Legacy of Innovation Drives Southern Research

Legacy of Innovation Drives Southern Research

Above: Corey Tyree, Southern Research director of energy and environment for Alabama, is introduced

Satellite telescopes that can pierce the sun’s corona. Medicines that neutralize microscopic viruses. Energy technologies that are cleaning the air and water.

An institute that is accomplishing all three? That’s something special.

Southern Research is a hidden jewel tucked away in a quiet suburb south of Birmingham. The nonprofit employs nearly 500 scientists and engineers discovering new ways to defeat disease, insulate spacecraft and advance renewable energy.

For Innovation Week, the directors opened up the institute to the public. They shared the exciting breakthroughs that make their slogan — “We’re solving the world’s hardest problems” — more than hyperbole.

“Innovation happens at interfaces and collisions,” said President and CEO Art Tipton. “We fit nicely between academia and industry.”

Southern Research’s legacy can be traced to another successful Alabama innovator and businessman.

Tom Martin, president of Alabama Power from 1920 to 1949, created the Southern Research Institute in 1941 as an independent network committed to scientific discovery and technology development across many fields.

“Tom Martin realized that for additional industries to come to the state of Alabama, many of them would need a science and engineering partner. And he founded Southern Research to be that partner,” said Tipton.

President and CEO Art Tipton quotes Neil DeGrasse Tyson
President and CEO Art Tipton quotes Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Martin envisioned the institute as a vehicle to make industry in the South more competitive and jobs more plentiful.

“So in many ways, we were the first economic development machine in the city of Birmingham,” Tipton said.

The recent open house showcased the bright minds and bold innovations at the building on 757 Tom Martin Drive, including the solar energy panels out back.

Corey Tyree, Southern Research’s director of energy and environment for Alabama, took an optimistic — and contrarian — view of America’s energy future.

“When people talk about the future of energy, they’re almost always wrong,” he said, citing government predictions that oil production would run out and gas prices would skyrocket.

“Innovative people don’t ignore [forecasts]. But they also know that they have the talent and the work ethic to make the future themselves,” he said.

A former engineering manager for Georgia Power at Plant Bowen, Tyree cautioned that it will take improved storage capacity for renewables to claim a bigger share of the energy market.

“I can imagine a world where the grid has many renewable energy sources plugged into it,” he said. “What if you could store that energy and use it when you need it? We have to have that for renewables to play a bigger part.”

Southern Research is working with industry to achieve that brighter energy future. Its Mercury Research Center is showing how power plants can meet strict new federal mercury emission standards. It’s the first facility of its kind in the world.

Another unique institution is the Water Research Center at Plant Bowen, a partnership with the Electric Power Research Institute and more than a dozen companies. The Center is working to reduce power plants’ need for water and ability to reclaim it.

Southern Research's facility on Tom Martin Drive
Southern Research’s facility on Tom Martin Drive

Such analysis would have been familiar to previous generations of researchers at the institute, which held a coal technology conference as early as 1961.

The spirit of innovation that drives Southern Research echoes Martin’s belief that what was good for Alabama was good for Alabama Power — and the world.

“A phenomenal person whose ghost is in every one of these buildings,” said Tipton.

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