ERP aims to fuel Houston’s energy industry

Since the acquisition of the property from Schlumberger in 2008, University of Houston’s Energy Research Park (ERP) has been a central hub for rapid development in academia, industry, and entrepreneurship.

One of the ERP’s most notable programs is the University of Houston’s Bachelor of Science in petroleum engineering, a recent addition to its existing offerings. Since its inception in 2009, the program has grown to more than 800 students, with almost 25% of those students pursuing their post-baccalaureate degree. The ERP is also home to a Master of Science program in petroleum engineering, which currently has over 120 students. Dr. Thomas Holley, director of the petroleum engineering program at the University of Houston, states that the school’s graduate programs are also expected to grow rapidly.   

“For the upcoming semester, we have had 400 applications for 30 spots in our newly implemented Master’s program,” Holley said.  “Furthermore, we are currently awaiting approval for a PhD program in petroleum engineering.”

Additionally, the Master of Science degree program in subsea engineering will soon relocate to the ERP from the University of Houston central campus. According to Holley, a new building will most likely be built to accommodate this growing graduate program, which has grown to 150 students since its inception three years ago. 

The ERP is an example of the rapidly-growing interest in the academic side of the energy industry.  Houston is commonly regarded as the energy capital of the world. According to the ERP, half of its economic base is driven by more than 3600 energy-related companies located within the city. If someone wishes to begin a career in oil and gas, Houston is a good place to start.

Although, pursuing a degree in engineering is not the only way to start a career in the city’s energy industry.  The University of Houston’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship recently broke new ground at the ERP with its 5500sq ft incubator facility. It is scheduled to be operational by the fall of 2014. 

The facility will serve as a workshop for start-up companies stemming from the University of Houston’s undergraduate entrepreneurship program, currently ranked second in the nation by Princeton Review. Many of the start-ups within the program will be directly related to the oil and gas industry.  The facility, which is being fully-funded by the university, will provide a physical “home base” for 10-15 newly-created companies to conduct their operations.  In addition to providing a structural facility for the companies, the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship is also providing professional guidance with an emphasis on the practical side of entrepreneurship. 

“The main goal of this facility is to increase the entrepreneurial success rate of our graduates,” said Ken Jones, Associate Director of the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship. “Our aim is to mitigate the risks of the initial start-up phase by offering guidance and instruction. One of the operating companies about to be housed within the incubator is working on the development of a nano-technology dip coating that can be used to treat frack water, allowing it to be re-used,” he said.

In addition to the growth of its educational programs, the University of Houston has also continued to utilize the ERP in pursing the development of revolutionary technology.  Housed within the ERP is a superconducting facility. There, Dr. Venkat Selvamanickam leads a research group in creating advanced processing techniques for materials used in energy applications, such as high-temperature superconducting film tapes, photovoltaics, and thermoelectrics. 

One of the keys to the wide applicability of these high-temperature superconductors is single-crystalline-like thin films of various materials on inexpensive, flexible substrates by reel-to-reel processing.  Epitaxial growth of oxides, nitrides, germanium, silicon and compound semiconductors on lattice mismatched and practical substrates constitute a significant portion of Selvamanickam’s research.  This technology can be applied to a wide range of applications, including metal organic chemical vapor deposition, ion-assisted deposition, magnetron sputtering, e-beam evaporation, inkjet printing and various solution coatings. 

The 13,000sq ft facility is unique in that research, testing, and production take place under the same roof.  “Believe it or not, these state of the art facilities used to be garages,” said T.J. Wainerdi, business director for Selvamanickam’s research efforts at the ERP.  “With the financial support of [technology company] Phillips, the state of Texas, and the University of Houston, we have been able to implement these state of the art fabrication facilities that will inevitably result in the commercialization of other programs.”

Three awards from the ARPA-E of the U.S. Department of Energy, the DOE Smart Grid Program, and the Army Research Laboratory are helping to fund the facility’s various research efforts. Currently, the technology being developed in these buildings is being produced on a prototype scale; however, the facility retains strong industrial partnerships with organizations such as SuperPower Inc., Bruker, Tai-Yang Research, TECO-Westinghouse, ABB and SPX.  Like everything else at ERP, this program is growing rapidly.  The program is currently seeking more graduate research assistants, research scientists and research faculty to enhance its potential. 

With cooperation between the research and entrepreneurship foci, and in conjunction with the University of Houston’s various academic programs, it seems all involved have one common goal: to fuel the nation’s energy industry. 


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