Shale Gas Boom Spurs Big Polymer Research Grant From Welch Foundation

In the wake of the massive shale gas boom, another boom is following, in the chemical industry. The explosion in domestic fracking is causing not only an increase in fossil fuel production—not to mention a host of environmental concerns—but also a new day for the petrochemical and polymer industry. 

And for at least one Texas university, that’s translating into big foundation dollars to expand polymer chemistry research. The University in Houston recently received $4 million from Texas-based Welch Foundation to establish the Center for Excellence in Polymer Chemistry.  

While Welch has been quite generous to Texas researchers in the past, this is one particularly large boost to this field, and is closely intertwined with the region’s rapidly expanding petrochemical industry. We’ve elsewhere explored how big things are happening in Houston’s cultural philanthropy. Well, turns out, that’s also the case for science research these days, particularly if you’re a chemist dealing with oil and gas.

The connection has to do with the fact that polymers—generally speaking, plastics and resins used in all kinds of products and industries—use oil and gas as feedstock. As shale gas extraction, which involves smashing underground rock formations to release gas deposits, has rapidly expanded in the U.S., it’s also been a gold rush for chemical companies. According to one report, there’s $8.5 billion in capital investment happening in Texas chemical facilities, and chemical companies are pouring money into hiring and training initiatives in the state, bracing for a boom.

The Welch Foundation, based in Houston, is getting in on the action. The foundation was endowed with fortunes of oil and gas tycoon Robert A. Welch, giving entirely to research in Texas, in the form of awards, endowed chairs, scholarships and project grants. State universities are its biggest beneficiaries, and with nearly $600 million in assets, it’s no small player, despite the regional focus. 

The 2013 grant to the University of Houston demonstrates just how influential it can be. The university is hiring four researchers right away and plans to eventually have a staff of 20 at the new polymer research center. As the associate dean of research Randy Lee said following the grant, “This is going to be a game changer for us.”

While the Center for Excellence in Polymer Chemistry will be devoted to basic science as opposed to applied science, university officials have made it loud and clear that the doors will be open to the petrochemical industry. The center will be eager to expand polymer technology in coordination with companies looking to take advantage of the new sources of feedstocks, and prepare Texas graduates to enter the growing workforce.  

As David Hoffman, chairman of the UH Department of Chemistry, said: “We would like to partner with local industry; that will be a part of the Center. It will not just be an academic center.”