Thomas Edgar

On Thursday, National Academy of Engineering announced that four professors in the Cockrell School of Engineering were elected to the academy this year.

Those elected were Gregory Fenves, provost and engineering professor; Thomas Edgar, director of the Energy Institute and chemical engineering professor; Yale Patt, engineering and computer science professor; and Bob Schutz, aerospace and mechanics professor.

The academy is a private, non-profit organization that honors individuals who establish themselves as leaders in their field. Individuals cannot apply to join the academy, instead they must be elected by the academy’s existing members. Members examine all engineering fields and look for individuals who have practiced, researched or studied engineering and those who have contributed significant advancements and new approaches to traditional engineering fields. 

 Fenves, Edgar, Patt and Schutz are four of 67 new members and 11 foreign associates elected to the academy in 2014, making UT the institution with the highest number of new members elected this year.

Sharon Wood, interim dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering and member of the academy, said she thinks this honor will help to attract higher caliber students.

“I think it really enhances our reputation, and it shows that our faculty are at the forefront of their fields,” Wood said. “I’m extremely proud of all the faculty, and the fact that we have this external recognition makes it clear that other people think highly of them too.”

According to Sandra Zaragoza, spokeswoman for the Cockrell School of Engineering, the Cockrell School has the fourth most members in the academy nationwide. In total, there are more than 6,000 members and foreign associates in the academy.

At Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting, Chairman Paul Foster applauded the four professors, as well as President William Powers Jr., for their achievement.

Clarification: The use of "record high" in the headline of this story is referring to the number of UT engineering professors elected in one year to the academy, a number it tied in 2014 with four elected members. UT also elected four professors in 1988 and 2005.

On Tuesday, UT announced that Thomas Edgar, a chemical engineering professor, will be promoted to interim director of the research-scandal-plauged UT Energy Institute. We hope Edgar will bring fresh air and cultural change to the Institute, which last year presented and published a study ridden with grammar and citation errors that concluded that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) does not directly cause groundwater contamination. In July, the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI), a Buffalo-based nonprofit, reported that the Plains and Exploration Company (PXP), which extracts natural gas from Texas shale using fracking, had paid one of the study’s authors, Charles “Chip” Groat,  former UT geology professor, the author of the study in question, $413,900 to serve on its board, more than twice his professor’s salary. “It doesn’t appear it was even edited,” the PAI report said about Groat’s study. After a University-appointed task force reviewed the study and the possible conflicts of interests its publication and PXP’s payments to the professor created, Groat retired and Ray Orbach, then director of the Energy Institute resigned. Temporarily replacing Orbach, Edgar wants to move on, but the damage inflicted as a result of the flawed study, its author’s conflicts of interest, particularly given the funding the University receives from the oil and gas industry, scarred UT’s reputation.

“We had a case of [a] report [that] did not get finished officially before the presentation deadline to be adequately reviewed,” Edgar said in an interview with the Texan recently, “So that was one of the problems [with] the nature of the report from a purely technical standpoint … [but that] has nothing to do with the conflict of interest situation with Dr. Groat.”

Edgar has several clear goals that he believes will raise the Institute’s profile favorably. He intends to make the pre-publication review processes more rigorous “so that something that goes out the door isn’t going to be subjected to criticism later because we didn’t do our due diligence … I personally will be reviewing anything that goes out the door as well.”

Edgar also wants to make the Institute’s idea-generating mechanism more far-reaching by soliciting faculty from outside the Institute’s walls, citing the “science, engineering, law and business schools” as resources for future study ideas.

What does Edgar think about fracking? Do we know enough to drill with the new technology at the feverish rate at which companies are doing so, specifically in South Texas?

He avoids taking sides: “I believe fracking can be done in a responsible way, as long as people behave responsibly and do the right thing… I personally think that we need to be open about this, we need to let people know what’s going on, we also need to know, is there any impact of doing this? It’s a matter of public record to divulge this, we can’t just say, ‘No, it’s proprietary,’” he says about recent efforts to force fracking companies to divulge the list of chemicals they use. Have the staff and faculty at the Institute resisted Edgar’s effort to change its culture?

“The people who were considered to be the cause of the problems are not here anymore,” he said. “I’m looking at restructuring what we do here, we’re going to have a lot more people involved focusing on what we are trying to accomplish rather than what has happened in the past, and that hopefully is going to recharge what we’re doing.”

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". 

UT chemical engineering professor, Thomas Edgar, is a board member for Pecan Street Incorporated. The organization is dedicated to researching alternative energy solutions and will begin construction next week.

Photo Credit: Fanny Trang | Daily Texan Staff

A green energy research company working directly with the University will soon relocate to an energy-efficient neighborhood one-and-a-half miles from campus.

Pecan Street Inc., a research and development organization dedicated to studying clean energy options, will begin construction next week on the $1.5 million Pike Powers Commercialization Lab, said Brewster McCracken, executive director of Pecan Street Inc. UT became one of the founding members of Pecan Street Inc. three years ago and the company has since raised $3.3 million in research money for the University, McCracken said.

McCracken said the goal of Pecan Street Inc. is to perfect the future of home energy. The Pecan Street Inc. office is currently located at UT’s West Pickle Research Center, but will have its own lab near the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport by August, McCracken said.

“You won’t be able to see it from campus but it’ll definitely be just a short walk or bike ride away,” McCracken said. “In this area, there is a big interest in green energy. There are more and more people putting solar panels on their roofs, and it’s pretty amazing.”

The Mueller neighborhood demonstration project, an urban neighborhood built on the old Mueller airport site where researchers with Pecan Street Inc. test green energy products, now has 210 homes that use solar panels and will soon have 100 electric cars within a one mile radius, McCracken said.

“One hundred electric cars within a mile is the densest population of electric cars in the U.S,” McCracken said. “Usually five within one mile is considered a lot, so this is huge.”

About 20 UT graduate students and professors will conduct research at the new lab, said Thomas Edgar, chemical engineering professor and Pecan Street Inc. board member.

“The number of researchers required to pull this together has really been great for supporting both students and faculty,” Edgar said.

The supercomputer at the J.J. Pickle Research Center is used to store the data collected by researchers, he said.

“The students are met with the daunting task of organizing all the data stored in the supercomputer and then making sense of it,” Edgar said. 

He said giving graduate students a chance to work in a real research environment that affects the real world is a great learning experience.

“So many times students want to work on graduate projects alone but these 20 students will have to work together, ask each other questions and compare data and we want to ensure they can do that,” Edgar said.

The lab will mostly be in use by engineering students but will be available to others as well, Edgar said. He said outstanding students are usually identified by professors to help with the research.

“More students should research green energy because it is something we are all going to have to deal with,” electrical engineering freshman Bianca Remmie said. “Older students are always coming into my classes telling us about research opportunities and to talk to our professors about it and I can’t wait to.” 

Printed on Thursday, February 2, 2012 as: Green research company relocates