Raymond Orbach

The British Petroleum oil spill in April 2010 inspired a new partnership between UT and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create a set of guidelines that will allow scientists to avoid future crises.

The Energy Institute at UT, MIT’s Energy Initiative and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute formed the Research Center for Environmental Protection at Hydrocarbon Energy Production Frontiers, REEF. Several UT colleges and schools will be involved, including the Cockrell School of Engineering, School of Law, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, McCombs School of Business and Jackson School of Geosciences. The team hopes to outline a set of realistic rules and steps to avoid major human-caused disasters, representatives said.

Director of the Energy Institute, Raymond Orbach is taking on a personal role with MIT faculty making sure programs from both schools are complimentary. Legal and regulatory aspects, environmental concerns and the risk of human error will be the main factors in REEF’s assessments, Orbach said.

Tadeusz Patzek, Chairman of UT’s Department of Petroleum & Geosystems Engineering, is part of the advisory board of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement which deals with issues relating to the REEF proposal.

“If we decide to drill, and most governments including U.S. government are of the opinion that we should, we should do it in a way as to minimize or eliminate damage to the environment,” Patzek said.

An option for extracting natural gas and oil is the process of fracking, a fairly recent method used since the ‘90s. It was first used extensively in the Barnett Shale in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said energy and earth resources graduate student, Jenifer Wehner.

“People in the oil and gas industry commonly say ‘fracking’ to describe just one part of the whole gas exploration and production process,” according to a May 13 article from The New York Times. “Purists would say it is not really even part of ‘drilling’ but actually the ‘completion’ phase.”

Shale is a porous rock and because of its properties it holds on to gas molecules, and although there is gas in the rock, there is no way to extract it easily.

“Part of the concern regarding hydraulic fracking is putting water with chemicals down into the ground,” Wehner said. A concern is that water will seep out of the well where the oil was drilled and get into ground water.

The UT-MIT partnership is looking at areas where it’s tough to extract resources. The Arctic has a huge amount of oil and gas which is why it’s the next frontier, Orbach said, even though it’s a very sensitive environmental area. Further areas to explore include Alaska, Canada, Russia and Norway.

“We need to work with energy companies to ensure their practices are consistent with what we find best. We will bring to the government, awareness of what we’re doing but the government will decide whether to use our results or not,” Orbach said. “What we hope is that they will find them so attractive that they will help them formulate policy.”

According to an article from the Houston Chronicle on July 17, 2011, the center could require commitments of up to $100 million over five years, coming from multiple sponsors. 

Two UT professors have discovered a process to harness sunlight to split hydrogen from water and use it as a fuel source.

The process could eventually lead to the creation of a clean, affordable and renewable fuel that could potentially eliminate oil dependence.

“It’s certainly better for the environment,” said Son Hoang, a chemical engineering graduate student working on the project. “The only product is water, as opposed to gasoline, which produces carbon dioxide.”

Chemistry professor Allen Bard and chemical engineering professor Buddie Mullins lead the team of UT researchers.

The process mimics photosynthesis by harnessing the power of sunlight to split hydrogen and oxygen from water. This newly separated hydrogen can be used as a direct source of fuel, Son said.

Although researchers have made progress, there is a long way to go, Son said.

Bard and Mullins have been able to successfully complete their experiment, but there is still much work to do to stabilize it. The experiment is still very unstable and was only successful for a number of hours in lab conditions, Son said.

“The material being used is extremely unstable,” Son said. “It’s still not even in ideal condition.”

The team must find a material to split hydrogen from water that allows the process to go as smoothly as possible.

Chemical engineering graduate student Hoang Dang said in order for their experiment to continue to grow, they must find a sunlight-capturing material high in efficiency and in abundance that is stable enough to withstand the experiment for lengthy periods of time.

Converting to hydrogen as the main source of fuel would help reduce our carbon footprint by 30 to 40 percent, said Raymond Orbach, director of UT’s Energy Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy’s first Under Secretary for Science.

Orbach said when he thinks about the progress of the researchers, he is very hopeful and excited.

Although Bard and Mullins have received funding through the energy institute from ConocoPhilips and other private organizations, they still need much more to continue and complete their research, Orbach said.

The team received $2.5 million in grants from the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy to research methods to convert water into hydrogen fuel.

Orbach said the ultimate goal of the team is to receive $5 million in grants for the next five years. He said if that happens, the development of the new source of fuel will not be far off.

The California Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley and the Massachusetes Institute of Technology are also working on similar experiments of their own, Orbach said. He said the competition creates a healthy challenge to be first and the best.

“I personally believe we have the best staff,” Orbach said. “I put my money on Al Bard and Buddie Mullins.”