The National Science Foundation awarded UT two separate grants worth a combined $18.8 million for research and development this month.
The University announced the launch of a $15.6 million center focused on materials research on Monday, six days after revealing UT engineers would receive $3.2 million to help lead a national center focused on converting natural gas into transportation fuel.
Chemical engineering professor Joan Brennecke was selected as the deputy director of the natural gas research center, called the Center for Innovative and Strategic Transformation of Alkane Resources, CISTAR. She said funding from the National Science Foundation allows UT professionals to conduct research they would not be able to otherwise.
“It’s with this funding from the federal government that we have the opportunity to do the more basic research … that will make it possible for us to make improvements and breakthroughs,” Brennecke said. “This isn’t something that a company can go out today and just do.”
UT is in the top-fifth percentile of 905 institutions funded by the National Science Foundation. The most recent data from their website shows that in 2015, UT ranked 30th in the nation for most research funding received.
The materials research center, called the Center for Dynamics and Control of Materials, CDCM, will unite a variety of professional backgrounds to work on developing advanced materials, said CDCM director Edward Yu. Research in this area could have applications in battery technology, water filtration and quantum computing, said Yu, a computer engineering professor.
“My overall goal is not only to advance research in the directions we’ve proposed but to really help to build this community of researchers and educators and investigators at all levels,” Yu said. “My hope is that we’ll be able to have this for a very long time.”
Although CDCM is run entirely by UT professionals, CISTAR’s administrative headquarters will be at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. UT will serve as a secondary research base, with additional aid from Northwestern University, the University of New Mexico and the University of Notre Dame. CISTAR will be given $3.2 million over a period of five years.
CDCM will receive $2.6 million per year for six years, but the center has the potential to last longer, Yu said. At the end of the funded period, CDCM can apply to be refunded for another six years.
Both centers will have opportunities for graduate students and undergraduate students to get involved. Chemical engineering professor Benny Freeman will be supervising student research within the CISTAR program.
“(The program will) bring UT preeminence in this area of research,” Freeman said. “It will certainly help a number of graduate students get their (doctorate degrees), and we’ll have outreach efforts that will involve undergraduates as well.”
CISTAR researchers will focus on obtaining natural gas from shale rock in Texas and converting it into transportation fuels. Brennecke said estimates predict successful research in this area could bring up to $20 billion per year to the Texas economy.
Brennecke said getting involved in national research will bolster UT’s reputation as a university.
“I think if we make a difference to people and companies in Texas … that strengthens our relationship with the people in our state,” Brennecke said. “That’s what makes us an important state university.”