Penn State

Penn State to helm federal fossil fuels project

In November, Penn State President Eric Barron stood in front of his board of trustees and announced a goal. He wanted Penn State to become the nation’s leading energy university.

The school took a step closer to that goal this week with the help of a $20 million six-year multi-college project for the federal government.

On Wednesday, the university was able to confirm that it had won an open competition to steer a Department of Energy project for the National Energy Technology Laboratory. Penn State will take the helm of a University Coalition for Fossil Energy Research. The goal is to “advance basic and applied research for clean energy in support of the U.S. Department of Energy mission.”

Penn State’s job will be to “identify, select, execute, review and disseminate knowledge from research that will improve the efficiency of production and use of fossil energy resources while minimizing the environmental impacts and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

In charge of it all will be fuel science and chemical engineering professor Chunshan Song, director of the university’s Energy Institute.

“It fits great into our energy university theme,” said vice president of research Neil Sharkey. “It was really a highly competitive solicitation. A lot of other universities were competing to lead this. It speaks pretty highly of our abilities in this space.”

The National Energy Technology Laboratory is full of heavy hitters in the field, like MIT, Princeton, Texas A&M, USC and Virginia Tech.

“Penn State has clearly established itself among the very top tier of America’s powerhouse energy research universities,” said Barron in a release. “I’m very pleased that Dr. Song has been recognized with this leadership role, and will be working with colleagues at other distinguished universities to generate and disseminate the knowledge that will address the energy security needs of our nation.”

Penn State’s leadership in research on fossil fuels was one of Barron’s selling points for the energy university concept. The university’s work on the topic goes back to 1859. The coalition will research coal, natural gas and oil. Pennsylvania is a historic coal mining state, a major focus of natural gas drilling with the Marcellus Shale and the site of the first oil well in the U.S.

“What this entails really is the National Energy Technology Lab will route a lot of their (research and development) through us. We will coordinate all that so the very best scientists are doing the government’s work. We’re really given the responsibility to be administrators and stewards of the government’s investment,” said Sharkey.

The project was supported by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who released the letter he wrote to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last year.

“This strong network of academic research resources would support basic and applied research projects that would significantly contribute to improvements in the efficiency of production and utilization of fossil energy resources, while reducing the environmental impacts and minimizing carbon emissions,” he wrote.

Barron has also trumpeted the university’s continuing high totals of grants, contracts and federal projects.

Last year, he said the university was on track for its fifth consecutive year topping $800 million in research. The largest portion of that has been coming from federal sources like the NSF, NASA, Department of Defense and the DOE. In 2013, federal agencies put more than $530 million into research at Penn State.

“These type of large awards that are long lasting and multi-million dollar awards absolutely show confidence in our abilities,” said Sharkey. “I couldn’t be more proud. This is right in line with our strategic plan.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce