New research center at Texas A&M at Qatar seeks to be a leader in world energy innovation

In a critical moment of evolution and opportunity in the gas and fuels industry, Texas A&M University has taken a major step by establishing an important new home for cutting-edge innovation, research, learning and collaboration to be centered at its Qatar campus.

Arching over two continents and several disciplines, the Qatar campus’ new Gas and Fuels Research Center (GFRC) has the potential to become the definitive depository of knowledge as well as the leading cradle of new technologies related to the production, transport and processing of natural gas worldwide.

GFRC is part of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), an engineering research agency of the State of Texas and a member of The Texas A&M University System.

“The Gas and Fuels Research Center has a unique opportunity to lead multidisciplinary innovative research activities in natural gas exploration, production, treatment and processing to support Qatar, the world capital of natural gas, and the state of Texas, the world energy leader,” said Dr. Nimir Elbashir, the center’s director and associate professor in the chemical engineering program.

The center’s main objectives are to train highly skilled engineers and technical staff and to provide both research and service to industry and governmental agencies seeking to learn about the potential and use of natural gas as a fast-rising source of cleaner energy. Qatar is the natural destination for the Center, as it is home to some of the most significant gas resources on the planet, including the largest liquefied natural gas and gas-to-liquids plants in the world, and to an integrated supply chain of cleaner energy sources in addition to value-added chemicals and ultra-clean fuels. The GFRC will establish strong links with the research institutions and industry and governmental agencies both in Qatar and the United States.

The center will focus on several research areas immediately, including new gas exploration and production techniques, novel catalysts and materials for natural gas conversions, new processes related to hydrocarbon treatment, and new materials and mathematical models for property prediction and process design, explained Dr. Ioannis Economou, the center’s co-director.

“I am very confident that my colleagues involved in each of these areas, who are world class scientists and engineers, and their research will have tremendous impact in the local, regional and global oil and gas industrial community,” Economou said.

The launch of GFRC was envisioned during Texas A&M at Qatar’s Gas and Fuels Research Initiative (GFRI) and a two-day workshop on natural gas monetization that took place in Montgomery, Texas, in March 2014. The workshop was sponsored by the United States National Science Foundation (NSF), Texas A&M at Qatar and global energy corporations, Qatar Shell and Sasol. The center will not have its own building, but will use existing facilities in the Texas A&M Engineering Building in Doha and existing facilities in College Station, Texas. The aim in this initial phase of the center is to bring together stakeholders from across the energy universe to work on projects of mutual interest and make use of existing infrastructure.  At this first stage, funding will be used to support researchers such as grad students and post docs, and to upgrade research equipment.

“Faculties at both campuses have been very supportive,” Economou said.

Faculty members have been involved in all stages of the establishment of the center, including identifying priority research areas, as well as actively seeking funding from industry. This engagement will continue and further strengthen in the months to come because the power of the center lies in the contribution of its collaborating faculty, Economou added. The direct participation of 22 faculty members based at both College Station and Qatar campuses will provide students an excellent opportunity to not only work alongside new colleagues, but also benefit from the infrastructure found at both campuses.

Elbashir said, “I believe this will significantly improve the employment chances of any students who have the opportunity to do research at such an important center alongside professionals from world-leading corporate and governmental institutions.

“The center will provide opportunities for our students to get involved in exciting research projects of direct relevance to their future careers. By working to solve real life problems, they will acquire a strong knowledge of the fundamentals in chemical, petroleum and process engineering and a strong understanding of how these are applied to address some of the most challenging engineering problems. At the same time, they will have the chance to meet technical leaders from industry who can be their potential future employers.”

This important moment in the rush to develop new energy technologies globally makes the timing of the establishment of the center so important.

“Growth in the shale-gas industry in the US will lead to investments exceeding $100 billion over the next decade,” said Dr. Mahmoud El-Halwagi, the center’s managing director and McFerrin Professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M in College Station. “So there is great advantage to have Texas A&M University both in Qatar and College Station provide leadership, research, education, and outreach for the oil and gas industry at such a critical time.”

Professor Peter Valkó from the Harold Vance Department of Petroleum Engineering  in College Station and a faculty member of the GFRC agrees and sees the wide potential for the center.

“Arching over two continents and several disciplines, GFRC has the potential to become the definitive depository of knowledge and cradle of new technologies related to the production, transport and processing of natural gas.”

As the shale gas era has bloomed, the moment is here for such an important initiative for Texas A&M at Qatar.

“The State of Texas and specifically Texas A&M University played critical roles in leading the world during the oil era,” Economou said. “And now the opportunity has arrived to take the same leading role in the shale gas era.”