Udall tours consortium

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Science > Senator emphasizes state’s role in the technologies of the future

By Arin McKenna

On Friday, Sen. Tom Udall visited the New Mexico Consortium for the first time since he had broken ground for the building in May 2012.

Since that groundbreaking and talking to Dr. Richard Sayre about “squeezing power from pond scum” (converting algae to biofuel), Udall has kept a vial of “pond scum” in his office, along with a solar panel and a superconductor cable, which he shows to visiting school children.

“I tell the young people, this is your future,” Udall said. “Somebody ripped off the vial with the algae. They were so intrigued by the idea that you could get fuel from pond scum, and that this was better than the best fuel you can get. It’s just really, really remarkable.”

Udall stressed the key role the consortium and its partnership with Los Alamos National Laboratory play in New Mexico’s future. The New Mexico Consortium is a non-profit corporation established by the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology which builds research and education partnerships with Los Alamos National Laboratory and other university and industry partners from around the world.

“I really think we have such an extraordinary opportunity here in New Mexico to partner LANL, our other great national laboratory, Sandia, the military institutions we have and military research institutions and our universities, to move in the direction of really creating good, solid jobs for everybody,” Udall said. “It’s your vision, and I share it, and I want to move forward with you on it.”

Udall spoke about his tech transfer bill and New Mexico place in that.

“I think we have an extraordinary opportunity here in New Mexico to do credible research, to grow our job base and to really make a difference for the world,” Udall said.

Udall noted that other states are competing for the same funding. He hopes to garner support for funding New Mexico’s programs by bringing other senators to visit with key people at the labs and the consortium.

The bill’s key elements are:
• Authorizing new tools for the Secretary of Energy’s new department-wide technology transfer office to enable DOE to implement tech transfer responsibilities, measure, and report their progress.
• Establishing the Tech Transfer Corps to invest in scientists, engineers, and business developers looking to create commercial applications from laboratory technology, and
• Adapting an existing public-private partnership model used by the Small Business Administration for economic development and applies it to technology transfer.

“We need to make it easier for the labs to partner with nonprofits and foundations — so nonprofits and foundations can more easily draw on the expertise at the labs to advance the public good,” Udall stated.

Udall also addressed the sequester and budget issues in Washington.

“When I talk about this vision, I do not see how we move forward in the way we should be moving forward with cuts to these institutions. And so I’m going to be fighting every day to make sure we don’t have those kinds of cuts,” Udall said.

Udall said the one good thing that came out of the shutdown was putting an end to the House’s refusal to enter into budget conference to reconcile the Senate and House Budget bills. He noted that negotiations now underway look hopeful.

“I can’t tell you it’s a done deal yet, but we hope that’s where it’s heading. And I can tell you these continuing resolutions just aren’t the way to go,” Udall said. “What I want from them is two numbers: the numbers for fiscal year 2014 and for 2015, so that we can get back to the regular budgeting and you can do the work that you need to do.”

The visit was an opportunity for the Consortium to show both Udall and local officials the progress it has made.
NMC’s Executive Director Katharine Chartrand, acknowledged the Los Alamos County council’s role in the consortium’s success. In 2011, council approved $2 million in Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) funds for the construction of the new facility and provided the lot in the Entrada Research Park, valued at $640,000.

“This building is here because the county stepped up and then the loan/grants stepped up,” Chartrand said.
At that time, NMC was projecting 32 new high paying technical jobs and had been awarded $6 million in research grants. The consortium currently has 100 employees and is bringing in $8 million a year for programs.

“Most of those dollars are new research dollars that would not have come into the state,” Chartrand said.
Chartrand also acknowledged Udall’s support.

“I want to thank you for all that you do for the state. You have been a champion of scientific research, education and economic opportunity in New Mexico, and you recognize the opportunity to leverage our national laboratories,” Chartrand said.

Chartrand announced that LANL and NMC have just signed a new institutional agreement.

“It may be one of the most substantive and innovative agreements of its type. I am confident that it is the most thoroughly vetted agreement of its type,” Chartrand said. “And with this agreement, LANL and the NMC are positioned to make tremendous progress in achieving your vision, senator, and taking LANL’s impact in New Mexico to new levels.”

“We have also built a new way to integrate university and laboratory scientific capabilities, and the LANL/NMC partnership, I think, can make New Mexico a model for the DOE, in how to perform science in the nation’s interest.”

The event ended with a tour of the facility and some of NMC’s projects, including efforts to develop algae strains that can grow in high temperatures. That would allow for strains that could grow in New Mexico’s climate for biofuel. Udall also met scientists who are developing high yield plants to address food security issues.