur economic growth that, in turn, could improve the state’s per capita income—currently $34,800 per year, placing Alabama 42nd in the nation. If we want that to improve there’s just one path: Science and innovation.

That’s what the Alabama EPSCoR program (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) aims to deliver. In 2008, it received a $ 15 million grant from the National Science Foundation to focus on four areas of existing scientific strength that have significant economic potential: Nanotechnology and Biomaterials, Biotechnology, Optics and Sensors, and Nanofabrication. Not everyone is familiar with these fields, so let’s break it down: In essence, Alabama scientists and engineers are on the cutting edge of building new products and novel materials (many of them designed at miniscule scales), that have clear commercial applications. In fact, these grants–and the researchers working under them–are already connected to a number of companies.

Start with nanotechnology innovations, which are based on re-designing matter at the atomic scale. In 2009, the University of Alabama at Birmingham professors Selvum Pillay and Uday Vaidya won first place (and $ 100,000 in start-up funding) in the Alabama Launchpad business competition. They then proceeded to create the company Innovative Composite Solutions, LLC, which designs lightweight and more energy efficient materials for military, aerospace, and other applications (see above). In other words, the company is replacing machine parts that were once made out of metal (which is heavy, and has to be replaced regularly) with parts made out of superior, longer-lasting composites. From airplane interiors to wind turbine blades, the applications of this technology are wide-ranging. Read the rest of this entry »


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November 27, 2012 at 6:29 pm

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Powering Progress: Extending Our Innovation Tradition in Tennessee

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This is a sample post prepared for the November 7 “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Knoxville, Tennessee. Follow our tweets at #nsfmessenger.

The state of Tennessee has a long history of innovations in science and energy. Beginning in the 1930s, the Tennessee Valley Authority electrified this region through massive dam projects and, later, nuclear plants. And then there’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, whose “secret city” was a key home to the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. Today, it’s the Energy Department’s largest laboratory focused on science and energy.

Plant Power? Image credit: University of Tennessee-Knoxville

So it’s fitting that now, some of the energy innovations of the future—in solar power, in longer-lived batteries, in nanotechnology—are being hatched right here in Tennessee. For that, and for the jobs it will bring, you can thank a 5 year, $ 20 million award from the NSF EPSCoR(Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) initiative.

In 2006, Tennessee’s innovation road map, seeking to power economic growth, noted that the state receives considerably more funding from the Department of Energy than the national average, and has key built-in strengths in nanotechnology and energy, among other areas. Thanks to its 2010 grant, Tennessee EPSCoR is now poised to deliver on those advantages in three key areas—building newer and more efficient ways of harnessing solar energy, especially by using plant materials or “biosolar”; developing better energy storage devices, such as fuel cells and batteries; and designing new structures at the nano-scale that will be capable of aiding in both endeavors.

Let’s start with solar energy. At a time when the national conversation about how to address global warming is growing, we desperately need more efficient ways of getting energy from its ultimate source—the sun, whose rays contain enough energy to power humanity’s annual needs in a matter of hours, if we could only harness them. The problem, though, is that today’s solar cells aren’t efficient enough at converting the sun’s energy into power that humans can use. Here in Tennessee, we’re doing the research to try to change that. Consider, for instance, the work of our researcher Barry Bruce, which focuses on taking a cue from nature—and in particular plant photosynthesis, the first and best way of harnessing the sun’s energy—and applying it in solar cells. Rather than cells that use a lot of toxic or synthetic materials, this “organic” form of solar power, or “biosolar,” could be both cheaper and also cleaner than the competition. As Bruce puts it, rather than “power plants,” maybe we should be talking about “plant power.”

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November 7, 2012 at 5:21 pm

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