By April 15, 2015 Read More →

Powering the Future: Why UT Is The Energy University

By J.B. Bird for The University of Texas at Austin


Along with oil and gas, UT scholars have developed a number of energy technologies, including nuclear energy, solar power, energy storage and nanotechnology.  UT photo.

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.

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 Bureau of Economic Geology, which annually employs about 60 graduate students working on energy and environmental projects. “And they get jobs when they graduate.”

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.”


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