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UW’s School of Energy Resources Marks Progress, Looks Ahead to Next Accomplishments

December 22, 2011
Two men
Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center graduate student Zachary Liesenfeld (right) and Alan Hamner gather data on soil samples. The Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center is one of the centers of excellence in the UW School of Energy Resources. (UW Photo)

With backing from industry and elected officials and a focus on research, academics and work force development, the University of Wyoming's School of Energy Resources (SER) has established itself as a key institution just five years after its creation.

Now, even as its new $25.4 million home is under construction on the north side of the UW campus, SER leaders are moving forward with the next steps to ensure that Wyoming becomes a global leader in building a secure and sustainable energy future.

With guidance from its external board, the Wyoming Energy Resources Council, SER has adopted a strategic plan for the next five years. It maintains its core mission of education, research and outreach while focusing new investment in three areas: helping find ways to tap unconventional reservoirs of oil and natural gas, adding value to coal and natural gas through conversion and refining processes, and improving technologies in wind and solar energy.

"What we are building with our partners at the university and in the energy industry is something that gives great distinction to the University of Wyoming and an outstanding opportunity to its students," says Mark Northam, SER director. "It also will help drive the state's economy as our energy industry adapts to a changing world energy landscape."

One of the first challenges for SER leaders was creating a nationally competitive academic program to give UW students the tools to solve significant energy challenges. The school is well on its way to that goal, having created 11 distinguished professorships in eight departments across four UW colleges and awarding more than 100 graduate assistantships.

The school reached a milestone in December when it awarded its first two bachelor's degrees in energy resource science to students Sabrina Forbis of Riverton and Kyle McDonald of Jackson. The number of students enrolled in energy-related majors has tripled since 2005, and a master's degree program is in development.

Plans call for up to eight more faculty positions to be created over the next five years.

"When we began, we had great hopes for the School of Energy Resources," UW President Tom Buchanan says. "I am delighted with the progress we've achieved in building the academic program, hiring top faculty and researchers, and the collaborative relationships that have been built with existing faculty and programs at UW, as well as with new partners in industry."

SER's education and research efforts will get a big boost when the new UW Energy Resources Center opens. The project is on schedule and slated for completion by the end of September 2012. The facility, funded through private donations and state matching funds, will encompass about 30,000 square feet, highlighted by 12,000 square feet of rapidly reconfigurable laboratory space.

"Completion of the Energy Resources Center will initiate a new era of distance collaboration and provide new research tools for UW students and faculty to work with," Northam says.

Out of its temporary quarters in the UW Bureau of Mines Building, SER has already established eight "centers of excellence" to develop energy research programs across multiple disciplines. Those include: multiphase fluid flow, carbon management, photoconversion and catalysis, energy economics and public policy, biogenic natural gas, wind energy and reclamation and restoration.

In line with its new focus on unconventional reservoirs such as shale gas and oil, and on conversion technologies such as coal-to-liquid fuels, SER plans to develop two more centers of excellence in those areas. Northam explains the university can play a key role in developing commercially viable technologies that will help industry, and in turn, boost the state's economy.

"We have an extraordinary opportunity here," ERC Chairman Ron Harper says. "We're extremely well positioned for advancements across all areas of energy in Wyoming. That's critical to the state's economic future."

For SER to achieve the objectives in its strategic plan, additional public and private support will be needed. UW plans to follow the same basic approach used to get SER off the ground, supplementing public dollars with private investment.

Gov. Matt Mead recently proposed investing $20 million in Abandoned Mine Lands funding over the next biennium to implement the new strategic areas of concentration of SER's initiatives, and UW hopes to obtain $20 million more in corporate contributions. Eventually, SER leaders expect the centers of excellence to become largely self-funding through grants and contracts.

"We have been fortunate in receiving the support we have from our legislative and corporate partners, and look forward to working with them for years to come," Northam says.

Other parts of the SER strategic plan include continuing outreach efforts such as the UW conference on hydraulic fracturing that took place last fall, creating more internship opportunities with private-sector partners, and further collaboration with the UW colleges of Business and Law.

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