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Powering the Future: Why UT Is The Energy University

We expect energy to be ever-present, but it has to come from somewhere. Learn how UT researchers working in energy-related fields will help keep energy flowing into the future.

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Energy is such a constant presence in our lives, we often take it for granted. Like the clean water that runs from our taps, we just expect energy to be cheap and ever-present, whether it’s the electricity that charges our phones, the natural gas that heats our houses or the oil that makes our cars run. But the fact is all of this energy has to come from somewhere.

“We do it all. Across campus, there is a tremendous depth of expertise and world-class interdisciplinary research in a broad spectrum of energy areas.” — Tom Edgar, director of the UT Energy Institute

A surprising amount flows to us thanks to major accomplishments by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin. Over the years, UT scholars invented the batteries that power our cell phones and electric cars. They helped unlock some of the world’s largest oil and gas fields. They led some of the first field tests showing we could safely store greenhouse gases underground. And they pioneered core technology that makes our electrical grids safer and more efficient.

And they’re not slowing down. Because of the university’s outstanding breadth and depth in nearly every energy-related field, UT is poised to help the world find better forms of energy for decades to come.

More than Oil and Gas

It’s no surprise that UT researchers are leaders in oil and gas. Since the days of the first West Texas gushers, Longhorn geologists and engineers have been discovering new techniques to detect and produce hydrocarbons. The university was built on oil, thanks to royalties from the petroleum-rich lands it owns in West Texas. And, working in the oil business, many former students amassed fortunes that they have generously donated to the university to fund vital initiatives, projects and scholarships to ensure the research and education can continue.

But you may not realize that today, more than half of the energy research at the university is outside of oil and gas. (Check out examples of research at the bottom of this post.)

“We do it all,” says Tom Edgar, director of the University of Texas Energy Institute. “Across campus, there is a tremendous depth of expertise and world-class interdisciplinary research in a broad spectrum of energy areas.”

Today UT scientists and engineers are leaders in everything from nuclear energy to solar power. In energy storage and nanotechnology, UT researchers are on the verge of major new discoveries. Our environmental researchers are doing globally significant work that makes traditional forms of energy like coal and oil safer, cleaner and more sustainable.

The university also covers an array of other skill areas that advance the future of energy in business, law, architecture and even curriculum development and outreach. Energy is an international field, and UT has especially deep ties to Latin America. UT is also one of the only universities in the world to offer dedicated energy degrees, with an interdisciplinary master’s degree in Energy and Earth Resources, an undergraduate certificate program in energy and several dual degrees.

These broad and deep offerings add up to an institution ready to be “the energy university,” in the words of Jon Olson, chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering.

Collaboration is Key

In all of these efforts, UT’s graduate students play a pivotal role, working on cross-disciplinary teams on projects that often have major societal impact.

“Our students get to work with top researchers, often with government support or on industry problems, in cutting-edge labs and in global field locations,” says Scott Tinker, director of the Jackson School of Geosciences‘ Bureau of Economic Geology, which annually employs about 60 graduate students working on energy and environmental projects. “And they get jobs when they graduate.”

[Learn more about UT’s energy-related graduate programs.]

In oil and gas, which is the largest employment sector for energy graduates, UT perennially ranks among the top schools where companies recruit, as Breaking Energy reported in 2014.

Olson adds that UT graduate students focused on particular disciplines benefit immensely from interacting with the broader UT energy community. By attending events like the UT Energy Week — a symposium bringing together alumni, students, faculty and outside experts — students learn the context that makes their work meaningful.

The wider perspective also helps faculty and researchers. With year-round opportunities to learn about developments in other energy fields, they gain “the knowledge to advance their particular research and the perspective to speak on what is achievable for America’s energy future,” notes Olson.

Working on interdisciplinary teams also gives students a glimpse into their professional future.

“Energy is a complex topic,” says Tinker. “Collaboration is not only beneficial, it is essential.”

Read on for examples of energy-related research happening now at UT.

Solar decathlon house

Want to buy a gallon of solar energy paint at your local hardware store? Researchers working with Brian Korgel in the Cockrell School’s McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering are using nanotechnology to develop sprayable inks that could decrease the cost of photovoltaic solar cells — and might lead one day to commercially available paint that generates electricity from the sun.

PGE lab

A graduate student simulates working on an offshore rig in Eric van Oort’s state-of-the-art automated drilling lab in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering. With only a few academic drilling simulators in the world, the hands-on experience better prepares students for successful careers in the oil and gas industry. Photo courtesy of Cockrell School of Engineering.

John Goodenough and Barack Obama

John Goodenough, inventor of the lithium-ion battery that powers the world’s laptops and many electric cars, received the 2011 National Medal of Science (The White House ceremony for the award, seen above, took place in 2013). Goodenough hopes one of his greatest accomplishments is on the horizon — development of a “super-battery” that is efficient enough to make electric cars as practical as gas-powered vehicles. Photo courtesy of Ryan K Morris/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation.

Carbon sequestration

UT Austin has the world’s largest academic research group focused on capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions in deep, geologic reservoirs, anchored in the Bureau of Economic Geology’s Gulf Coast Carbon Center and the Cockrell School’s Luminant CO2 capture group. The concept of carbon capture and storage is especially crucial for coal, which generates more emissions per unit of energy than any other major resource. Illustration by Nicole Fuller for the Jackson School of Geosciences.

Solar decathlon house

Partnering with Technische Universitaet Muenchen in Germany, students from many disciplines across campus are finalists in this year’s U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, an international contest to design energy efficient, green housing. UT’s NexusHaus is envisioned as a prototype for Austin’s Green Alley Flat Initiative, which proposes sustainable, green, affordable housing in the city’s underused alleyways. Image courtesy of UT/TUM Solar Decathlon team 2015.

Algae researchers

Algae is one of the most promising sources of biofuels, and UT Austin has the largest, most diverse collection of algae in the world with 3,000 specimens housed at its Center for Electromechanics. Technical Director Rhykka Connelly (left) helps maintain the collection and works with startups seeking to commercialize university research to find new energy sources from algae. Center director Robert Hebner (right) and colleagues are working on identifying the most efficient ways to use algae to generate biofuels.

UT Energy Week

Hundreds of students make poster presentations to faculty, alumni and industry representatives during the annual Energy Week, a joint, campus-wide conference on energy put on by the Energy Institute and students across campus.

Methane hydrate

Methane hydrate, a possible new energy source of major significance, is found in vast quantities in the world’s oceans, where flammable methane is trapped within a crystal structure of ice. Peter Flemings, a professor at the Jackson School of Geosciences and senior researcher at the school’s Institute for Geophysics, is leading a $58 million effort, principally funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, to understand how we can safely mine and work with the resource. Watch a video about Flemings’ work on methane hydrate. Photo courtesy of the Japanese government.

resevoir graphic

Researchers at the Bureau of Economic Geology use core description, subsurface log analysis and 3-D seismic imagery to visualize mature subsurface oil and gas reservoirs, like this formation in the giant Fullerton Field in West Texas. The work helps operators extend the life of old oil fields through a process known as enhanced oil recovery, which often involves pumping carbon dioxide into partially depleted reservoirs. Image from Anatomy of a Giant Carbonate Reservoir: Fullerton Clear Fork (Lower Permian) Field, Permian Basin, Texas, Bureau of Economic Geology Report of Investigations 276.

UT’s standing in energy is based on broad and deep expertise. Over the coming year, we’ll be looking at the university’s diverse strengths to show why The University of Texas at Austin is a great place to do energy research — and why we are truly the energy university.

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