Energy and Environment Initiative awards first grants

Energy and Environment InitiativeRice University’s Energy and Environment Initiative has awarded its first grants to Rice faculty to develop innovative research programs aimed at addressing some of the energy industry’s most pressing sustainability challenges.

“Fossil-energy companies have major challenges ahead,” said Charles McConnell, the initiative’s executive director. “The marketplace demands energy security and cost competitiveness. Regulators demand environmental responsibility and leadership, and both of these suffer due to the underfunding of research and development for transformational fossil-energy technologies. The Energy and Environment Initiative aspires to address all aspects of these challenges.”

Now in its second year, Rice’s Energy and Environment Initiative is working to establish research partnerships between Rice faculty and companies for multidisciplinary programs to address major challenges. The initiative draws from all corners of the university — engineering, public policy, business, humanities and both the natural and social sciences.

The initiative is advised by a six-member faculty executive committee that includes Vice Provost for Research Vicki Colvin and is chaired by Pedro Alvarez, the George R. Brown Professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Other committee members include Ken Medlock, the James A. Baker III and Susan G. Baker Fellow in Energy and Resource Economics at the Baker Institute and adjunct assistant professor in economics; Alan Levander, Rice’s Carey Croneis Professor of Earth Science and director of Rice’s Data Analysis and Visualization Cyberinfrastructure (DAVinCI) project; Dominic Boyer, professor of anthropology; and William Arnold, professor in the practice of energy management at the Jones School.

McConnell said the initiative has three award funding categories. One is for leadership grants in key departmental focus areas where Rice aspires to create “critical mass” and a clear path to industry involvement. The second category, enhancement grants, builds on early research by supporting the development of the business plans and building connections with external companies and stakeholders. The third type of award, seed grants, is designed to enable investigators to form new collaborations and seek outside support for early stage concepts and challenges.

The following projects and principal investigators were awarded grants this spring.

Leadership grants, $100,000:

  • Visualization and imaging for exploration and production in concert with seismological analysis, Alan Levander, Earth science. This grant will fund the development of seismic analysis techniques to complement the efforts of the Shale Resources Research Group (see “Enhancement grants” below). The techniques would allow energy companies to streamline and ensure the accuracy of labor-intensive and computationally intensive steps that currently are required to produce highly detailed and accurate rock-property descriptions of hydrocarbon reservoirs.
  • Rice Water and Energy Research Center (WERC), Pedro Alvarez, civil and environmental engineering. This multidisciplinary center aims to reduce the economic and environmental costs associated with the “water footprint” of oil and gas production. Rice WERC, which will also contribute to global health through safer water, will enable integrated water management through fundamental research and innovative technology.
  • Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences (CENHS), Dominic Boyer, anthropology. To further develop CENHS — the first research center designed to sponsor research on the energy-environment nexus across the humanities, social sciences and arts — this grant will foster cross-campus engagement, course development, undergraduate involvement and Houston-area outreach. The grant also will support philanthropic outreach and the creation of an international research network in energy and environmental human sciences.

Enhancement grants, $100,000 over two years:

  • Bio-mediated processes for unconventional oil production, George Bennett, biochemistry and cell biology. The investigators will leverage their previous success in engineering enzymes and microbial systems for the bioconversion of renewable feedstocks into fuels and chemicals. The funding will help establish a transformative initiative for in-situ or ex-situ biological processing of asphaltenes to assist with production, transportation and refining of heavy oils.
  • Creation of the Shale Resources Research Group and focus on all aspects of hydraulic fracking, Brandon Dugan, Earth science. To establish the Shale Resources Research Group as an academic and industry leader in shale hydrocarbon research, the grant will fund upgrades to the Rice Geotechnical Laboratory that will allow high-pressure mechanical experiments on shale cores as well as simultaneous geophysical and petrophysical measurements.
  • Planning and development for the Rice WERC, Qilin Li, civil and environmental engineering. Rice WERC will address regional challenges related to the energy and water nexus through policy and technology innovation informed by a systems perspective. To build upon the center’s collaborative activities, this grant will support the development of partnerships with the water and energy industries, state and city governments, public utilities and academic collaborators. A top priority is the preparation of a full proposal for a multiyear grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Engineering Research Center (ERC) program. Rice WERC was one of 18 teams invited by the NSF to submit a full ERC proposal from more than 200 pre-proposal applicants.

Seed grants:

  • Economic and Environmental Assessment with the Rice Energy Models, $40,000, Daniel Cohan, civil and environmental engineering, and Ted Loch-Temzelides, economics and the Baker Institute for Public Policy. To better assess the impacts of policy choices and technological developments affecting energy supply and the emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, the investigators will lead an effort to integrate both economic and engineering systems approaches into the framework of energy models developed by Rice economists.
  • Industry-Rice Earth Science Symposia (IRESS), $20,000, Richard Gordon, Earth science. This new annual symposium aims to facilitate communication and cooperation among industry experts, Rice faculty and other academic experts who are addressing crucial exploration problems of mutual interest, including seismic imaging, sedimentary deposition systems and processes, petrophysics related to seismic imaging and hydrocarbon production, global and regional tectonics, climate change and CO2 sequestration.
  • Design of Smart, Tunable and Safe Oil Well Cement, $40,000, Rouzbeh Shahsavari, civil and environmental engineering. This project takes a bold approach to ensure the best performance and application of well cement. The goal is to establish an academia/industry consortium on “Smart, Tunable and Safe Oil Well Cement” integrating three major thrusts of experiments, simulations and socioeconomics. This multidisciplinary platform will synergize various world-class expertise, faculties and facilities of Rice and industrial partners, including materials science, chemical, mechanical and civil engineering disciplines as well as economics, risk assessment and pubic policy skills; it is intended to provide a system approach to reliable design of oil well cement from the molecular level up.


About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.