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Southern Technology Opportunities & Challenges

Biotech, nanotech, IT, alternative energy, and other high-tech firms are advancing in the Southern region of the U.S., while still faced with today's economic uncertainties, social and environmental issues, and competition for talent.

Susan Avery (Southern Tech Sites 2008)
(page 2 of 2)
Construction of the Burnham Institute for Medical Research at the Lake Nona science and technology park in Orlando is also nearing completion, as is the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies at the 150-acre Florida Center for Innovation research park in Port St. Lucie's master-planned community of Tradition. New university-based centers of excellence in Florida include the Center on Biomolecular Identification and Targeted Therapeutics at the University of South Florida and the Center for Nano-Bio Sensors at the University of Florida in Gainesville. And Orlando will be home to the Global Robotics Institute, a robotic surgery training center for physicians from around the world.

Silicon Valley-based SRI International broke ground in December 2007 for its new Center for Advanced Drug Research in Rockingham County, Virginia, which will focus on proteomics (the study of proteins within cells) to develop new diagnostics and treatments for diseases as well as countermeasures for emerging bio-threats.


Alternative Energy
Bioenergy projects have also proliferated in the Southern states. "Green" trends such as sustainable manufacturing and carbon footprint reduction had already gained momentum in mainstream markets before the current escalation of oil prices accelerated the search for cost-effective alternatives. Now the race is on to find alternatives to some of the alternatives, with prices for corn- and soy-based ethanol feedstocks going up quickly and debates arising about the wisdom of using food crops for fuel. The devastation caused by this year's Midwest flooding on corn crops has further heated up the food-versus-fuel debate.

Most of the Southern states are rich in biomass resources, which make the region a prime area for cellulosic ethanol production and other bioenergy projects. Feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol include switchgrass, sorghum, wood chips, corn cobs, and other agricultural waste. Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee is one of three sites nationwide selected by the Department of Energy for a new Bioenergy Science Center, which will include a cellulosic ethanol demonstration plant to be built in partnership with the University of Tennessee and Mascoma Corp. A cellulosic pilot plant is also in the works at Clemson University in South Carolina.

In late May, Verenium Corp. began operations at its new cellulosic ethanol pilot plant in Jennings, Louisiana, said to be the first in nation, with announced plans to build a commercial plant somewhere in the Southeast in the near future. Range Fuels is building a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Soperton, Georgia, that will use wood chips for feedstock. And in Houston, Gulf Ethanol is also planning a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant. Other companies including Panda Ethanol are building new corn-based ethanol plants in the Panhandle area.

In June, GreenHunter Energy opened a biodiesel plant in Houston, which claims to be the nation's largest, at least for now. Biodiesel's promoters in Texas include singer Willie Nelson, who has partnered with Earth Biofuels to market a premium blend of biodiesel and petroleum-based diesel under the name BioWillie, available at only a few select truck stops.

A new source of vegetable oil biofuel under development is algae. In March, PetroSun opened a 1,100-acre commercial-scale algae farm in Rio Hondo, Texas, that it projects will produce 4.4 million gallons of algal oil and 110 million pounds of biomass annually. Twenty acres have been dedicated for jet fuel R&D. There is also a demonstration project by Global Green Solutions growing algae for biodiesel in Texas near El Paso using Valcent Products' Vertigro technology. This technology uses vertical bioreactors made of a thin-film membrane to allow high levels of light penetration, yielding large volumes of high-grade vegetable oil that can be processed into fuel. Earlier this year, Texas awarded a $4 million Emerging Technology Fund grant to Texas AgriLife Research, which is part of the Texas A&M University system, and General Atomics to develop microalgae-based biodiesel, with a research facility to be built in Pecos, Texas.

Wind power, meanwhile, received a major public relations boost in July when Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens announced the "Pickens Plan," which envisions construction of enough wind turbines in the U.S. "wind belt" (from Texas through Oklahoma up to North Dakota) during the next decade to meet 20 percent of the nation's electricity needs. Pickens is also pushing for the use of natural gas in vehicles.

Solar power technology continues to advance as well, especially in thin-film photovoltaics, which are still less efficient than crystalline silicon solar cells but cheaper to produce. New materials and nanotech-based printing technologies are closing the efficiency gap quickly due to advances made by companies such as Austin-based HelioVolt, which is soon to open its first manufacturing facility for thin films targeting the building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) market.

Solar cells made from silicon wafers are also becoming more efficient, however, so thin-film producers still have some catching up to do. Suniva, an Atlanta startup based on technology developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology's University Center of Excellence in Photovoltaics, announced in June that it would build its first solar cell manufacturing facility in Norcross, Georgia. The company claims that its processing techniques will result in higher efficiency than current state-of-the-art silicon solar cells.


Advanced Manufacturing/Technologies
Manufacturing in the Southern states also continues to advance. While U.S. automakers were announcing layoffs and plant closures in the Midwest this year, foreign automakers announced expansion plans in the South. In July, Volkswagen revealed its selection of Chattanooga for a $1 billion investment in a new auto assembly plant. Earlier in the year, BMW - located in Spartanburg, South Carolina, since 1994 - announced plans for a $750 million expansion there, where it will centralize production of all of its X models including its next-generation X3. Meanwhile, construction of Toyota's new vehicle assembly plant in Blue Springs, Mississippi, continues on schedule, though the automaker did change its plans; originally the new plant was to produce Highlander SUVs, but now it will be producing the hybrid Prius.

Canon Virginia, Inc., which manufactures copiers and photographic equipment in Newport News, announced plans in May for a major expansion of its operations that will nearly double its current Hampton Roads work force of 1,200. The expansion will include a new 700,000-square-foot laser cartridge manufacturing facility and an R&D center for automated and robotic manufacturing technologies.

ThyssenKrupp is building a $3.7 billion advanced-technology steel and stainless steel processing facility on a 3,500-acre site in Mt. Vernon, Alabama, expected to be operational in 2010, with a work force of 2,700.

In aerospace news, retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010 will affect thousands of contractor jobs in Florida and Louisiana. However, many of these job losses will be offset by the ramping up of NASA's Constellation program, which includes the Ares rocket and Orion spacecraft.


Focus on the Future
A March 2008 report from the National Science and Technology Council entitled Manufacturing the Future identifies three key R&D priorities for future manufacturing: hydrogen energy, nanomanufacturing, and intelligent manufacturing, which incorporates artificial intelligence. Universities throughout the Southern states are working in all of these areas, collaborating with government and corporate clients.

These university-based technology programs are of the highest caliber, but concerns remain regarding the quality of public elementary and secondary education, not only in the South but also throughout the nation. These concerns are being aggressively addressed.

For example, Kentucky recently passed the STEM Initiative, which provides funding for advanced placement exams and other incentives for schools to expand their math and science programs. At the federal level, STEM funding has increased through the American Competitiveness Initiative, signed into law two years ago, and the America COMPETES Act of 2007. These efforts are helping to meet future demand for skilled technology workers.

And, the Southern states are actually at an advantage when it comes to attracting knowledge workers, who are generally more mobile than the average worker and tend to make personal location decisions based on quality-of life factors in addition to career opportunities - both of which the South offers in abundance.
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