NSF Science & Engineering Messengers

From Oil Boom to Science Boom: Fueling North Dakota’s Hi-Tech Economy

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This is a sample blog post composed for the June 25-26 “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Fargo, North Dakota.

If you read the news lately about North Dakota, you may get the impression that we’re some sort of  economic wunderkind. The reason is that in comparison with the rest of the U.S., North Dakota has an extremely low unemployment rate: Just 3.2 percent. That’s the lowest in the nation, by a considerable margin. And much of it is thanks to an unfolding unconventional oil and gas boom here, which has generated a large number of jobs and considerable wealth.

Clearly, North Dakota has fared better than much of the rest of the country in weathering the Great Recession and keeping its citizens employed—at least in “old economy” industries like agriculture and fossil energy. But if you look forward to the future, we’re not necessarily so well positioned. According to the Washington, D.C. based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, we rank 34th overall in the strength of our new economy sector. The economics of the 21st century will demand a much more tech savvy and advanced workforce, and plentiful jobs in hi tech industries–and what’s more, oil booms by nature are cyclical, and there are reasons to think the current one will someday end. If we’re going to continue to compete, those jobs need to be located and thriving right here in North Dakota.

So how do we ensure a future that’s at least as prosperous as the present? North Dakota EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) is doing its part by helping to spur innovation in sectors that you don’t usually associate with a big oil state—fields such as clean energy, sustainable materials, and green chemistry. Right now, the program is nearing the completion of a 5 year, $ 15 million grant that has focused on two areas in particular: Generating clean and renewable energy directly from the crops that grow so plentifully here in the Great Plains; and creating sustainable materials—including those produced through innovative “green chemistry” approaches, which use less water and leave less of an environmental mark. Looking forward, we’re also pursuing a new grant to focus further on sustainable materials research, and no wonder. Already, this body of science is paying off significantly in terms of economic benefits for North Dakota.

Dr. Dean Webster of North Dakota State University and students, with resins produced from renewable crop materials.  Image credit: NDSU.

Dr. Dean Webster of North Dakota State University and students, with resins produced from renewable crop materials. Image credit: NDSU.

Take our “SUNRISE” program—Sustainable Energy Research, Infrastructure, and Supporting Education—which is focused on converting oils from crops into fuels and chemicals, rather than relying on carbon intensive fossil sources. Over the course of our work here, 11 patents have been issued under this program, along with 10 technology transfer agreements and numerous commercial partnerships. To give just one example: EPSCoR- supported researchers at the University of North Dakota recently received a patent for uncovering a new way to derive useful chemicals from crop-based oils. Currently we rely on petroleum refining to produce these kinds of chemicals—but perhaps in the future, we’ll get them from homegrown crops, like soybean oil, rather than oil imports. That’s just one of several patents expected in this area, and the work is in the process of being licensed for production.

Or for another recently licensed hi-tech product, consider BronzeShield™, based on a technology created at North Dakota State University with EPSCOR support and now licensed to Elinor Specialty Coatings in Fargo. BronzeShield is specially designed to protect statues and public art from the wear and tear of weathering, as well as from other threats including salt and vandalism. There are thousands of bronze monuments around the world that need this kind of protection–and BronzeShield is more sustainable than other options because it is long lasting and yet also easily removable. Elinor happens to be the first coatings company to be formed in North Dakota, and it grows out of university based research—a clear example of how our work can have immediate commercial benefits and help to create hi tech jobs.

Finally, there’s another area where we’re having a less expected–but still very significant–economic impact: Climate change research. The Center for Regional Climate Studies at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University is focused on studying how climate change will affect the Great Plains region–and especially its agriculture. Weather patterns may change, and so will temperatures and hydrology–the availability of water. Companies that have this knowledge, that can predict what’s coming, will thrive much more than those caught unawares–meaning that this research, too, has major economic implications.

We’re just nearing the completion of the current EPSCoR grant here in North Dakota, but already the future potential for this research—and for its contribution to the state’s technology future—should be apparent. Yes, we’re strong in agriculture and oil and gas, and yes, people are employed and doing well in North Dakota right now. But we can’t rest on our laurels. The economics of energy are changing, and oil and gas can ultimately serve as a bridge to a cleaner, hi tech future. Our science is laying the groundwork to help us get there.

Special thanks to Dr. Philip Boudjouk of North Dakota EPSCoR for help with this post.

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Written by nsfmessengers

June 26, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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