Engineering professor appointed interim director of Energy Institute at UT

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Chemical engineering professor Thomas Edgar will serve as interim director of the Energy Institute at UT. Edgar will replace former Energy Institute director Ray Orbach, who resigned after controversy surrounding conflicts of interest in a publication by the institute on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. 

“It was a selection by the provost with input from various parties on campus in that decision,” Energy Institute spokesman Gary Rasp said. 

Edgar began in his new role Jan. 15 and will serve in the interim position for one year while overseeing the development of sustainable energy plans by the institute. 

The Energy Institute at UT is a research group that seeks to provide sustainable solutions to energy issues. The institute is responsible for promoting UT and its faculty as leaders in energy research and for helping create new energy policy. 

“We’re really trying to start with a clean sheet of paper here,” Edgar said. 

Orbach resigned as head of the institute, but not from his faculty position, last December in the wake of a controversial report the institute released on fracking. After a watchdog group found that the study’s lead author had undisclosed ties to an oil and gas company, an independent review of the study also found problems with its construction and findings, which downplayed the environmental impact of the drilling technique. Fracking uses sand, water and chemicals to break through rock and release natural gas, but also has been accused of contaminating and depleting water reserves. The lead author retired after the study was released and scrutinized. 

Edgar said he envisions both challenges and opportunities with his new position as interim director of the institute. 

“One of our challenges is to promote what the faculty are doing in terms of the research,” he said. “Making the average student more familiar with energy issues and policy issues is something we should be doing.”

Edgar also said cooperation among members of different academic fields, a process he refers to as integration function, is important for the purposes of research. 

“The way of the future and the way now is to do things on an interdisciplinary basis,” he said. “No one discipline has all the answers.” 

Edgar joined the University faculty in 1971. Since then he has held numerous offices in the Cockrell School of Engineering, including that of professor, department chair of chemical engineering and associate dean of engineering. He has published hundreds of articles and co-written three textbooks on optimizing coal and chemical processing. 

In addition to his new interim duties, Edgar will continue to teach a chemical engineering course for the spring semester. Chemical engineering senior Julie Fogarty is a student in Edgar’s process control class. 

“Dr. Edgar is one of the most well prepared professors I have had at UT — he is clearly very familiar and invested in the material,” she said. “Dr. Edgar uses process control to tie in all of the material we’ve learned over the past four years and relates it to industry.”

While Edgar said he seeks to promote key issues in energy as interim director, he continues to educate and prepare students for the world of chemical engineering.  

“We would like to see more students in all fields become aware of what the Energy Institute is doing,” Edgar said.

Published on February 8, 2013 as "Provost hires Energy Institute director".