Science creates opportunities for all

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I have a quote by Mark Cuban hanging in my office: “Creating opportunities means looking where others are not.” For me, it’s a reminder that instead of reinventing the wheel or using the same wheel everyone else is using, we need to look at alternative options to the wheel. That kind of innovation requires the systematic pursuit of knowledge, also known as science.

As a meteorologist, I often write about our pursuit of knowledge and advancements in technology with respect to atmospheric science, weather forecasting, and climate science in general. Sometimes, I branch out a little and write about how new technologies and improved understanding of current science can lead to adaptation and resilience in the face of climate change. That theme seems to be running through everything I’ve read so far this morning, and I feel the need to share a bit with my readers. Perhaps, it may spur some fresh ideas that could lead to new opportunities locally.

Pollution reduction and sustainability:

You might have heard the news that broke on Friday that Smithfield Farms has developed a way to turn hog waste into renewable natural gas. Much of the research and work on this manure-to-energy project was done in North Carolina, and the results will be felt nationally. By capturing biogas in covered digesters and processing it into a renewable energy source, Smithfield Foods will be reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of one of the largest hog farming operations in the country and making huge strides toward sustainability.

In other agricultural news, startups across the country are developing a new way to fertilize plants that will cut down on nitrogen-based pollutants that run off farmlands and make their ways into our streams, rivers, and oceans leading to toxic algal blooms. The idea is to use nitrogen-fixing bacteria to fertilize plants and in the long run eliminate the need for synthetically created fertilizers. By combining the bacteria and the seeds at planting time, the required fertilizer will be created at the root of the plant and in a more sustainable way. The technology isn’t perfect yet, but it’s coming along quickly.

Energy resilience and developing economies:

Nuclear power is an energy source that does not require the burning of fossil fuels. However, it has its own drawbacks including the potential for devastating nuclear reactor meltdowns and nuclear weapon proliferation. That’s old news. The new news is how energy technology startups are creating newer, potentially safer, smaller, and possibly less expensive nuclear reactors. A new generation of nuclear power plants appears to be on the horizon, which should lead to a diminished reliance on fossil fuels around the world.

While wind and solar energy use is still growing, it’s not doing so at a pace that will reach any world goals for cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions within the next few decades. New nuclear technologies may not become widespread any faster because they are still being developed and need to pass regulatory review. However, they could easily eventually overtake those renewable energy sources as an environmentally feasible form of spreading affordable and reliable energy around the globe.

Earth at night

Image Credit: NASA/NOAA
A composite image of the Earth at night shows well how the more developed regions are lit up by electrical means.

An opinion column on scientificamerican.com I read this morning also looks to natural gas as a source of inexpensive energy for developing nations, especially in parts of Africa and Asia where natural gas reserves are proven and yet mostly untapped. Inexpensive and reliable energy is necessary to help poverty-stricken regions develop economically.

Where there is no local source of natural gas, maybe the renewable natural gas created from hog farms could be a viable option with Smithfield Foods leading the way internationally.

At the source of all these innovations is science. Without curious minds willing to look at alternatives to the same old wheel everyone else is using, our technology and our societies would stagnate. Scientists are the key to creating opportunities for all, and it’s up to all of us to encourage the next generation of inquiring minds.