For many energy companies, the future is in the Eagle Ford Shale or the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico.
For SuperPower, which produces superconducting wire, it’s in Building 14 of the University of Houston’s Energy Research Park.
A collection of mid-century office buildings that once served as a Schlumberger headquarters, the park is less than two miles from the university campus, connected by shuttle buses and a common sense of mission.
The university purchased the 74-acre property for $27.5 million in 2009, envisioning the former Schlumberger Wells Service property on the Gulf Freeway as the place where students, faculty and people from the energy industry meet to solve real-world problems.
That means oil and gas, as well as wind energy, solar energy, superconductivity and other new technologies.
“There’s no bias toward the research park being all oil and gas,” said H. David Ramm, managing partner at Dymar Development and a member of the university’s energy advisory board. “There’s a lot of innovation going on in oil and gas, and that should be recognized. But clearly if there were a way to produce energy that was cheaper, more efficient, with no emissions, everybody wants that.”
The other thing many people at UH want is for superconductivity to become commercially viable. It’s the field that put UH on the scientific radar in the 1980s, when physicist Paul Chu discovered a compound that could conduct electricity without losing energy at temperatures above the freezing point of liquid nitrogen.
UH recruited its founder, Venkat Selvamanickam, in 2009 as director of the Applied Research Hub, a collaboration between the university’s Texas Center for Superconductivity and the college of engineering.
His hiring – and the fact that SuperPower came with him – was a coup, and Selvamanickam works with students in several labs on campus.
SuperPower is involved in a number of projects dealing with superconducting wire, including a $4 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency to design and build a superconducting wind generator.
UH administers the grant. Participating with SuperPower are Tallahassee, Fla.-based Tai-Yang Research, Round Rock-based TECO-Westinghouse Motor and the U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.
Campus lab space is great for research, Selvamanickam said, but the research park is about proving the discoveries can be scaled up.
“Just because something works (in a lab) doesn’t mean it’s going to work in manufacturing and development,” he said.
Money from industry
Modern Houston was created by the 20th century’s boom-and-bust oil cycles, and Ramm said any thought that the 21st century would be a post-hydrocarbon era ended with the advent of hydraulic fracturing.
The resulting bounty of cheap natural gas caused people to rethink investments in renewables, Ramm said.
But research in wind, solar and other renewable energy continues at UH and elsewhere, and the university’s Wind Energy Research Center has a space at the park.
It’s near the ConocoPhillips Petroleum Engineering Building.
The university had long offered a master’s degree in petroleum engineering, but dropped its undergraduate degree decades ago during an industry downturn. UH restarted the program after Devon Energy Corp. and Marathon Oil Corp. pledged $1.6 million in 2008, saying they needed the graduates.
More than 400 students are enrolled now.
Increasingly, energy companies are also funding university research projects.
Devon has spent $22 million since 2004 at the University of Oklahoma, where researchers study shale rock to determine where and how to drill.
Similar collaborations are appealing as the federal deficit drives worries about research funding – although Ranthindra Bose, vice president for research and technology transfer at UH, said the government probably will remain the prime source of research funding.
UH faculty received $92.5 million in research awards in 2011, down from $114.7 million in 2010. Bose attributed the drop to the end of federal stimulus funding.
Almost one-third of UH’s 2011 research funding was earmarked for energy – $28.3 million. Of that, $5.9 million, or just more than 20 percent, came from industry.
‘The real world’
UH spent more than $30 million on renovations for the research park, which is about half-occupied now, with much of the space filled by university administrators, researchers or students, said Sean York, director of real estate services.
But Ramm touts it as a potential home for energy startups.
One UH tenant, the Texas Diesel Testing and Research Center, moved there in 2002, before the university bought the property.
Run by chemical engineering professor Michael Harold, the center contracts with outside groups – testing hybrid diesel buses for Metro to determine if better mileage justifies the added cost, for example – in addition to conducting research.
“Our thinking was, if we could bring companies to us when they needed to do testing, they would catalyze the research enterprise,” Harold said.
Testing also funds the center, with contracts ranging from $1 million to $1.5 million a year, he said.
Harold said the collaboration is good for students, too.
“Those are practical problems and expose students to the real world.”