Powerhouses of innovation

They employ thousands of the nation’s top minds, generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity and are often engaged in life-changing work.

The federal labs found in Colorado and Wyoming are much more than buildings filled with men and women in lab coats.

Numbering 26 in all, these labs are nothing short of economic powerhouses, leaders in fields that include renewable energy, climate and weather, space physics, telecommunications, agriculture and earth science.

Their breakthroughs have come in hurricane forecasting, oil-spill air quality assessment, Lyme disease prevention, energy efficiency, detection of aquatic invaders and crop science, among other areas.

According to a 2011 study by the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, the 25 labs in Colorado created 16,500 direct and indirect jobs, hiring some of the brainiest people on the planet, including those with Nobel prizes.

Lab worker salaries and benefits, as might be imagined, are considerably better than the state average in Colorado, amounting to more than $93,000 in 2010, providing an important source of income-tax revenue to the state.

The net economic benefit of the labs totaled $1.2 billion in fiscal 2009, growing to $1.5 billion in fiscal 2010.

Occupying 4.7 million square feet of real estate, these facilities have over the past few years pumped plenty of money into the construction industry. The value of the building projects at the labs studied by CU topped $84 million in fiscal 2009 and $201 million in fiscal 2010.

Nearly three-quarters of the labs’ employees resided in Larimer, Boulder and Jefferson counties. The same percentage lived in their own homes, contributing significantly to property taxes. Values of their homes averaged $351,000 in Boulder County, $258,000 in Jefferson County and $243,000 in Larimer County.

The CU analysis notes that federal laboratories have long been productive members of Colorado’s economy due to stable jobs and federal dollars. But the labs mean much more: high-tech firms tend to locate near these facilities, partnerships are formed with universities on research projects, and lots of technology-transfer activity takes place.

Labs such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins focus on nothing less than saving lives.

The lab’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases tracks diseases such as the West Nile virus and Lyme disease, and more recently the Heartland virus it discovered in Missouri, and has studied their effects. It also works closely with companies to develop important vaccines and disease prevention measures.

“We have a number of things that we’ve done recently that we’re very proud of,´ said Dr. Lyle Petersen, the lab’s director.

The lab is collaborating with Inviragen in Fort Collins to develop a vaccine for Dengue fever, a virus spread by mosquitoes that occurs in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“There are more than 100 million cases of Dengue per year, so this is a very big deal,” he said.

It also is working with Fort Collins’ InVitria to create vaccinations for animals to prevent rabies and Lyme disease from spreading to humans. Additionally, the lab has developed a test that quickly diagnoses plague, which must be treated early.

At the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, scientists aim to lower the cost of renewable energy while increasing its efficiency. Only Germany and Japan have facilities that do research at such a high level.

“We do what we can in order to try and move technology from the laboratory into the marketplace,” NREL spokesman George Douglas said. “We have very robust programs working with hundreds of companies to move technology into the energy market.”

The lab has recently been able to achieve a world-record 43.5-percent conversion efficiency rate in solar cells. The technology remains expensive, but solar companies are at least using it to increase the efficiency of their solar technology.

Scientists also have found a way to make ethanol out of corn stock and leaves rather than using corn kernels. The ethanol costs a similar amount to make, and it allows producers to avoid drawing corn from the food supply.

The lab also has developed an air-conditioning unit that consumes a fraction of the electricity used by conventional units and releases less carbon dioxide. Air-conditioning currently consumes about 15 percent of the electricity generated in the United States. It contributes to peak electrical demand on hot summer days and can lead to higher power costs, rolling blackouts and brownouts.

For its part, a Bureau of Reclamation lab in Denver has helped discover how to detect the early presence of invasive mussels in the nation’s lakes.

“We have definitely given a lot of people an edge and an understanding,´ said Denise Hosler, manager of the mussel detection lab in Denver.

After zebra mussels were found in Lake Mead in 2007, a team of scientists went to work to address the costly problem. The mussels can attach themselves to pipes, limiting water flows in hydropower and water delivery systems, and to boats. They also litter beaches with shells and suck nutrients out of water, which can make fish unhealthy.

In the Great Lakes area alone, the zebra mussel cost the power industry $3.1 billion between 1993 and 1999, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. The mussels’ total economic impact reached more than $5 billion.

Responding to the challenge, Bureau of Reclamation scientists took water samples and then tested them for the presences of microscopic mussel larva using a variety of high-tech methods, including DNA testing. The early-detection method has allowed water managers to take steps to reduce the spread of mussels, including lowering water levels, which reduces the amount of oxygen in water that allows mussels to proliferate.

Many of the labs saw a jolt in funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Funding from the stimulus for lab construction and operations totaled more than $112 million in fiscal 2009 and 2010.

Having spent what remains of their stimulus funding, lab directors today fear the consequences of sequestration, or large cuts to federal programs that could take effect in January.

The labs could see an across-the-board reduction of 8 percent if lawmakers let the cuts occur.

“That just puts more uncertainty into the equation,´ said Bill Farland, director of CO-LABS, a consortium of Colorado’s federally funded labs formed in 2007.

“My real hope is that we will get a more reasonable and bipartisan balanced budget approach to deal with the budget issues and get away from this idea of huge, across-the-board cuts.”

That’s a hope shared by many, both in and outside of the lab.

Want to know more?

A study on the economic impact of the labs, conducted by the Business Research Division of UC Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, can be found at http://www.co-labs.org/economic_impact.html

Where they live

The people who work in Colorado’s federal labs predominately live in four counties:

Boulder: 2,880
Jefferson: 2,171
Larimer: 803
Denver MSA: 3,620
Colorado total: 7,725

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