Food, Fuel and Fiber
A few hours of reading Joel Kotkin’s new book, "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050" (New York: Penguin Press, 2010), started me thinking that Texas Tech University is very well placed to contribute to the challenges facing America in the next 40 years.
Kotkin’s thesis, in part, is that as our country’s population will grow by 100 million people to more than 400 million by 2050. He maintains that growth coupled with technology advances will allow more people to live and work outside of our major cities, creating a resurgence in America’s Heartland, an area of the country with room for the growing towns and communities made necessary by our next 100 million people. He also argues this population growth will create heavier demands for food, fuel and fiber. While that is a simplistic view of Kotkin’s book, it suggests that our location, at the base of the Heartland and our research strengths in the areas of food, fuel and fiber. If Kotkin is right, we are positioned to become the university of the next hundred million.
As Texas Tech moves toward achieving National Research University, or Tier One, status we recently have finished a process of establishing our top research priorities. While there are eight priority areas as codified in our new Strategic Plan for 2010-2020 (Making it possible . . . ), the top three are improving food safety, security and quality; developing new sources of sustainable energy, and providing sustainable agriculture and management – the very research areas that our country will need to draw upon as we move toward Kotkin’s vision of America.
Consider what Texas Tech already has in place in these areas.
Our International Center for Food Industry Excellence is a leader in making America’s food safer to eat. At the heart of the research efforts: finding ways to reduce contamination of Eschericia coli (or E. coli) and Salmonella strains. We have made great strides in this area by, for example, creating additives to cattle feed that will reduce pathologic strains of E. coli at the feed lot.
A new English/Spanish language-based training program has been developed that can be used in both the U.S. and Mexico to better educate food processing workers as a way to reduce food-borne pathogens.
More than 40 percent of the economy on the South Plains depends on agriculture. About 30 percent of the cotton and 25 percent of the cattle on feed in the United States are located here. Our scientists are also looking at economically viable production systems that do not deplete our natural resources or damage the environment.
FuelTexas Tech is poised to emerge as a leader in renewable energy. As we look to future alternative fuel sources, we continue to innovate ways to further develop traditional fossil fuel resources.
The Bob L. Herd Department of Petroleum Engineering is one of only 16 accredited programs in the country. Research is underway on advanced drilling techniques, grid design and other areas that will allow us to tap those hard-to-reach oil and gas deposits that will provide much-needed traditional fuel sources for the future.
In the renewable energy field, we have two generously faculty chair positions that we are seeking to fill with nationally known researchers, one in solar energy and a second in another energy-related field. A third unfilled chair would establish a nuclear engineering program at Texas Tech.
Again using our massive agriculture base, our researchers are exploring how to turn non-food crops as well as animal and plant waste into fuel sources. In the livestock-rich areas of Texas and parts of the Heartland, the waste produced could be collected and converted into electricity – enough, it is estimated, to provide a significant percent of the nation’s current electrical power needs. When you add another 100 million people, the demand for electricity will skyrocket. Researchers are also looking into the development of biofuels such as ethanol to cut our dependence on gasoline. Our students compete in the EcoCAR (i.e., EcoCAR: The Next Challenge sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors Corporation), a competition designed to produce vehicles that have minimal emissions and utilize alternative fuel sources.
Texas Tech has long been known for its cotton research. It’s a natural area of interest for us since more than half of the country’s cotton production is in Texas, much of it at our door step on the South Plains. We have a research team mapping the cotton genome, a breakthrough that allows us to develop strong, more drought and heat-tolerant seeds. Our researchers are examining ways of optimizing production systems and studying global markets to find ways to help our farmers increase profitability.
The Cotton Economics Research Institute supports growers as well as the overall cotton industry through its research into issues including marketing, trade and processing of the fluffy fiber. Institute faculty work with research units throughout the United States and other countries in disseminating its research results, which provide a litmus test for the U.S. industry in relation to competing nations such as China, India and Brazil.
We also have used our fiber expertise to develop a non-woven dry wipe that has proven itself the best for cleaning up chemical warfare agents and toxic chemicals. A study on the product called Fibertect® was performed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory using mustard gas and other toxic chemicals. Researchers found that the Texas Tech-created product out-performed 30 different decontamination materials, including materials currently used in military decontamination kits. We are also working to develop fire resistant textiles, a specific need of the U.S. military for fireproof garments that are easy and comfortable to wear.
If in fact, Kotkin is correct, and the U.S. grows to another 100 million in population in the next 40 years, then Texas Tech certainly is exceptionally suited to meet the needs of food, fuel and fiber in the oncoming decades.
Texas Tech’s first president, Paul Whitfield Horn’s 1925 speech entreated our founders that the university view all that we do on a large scale – "Let us make the work of our college fit with the scope of our country ... let our thinking be in worldwide terms." We have, in fact, positioned ourselves to do just that – provide our country – and the world – its much needed necessities in the vital areas of food, fuel and fiber.
Guy Bailey became the 15th president of Texas Tech University on Aug. 1, 2008.