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Friday, March 04, 2005

Nanotechnology as an Economic Development Opportunity

This past week, I had the opportunity to give the opening presentation at the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce’s Annual meeting in Bismarck. Given that North Dakota was recently ranked 44th among the 50 states in a nationwide study reviewing state’s effectiveness in leveraging nanotechnology for economic development opportunities, it might be assumed that there was little interest and even less opportunity for North Dakota in exploring the field.

Nothing could be further from the truth. To begin, although North Dakota has a small population and is still highly reliant on agriculture, there are some very exciting opportunities for the state in the field of nanotechnology, as well as a surprisingly strong foundation upon which to build.

For starters, the coal, oil and gas industry is the second largest industrial sector in the state and nanotechnology could play a significant role in making the industry an even larger, stronger and, more environmentally-friendly, component of North Dakota’s economy. For instance, new nanocatalysts have the potential to make coal cleaner by reducing nitrogen oxide emissions, while the University of North Dakota—the recipient of a $2.3 million grant to explore how nanotechnology might help remove mercury from coal fired power plants—could help alleviate the serious environmental issue of mercury contamination.

Nanotechnology may also play a significant role in bring fuel cell technology to the commercial marketplace. U.S. Senator Bryon Dorgan has long been a leading advocate of fuel cell technology (and has channeled some valuable research money the state’s way). If he and other federal, state and local leaders can use their influence to steer additional nanotechnology research and development resources to North Dakota State University’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering, the result could be better more effective, efficient and safer fuel cells. More importantly, the state could really begin to position itself as a leader in this new, exciting and growing area.

The potential of the Center of Nanoscale Science and Engineering goes well beyond fuel cell technology and could facilitate advances in fields as diverse as agriculture, materials sciences and semiconductors. In fact, the Center of Nanoscale Science and Engineering has already proven itself beneficial by helping land Alien Technology—the largest manufacturer of radio frequency identification tags (RFIDs) in the world—to Fargo. Provided the Center stays on the forefront of nanotechnology, there is every reason to believe it could continue to keep Alien competitive, as well as lure other high tech North companies to the state. The obvious indirect beneficiary of this growth will be the citizens of North Dakota who stand to benefit from the creation of even better and higher paying jobs.

The most exciting opportunity North Dakota has, however, lies in Wahpeton. This is because it is there at the North Dakota State College of Science where educational leaders are leveraging a $200,000 federal grant to begin developing a nanoscience technician curriculum. In the not-too-distant future, business and government leaders are estimating that the U.S. will need upwards of 2 million new workers trained in the nanosciences. Many of these workers will require only a two-year degree and, to the extent, which the state can be among the first states to develop a skill and trained workforce, the new nanotechnology businesses of the future may be forced to go to where the trained workforce is—even Wahpeton.

Obviously, the education and training of students should begin well before the post-secondary-level and K-12 educational leaders in North Dakota are encouraged to begin exploring how they might be able to incorporate nanotechnology curriculum into their school. Above all, however, for North Dakota—or any other state for that matter—to really leverage the full potential of nanotechnology, it must act soon! Just last week, North Dakota’s neighboring state of Minnesota passed a $1.4 million program to develop a nanotechnology training institute, while the state of Ohio convened a group of 500 business, academic and political leaders to explore nanotechnology’s importance to the future economic development.

The bottom line is that nanotechnology may deal with the very small, its economic development potential is huge—even for North Dakota—but time is growing short.

Jack Uldrich