Energizing Energy Research

By Gene Charleton

Newly established institute aims to bring together the varied energy-related resources scattered across the state at Texas A&M University System institutions.

Energy is a hot topic these days.

Whether it’s the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, impact of greenhouse gases on global climate change or promising new alternative fuels, energy is a critical challenge facing engineering researchers.

The Texas A&M University System’s new Energy Engineering Institute (EEI), a unit of the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), aims to bring together the expertise and resources throughout the A&M System to address some of the world’s biggest energy challenges.

"We can demonstrate and implement new technologies and training for our stakeholders and research sponsors."

"We want the Energy Engineering Institute to be a portal to the resources available across The Texas A&M University System," says EEI director Theresa Maldonado. "EEI will be a highly visible entry point to our existing framework of energy for researchers across the A&M System and the external stakeholders who can use that expertise — if they know how to reach it," says Maldonado, who is also associate vice chancellor for research in the A&M System.

The EEI was established in late 2009, and Maldonado, then a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and TEES associate director, was named its director last spring.

Engineering research on energy issues is a long tradition at Texas A&M University, stretching back at least to the establishment of the Department of Petroleum Engineering in 1929. But EEI isn’t what engineering research into energy used to be.

Across the A&M System, unique assets range from well-established research programs in oil and gas reservoir characterization and wind energy to developing software and hardware to operate future smart electrical distribution grids and energy efficiency in commercial, industrial and residential buildings.

"The fact that we have the state agencies [TEES, the Texas Engineering Extension Service, Texas Transportation Institute, Texas Forest Service, Texas AgriLife Research and Texas AgriLife Extension Service] is a unique asset as well," she says. "The college of engineering [at Texas A&M University] is where we do this, typically, but in partnership with the agencies.

"The message is: We have unique assets. We have Texas A&M University, plus the institutions of the A&M System, with state agencies that enable us to go from fundamental research to applying that research to real-world issues."

"We can demonstrate and implement new technologies and training for our stakeholders and research sponsors," she says. "A lot of universities are not structured like that."

And access to resources outside the traditional engineering community — such as Texas A&M University’s agriculture program; researchers in chemistry, physics, and other traditional science disciplines; and the George Bush School of Government and Public Service — adds even more valuable expertise.

EEI also brings together a possibly unique combination of physical facilities, too, she says. These facilities range from the Alternative Energy Institute at West Texas A&M University in the Texas Panhandle, where researchers have been studying wind power for three decades, to Texas A&M’s Offshore Technology Research Center in College Station, the only wave basin of its size and sophistication at a U.S. university.

Maldonado likes to emphasize EEI’s function as a facilitator that will bring together the varied energy resources across the A&M System rather than as an organization that will control existing organizations’ research programs or compete with them for research funding.

"The message is: We have unique assets," Maldonado says. "We have Texas A&M University, plus the institutions of the A&M System, with state agencies that enable us to go from fundamental research to applying that research to real-world issues."

For more, visit www.energyengineering.org.