The University of Houston has named Joseph Powell, former chief scientist for Shell and member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), as the founding director of the new UH Energy Transition Institute.
Powell’s recruitment to the University was funded by a matching grant from the Governor’s University Research Initiative (GURI) aimed at helping Texas public institutions of higher education recruit distinguished researchers from around the world to the state. Started in 2015 by Gov. Greg Abbott’s Office of Economic Development & Tourism and the state legislature, the program has led to several transformative faculty hires at UH in recent years.
A nationally renowned chemical engineering expert with 36 years of industry experience, Powell has led research and development programs in new chemical processes, biofuels and enhanced oil recovery. Additionally, he chaired the U.S. Department of Energy Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee (HTAC) and was elected to the NAE in 2021 after serving two terms on its board on chemical sciences and technology. He is UH’s 18th member of the NAE.
Instead of enjoying a quiet retirement from industry, Powell chose to join UH to make a difference in the global shift to clean energy. In addition to leading the institute, Powell serves as a faculty member in the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at the UH Cullen College of Engineering.
“What excites me about my new role is the opportunity to work with students, faculty and industry to make a difference on problems that truly matter. Who could pass that up? Imagine the difficulties that arise when you don’t have access to energy,” Powell said. “At this point in time, the global transformation to energy abundance is not complete, so we must grow the energy system while reducing its impact on climate and the environment, and also develop circular systems to recycle materials and reduce waste. That’s a tall order, but a necessity to bring clean energy and sustainable chemicals into play globally and develop solutions that improve the quality of life for all.”
The UH Energy Transition Institute, established in March 2022 with a $10 million commitment from Shell USA Inc. and Shell Global Solutions (US) Inc., is focused on the research and education in the areas of production and use of reliable, affordable and cleaner energy for all in a just and equitable manner while helping society transition to a net-zero future. UH faculty and students will partner with Shell employees and other industry leaders to work in three key areas: hydrogen, carbon management and circular plastics.
Powell said the institute will allow him to leverage strengths across the University and in the energy sector to progress the energy transition and position Houston as a leading global energy transition hub.
He envisions the institute will have several important roles. One is to serve as a bridge between different stakeholders – connecting UH faculty experts and students to industry, connecting established mature players with experience and resources to startups and incubators pushing new ideas and innovation – and bringing them together to work on mutually beneficial solutions toward a net-zero future more efficiently.
“We must be the trusted voice for stakeholders and the community that is objective and knowledgeable, where industry comes to present ideas and challenges, where faculty come with their research interests and expertise to partner and achieve more together, and where students are transformed into the energy workforce and leaders of tomorrow.”
Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president for energy and innovation at UH, believes Powell will bolster the University’s collective efforts to lead the energy transition.
“Dr. Powell brings extensive experience, insight and passion to the position. I anticipate the institute growing under his leadership to further strengthen UH’s position as the Energy University. We are grateful Governor Abbott prioritizes funding to bring recognized researchers to Texas through GURI and believe Dr. Powell will play a pivotal role in finding solutions to critical local and global challenges around the energy transition,” said Krishnamoorti, who noted that GURI previously enabled the University to recruit world-class researchers and NAE members Ganesh Thakur, Andrea Prosperetti and Birol Dindoruk, and John Suppe, a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
In addition to conducting innovative research, the Energy Transition Institute will be responsible for driving four important work streams – science, engineering and technology; policy and regulation; equity, diversity and justice; and workforce and talent – through recruitment, public-private partnerships, interdisciplinary research and critical training opportunities for the existing workforce to help them transition into new energy areas.
The Energy Transition Institute is one of four institutes that have been or will be established through the $100 Million Challenge. Funded by an anonymous donor in 2019, the $100 Million Challenge is a transformational matching fund designed to propel UH’s academic enterprise to unprecedented levels of distinction through philanthropic investment in UH’s research and scholarship. Gifts, combined with a one-to-one match from the anonymous donor and potential matching funds from the state, has enabled UH to increase the number of endowed chairs and professorships.
Powell is co-inventor for over 125 patent applications, with more than 60 granted, and is a Fellow and former director of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). He has received numerous industry awards including the A. D. Little Award for Chemical Engineering Innovation (AIChE 1998), R&D100 Award (R&D Magazine) and American Chemical Society Team Innovation Award (2000). He is co-editor and author of the book “Sustainable Development in the Process Industries: Cases and Impact, John Wiley & Sons, New York (2010),” and serves on the editorial board of Annual Review of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and on a current National Academy study on carbon utilization.
He earned his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia. Both are in chemical engineering.