West Virginia is Home to Two Stars of R&D
Column in the Charleston Gazette, December 12, 2012 By: Anne Barth
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Research is the bedrock of economic growth, and a quick look at major innovations over the last 50 years in this country proves the point. Lifesaving medical breakthroughs, computers and fiber optics represent three areas of development born from basic research that have fueled enormous economic growth, both at home and throughout the world.
Much of that research and development is supported by federal investment, in both federally funded and university laboratories. In the world of technology innovation, both the private and public sectors play critical roles in bringing scientific and engineering solutions to America and the world.
Federal research often pursues high-risk technologies that have the potential for great public benefit and require long-term investments that the private sector can find cost-prohibitive. It also helps industry bring novel innovations to commercial readiness by sharing in demonstration-scale research. Without a strong base of ongoing federally funded research, the problems of tomorrow will remain unsolved and the challenges facing society will remain unmet.
From under the Earth’s surface to outer space, research underway in West Virginia is contributing to the body of knowledge that will create new jobs and opportunities. In addition to important research underway at West Virginia’s universities, two very important federal research facilities call the Mountain State home: the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Morgantown and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank.
Like our nation’s domestic energy supplies, American taxpayer dollars are a precious resource. They must be carefully managed and they must yield real benefits. From sustainable coal technologies to unconventional petroleum recovery and beyond, the extraordinary economic returns produced by investments made at NETL is a testament to the productivity of research and wise expenditure of taxpayer funds.
In its 100-year history, NETL’s research has resulted in many important public benefits from the technologies and processes developed in its labs. Clean coal technology demonstrations programs managed by NETL have resulted in significant reductions in the U.S. in emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, essentially eliminating acid rain.
Natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shales will make the U.S. more energy-independent, while also reinvigorating manufacturing in the region. NETL helped lead development of such techniques as horizontal drilling, microseismic monitoring and hydraulic fracturing, making it possible to tap into this heretofore inaccessible source of natural gas.
Research continues at NETL on environmental changes coincident with shale gas production, yielding rigorous scientific data for sustainable resource development. NETL is also conducting important research in smart grid technologies and battery storage, two key areas of energy opportunity.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory has been a unique scientific treasure for our state and nation for more than six decades. In 2000, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) was dedicated, signaling the beginning of a new era in our study of the universe. With more than 2 acres for collecting faint radio waves from outer space, the 17 million-pound telescope is one of the world’s largest moving structures on land. Scientists using the GBT are leading the way in the study of pulsars, the physics of extreme states of matter, and enormous magnetic fields.
Today, thanks to a new fiber optic connectivity, the GBT is helping not only to spawn a new generation of astronomers but also to fuel discoveries in a wide range of astronomical research. Perhaps most exciting is the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, which allows a group of high school students from West Virginia and surrounding states to be at the forefront in astronomical research. So far, they have discovered five new pulsars. While it’s great that they are adding to basic scientific knowledge, perhaps even more important, these students are learning that a career in science is not only possible, but close to home.
Continued investment in research to solve the challenges facing our country and the world is critical to our economic future. World-class facilities such as NETL and NRAO are leading the way in innovative R&D that will solve the problems of tomorrow, and each of these facilities boasts a track record of success that should be a source of pride for all West Virginians. These facilities also serve as shining stars as our nation continues to work attract more young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Barth is executive director of TechConnect West Virginia (techconnectwv.org), a statewide economic development organization to foster and promote innovation-based businesses and entrepreneurial activities across West Virginia.