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Philanthropy Builds High Bay, Supports Research

September 5, 2017
large crowd in front of building
Gov. Matt Mead speaks at the grand opening for the High Bay Research Facility Aug. 17. The event included a ribbon cutting, symposium and other special events.

The private investment in UW ensures the state’s economic and energy future.

By Tamara Linse

The High Bay Research Facility, which houses the Center of Innovation for Flow Through Porous Media, represents a huge leap forward. It is dedicated primarily to performing state-of-the-art, world-leading research in understanding how to recover more oil and gas from unconventional reservoirs.

The $68 million, 90,000-square-foot High Bay is made up of flexible high-bay laboratory space for the cutting-edge research of the Center of Innovation for Flow through Porous Media, the Improved Oil Recovery Laboratory, the Geomechanical/Petrology Laboratory and a Structures Research Laboratory.

The remarkable advances at the High Bay are made possible by companies stepping up and supporting the facility’s construction and the programs within it through sponsored research, technology and professorships.

“None of this would have been possible had the oil and gas industry—and the coal industry—not stepped up 10 years ago when we started to build the School of Energy Resources,” says Mark Northam, executive director. “They voted on the value of energy programs at UW with their dollars.” Now they’re stepping up again to support the High Bay.

High Bay Supporters

A number of donors gave mostly to support facility construction, others gave mostly for sponsored research, others gave equipment or software, and many gave for a broad range of things. Almost all of this support—and its impact—was doubled by state matching funds.

Hess Corp. is the University of Wyoming’s largest corporate supporter. The company has given a transformational investment that totals $25 million. The state matched at least $23.2 million of that, further increasing the impact.

A recent gift of $15 million includes $5.5 million for the High Bay, $4.5 million for sponsored research on unconventional oil and gas reservoirs, $4.5 million for equipment and technology within the facility, and $500,000 for laboratory performance development.

A previous $5 million supports the Hess Digital Rock Physics Laboratory Nano Resolution Imaging, and another $5 million supports research, the High Bay, and technology and equipment.

Scientific and technical instrument manufacturer Thermo Fisher Scientific (formerly FEI) provided state-of-the-art imaging equipment, software and support for cutting-edge digital rock research that, with state matching funds, totaled $24 million.

Leading oil field services company Halliburton gifted $2 million for the High Bay and $1 million for research into unconventional reservoirs. This was doubled to $6 million through state matching funds and the School of Energy Resources research matching funds.

A $1 million gift doubled by state matching from global oil field services company Baker Hughes Inc. supports research into the behavior of multi-phase fluids in oil and gas reservoirs at UW’s Hess Digital Rock Physics Laboratory. Another gift of $500,000, matched by the state, from Baker Hughes supported the High Bay facility itself, and a past gift was of an X-ray defractometer and support of student drilling fluids laboratories.

International oil and gas company ExxonMobil contributed $2.5 million to provide laboratory equipment for improved oil and gas recovery, which was matched by the state for $5 million.

A total of $2.5 million from Alchemy Sciences Inc., a company focused on improving oil and gas recovery, supports the work of the School of Energy Resources in the High Bay, as well as establishing a chair in the Department of Petroleum Engineering. These funds leveraged additional funding from the College of Engineering and Applied Science and the state of Wyoming, for a total of $5 million.

Marathon Oil Corp. gave $1 million to further improve UW’s academic and research offerings in the area of energy production. This amount was doubled to $2 million by state matching funds.

High Bay construction also benefited from investments from Shell Oil Co. and Arch Coal.

Individuals have also done their part. Dedicated philanthropist and UW supporter Marian H. Rochelle donated $1 million for the facility, doubled to $2 million by state matching. Tom Botts and his wife, Shelley, created the Thomas and Shelley Botts Endowed Chair in Unconventional Reservoirs in the College of Engineering and Applied Science with $1 million, doubled to $2 million by state matching funds.

Other partnerships are in the making. Saudi Aramco, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia, is investing in research in petroleum engineering and geoscience in Professor Mohammad Piri’s lab.

Sponsored Research

Sponsored research works in the same way as federal grants. The donor or sponsor sits down with the principal investigator, and they design a program of work that both answers a specific problem for the sponsor but also has scholarly benefit.

Once an agreement is reached, a research contract is signed, which is equivalent to a Department of Energy or National Science Foundation contract. Requirements of the contract may include the principal investigator sharing the results in a timely manner and possibly teaching the sponsor’s workforce how to use the results. These vary from contract to contract.

“One of the criticisms of sponsored research,” says Northam, “is that it is not as pure and fundamental as researchers might perform under a federal grant. The truth is it’s all research that’s adding knowledge. The difference is that there’s a much faster pathway for implementation for sponsored research than ‘blue sky’ or fundamental research.”

Northam adds, “I assure you that the problems that are being investigated are adding to the fundamental knowledge base as much as anything—in fact, probably more because the information is relevant to the real world today.”

Much of this funding goes to support research into unconventional reservoirs and improved recovery and the work of Piri’s High Bay lab, the Center of Innovation for Flow through Porous Media. The goal of this center is to improve understanding of how to maximize recovery from conventional and unconventional oil and gas reservoirs—part of UW’s Tier-1 Engineering Initiative and the School of Energy Resources’ Strategic Areas of Concentration.

Beyond Partnerships

These organizations are made up of people who have dedicated themselves to helping UW, the state and the nation ensure its energy future. Those who make up these companies—many of whom are UW alums—give back in many ways.

For example, Greg Hill is a 1983 UW graduate in mechanical engineering. He is chief operating officer and president of Hess Corp. and a donor to the university. He is a member or chair of a number of UW boards, including the UW Foundation Board; the Wyoming Governor’s Energy, Engineering, STEM Integration Task Force; and the ENDOW Initiative.

Tom Botts is a 1977 UW graduate in civil engineering. He is the retired executive VP for Shell Oil Co. and is a donor to the university. He serves on Wyoming Governor’s Energy, Engineering, STEM Integration Task Force; the Energy Resources Council; the UW Foundation Board; the Trustees Education Initiative; and the UW Science Initiative Task Force.

Chad Deaton is a 1976 UW graduate in geology. He worked for Schlumberger Oilfield Services and is the retired CEO of Baker Hughes Inc. and a donor to the university. He serves on the UW Foundation Board and on the Wyoming Governor’s Energy, Engineering, STEM Integration Task Force.

Last and certainly not least, huge amounts of gratitude go out to current and past governors and the state Legislature. It was their forward thinking that created the environment that made all these advancements possible—the planning, the partnerships, the facilities, the research.

In 2012, state leadership established a matching fund for energy research at UW, adding additional money in 2014. These matching funds made the High Bay possible.

As Northam says, “They created an environment that allowed us a huge advantage over universities that might have been more attractive. These universities have long-standing relationships with these companies. The fact that we could double their money added us to their list.”

Northam adds, “The state leadership’s foresight and willingness to use the money when we had it will pay returns to the state in the long run. That was an unbelievably supportive program. We are appropriately thankful for making it all possible.”

State leadership did much more than just authorize state support. Former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, Gov. Matt Mead, former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and others played an active role in encouraging companies to partner with UW: “Another part of the uniqueness that is Wyoming,” says Northam. “That’s very unusual.”

Just the Beginning

The High Bay facility will benefit UW and the state in many ways. Cutting-edge research activities—that were previously merely pipe dreams—are made possible with these sponsorships and this facility. Not only that, UW has much more capacity than it had previously, and the flexibility of the facility allows this research to come up to speed quickly.

These partnerships provide support for graduate students whose roles in faculty research are vital. Many of these grad students find jobs immediately after graduation with the companies who sponsored their research. This research results in a wealth of intellectual property for the university and dozens of publications and invitations to conferences for faculty and their graduate students.

This research impacts the state in many ways, too. The knowledge gained helps producers—the basis of much of our economy—to be more effective and more efficient. They can produce more and hence add more money back into the economy, creating jobs.

“The benefit to the U.S. is apparent in where we are today,” Northam says. “It’s what’s led to our near-energy-independence—versus 10 years ago when we were highly reliant on people who may not have liked us very much. Now we export oil and gas.”

He sums it up this way: “We are an energy-independent country again because of the rapid development of producing oil and gas from unconventional reservoirs.”

Simply put, this facility and the research it inspires places UW on a world stage, greatly enhancing our standing with academia, industry and other influential institutions.

“This isn’t the end,” Northam says. “It is really the beginning. The building is important, but what goes on inside it is more important. As we add capacity, the impact is growing dramatically.”

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