Former Shell Chief Scientist Joseph Powell has joined UH to lead its new Energy Transition Institute. Photo via uh.edu

The University of Houston has announced the first leader of its Shell-backed Energy Transition Institute.

Joseph Powell has been named the founding director of the institute, which was founded following a $10 million donation from Shell in spring of last year. Powell is the former chief scientist for Shell and member of the National Academy of Engineering, according to a news release from UH.

“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," Powell says in the release. "Who could pass that up? Imagine the difficulties that arise when you don’t have access to energy.

“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," he continues. "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 appointment was funded by a matching grant from the Governor’s University Research Initiative, a program that was created in 2015 to help Texas's public universities recruit the top researchers. In addition to his role at the institute, Powell will also serve as a faculty member in the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at the UH Cullen College of Engineering.

“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," says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president for energy and innovation at UH, in the release. "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."

Powell's name is associated with over 125 patent applications, with more than 60 granted. He has 36 years of chemical engineering experience and has led research and development programs in new chemical processes, biofuels and enhanced oil recovery.

The new institute — through its faculty and industry partnerships — is geared at education and research into the future of affordable and cleaner energy, including hydrogen, carbon management and circular plastics.

“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," he says in the release.

Houston-based Nauticus Robotics has moved on to the next stage of working with energy giant Shell. Image via Nauticus

Houston robotics company announces partnership with Shell

subsea agreement

A Houston tech company that has developed subsea and surface robotic services using autonomy software has announced an agreement with Shell.

The partnership will provide technology from Nauticus Robotics Inc. to Shell in order to enhance and optimize subsea integrity data collection via the company's robotic platforms, according to a news release. Nauticus has two robotic vessels — fully electric subsea robot, Aquanaut, which is deployed from Nauticus’ small surface vessel, and Hydronaut, which is used to transport, recharge, and communicate with Aquanaut, among other tasks.

This collaboration comes following the completion of an initial feasibility study for the phase-gated project. The next step is this operational qualification phase, per the release, which will focus on remote operations of the robotics. The collaboration is targeting the preliminary work required for an offshore pilot project.

“Working with a leading company such as Shell marks an exciting milestone for Nauticus, and this collaboration further validates the superior capabilities and extensive use cases of our robots across the energy sector,” says Todd Newell, senior vice president of business development at Nauticus, in the release. “Implementing our supervised autonomous method – one that has proven more robust and dynamic than most of its kind – is expected to provide our partner and future customers more than 50 percent cost savings compared to today’s methods of operation.”

A robotics-as-a-service company, Nauticus's technology — a mix of hardware and software — optimizes and automates subsea data collection for its partners, like Shell.

“An exciting aspect of this project is the opportunity to combine the strengths of advanced inspection tooling with the advanced marine robotic capabilities developed by Nauticus Robotics,” says Shell's Deepwater Robotics Engineer Ross Doak in the release. “This project aims to fundamentally improve how we collect subsea facility data, through the combination of ‘AUV native’ tooling design, supervised autonomy, and recent improvements in remote communications.”

Founded in 2014 as Houston Mechatronics by Nicolaus Radford, the company rebranded to Nauticus in 2021. Earlier this year, the company announced a partnership with Wood, a Houston-based energy company.

Two Houston-based companies made it into this new clean tech accelerator. Photo via greentownlabs.com

Houston clean tech startup accelerator announces 7 companies to inaugural cohort

seeing green

The Low-Carbon Hydrogen Accelerator announced its inaugural class of clean tech startups — two of which hail from right here in Hosuton.

In all, seven startups have been chosen to participate this year in the Low-Carbon Hydrogen Accelerator, which was announced in November. The six-month accelerator program offers collaboration and engagement opportunities with the Electric Power Research Institute and its member utilities, as well as with Shell. Through the accelerator, the institute and Shell will provide startups with two innovation paths: a technology validation track and a technology demonstration track.

The accelerator — part of the Green Go program, affiliated with Greentown Labs — is aimed at coming up with innovations in low-carbon hydrogen production, storage, and distribution.

“Accelerating low-carbon hydrogen technologies is an essential part of achieving global net-zero targets by 2050,” Neva Espinoza, vice president of energy supply and low-carbon resources at the Electric Power Research Institute, says in a news release.

The inaugural LCHA cohort includes:

  • Advanced Ionics, based in Milwaukee, is enabling green hydrogen production without the green premium.
  • Arco Technologies from Bologna, Italy, is developing a proprietary Anion Exchange Membrane electrolyzer with the lowest capital expenditures and operating expenses possible today.
  • Based in Manchester in the United Kingdom, Clean Power is developing a novel, low-cost, highly durable hydrogen polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell delivering zero-emission electricity.
  • Element Resources, based in Houston, is enabling compressed hydrogen storage tank technology.
  • Another local company, Smartpipe Technologies is developing a robust self-monitored repurposed pipeline system for hydrogen with minimal environmental disruption.
  • SPEC Sensors from California is creating a robust and reliable meshed sensor network for hydrogen leak detection and line-monitoring systems.
  • Canadian company RUNWITHIT Synthetics is creating a live, digital twin modeling platform that generates decision-support data for regional hydrogen-demand scenarios.

Element Resources, which produces hydrogen from renewables for mobility, power production, and energy storage, is collaborating with Zhifeng Ren, M.D. Anderson chair professor in physics and director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at the University of Houston.

The other Houston startup, Smartpipe Technologies, announced earlier this month that Canadian pipeline company Enbridge had made a $6.6 million investment in the startup.

For 2022, the accelerator received applications from 88 startups in 18 countries. The five other participants this year are from California; Wisconsin; Alberta, Canada; Italy; and the United Kingdom.

Aside from the Electric Power Research Institute, Shell USA, and Greentown, the accelerator’s partners are the City of Houston and the Urban Future Lab at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.

“Creating a robust hydrogen economy will require a systems-oriented approach and unparalleled cooperation between corporate partners and emerging companies,” says Ryan Dings, chief operating officer and general counsel at Greentown Labs.

Greentown operates startup incubators in Somerville, Massachusetts, and Houston.

The University of Houston Cougars are seeing green with this news. Photo via UH.edu

Shell commits $10M to UH for new Energy Transition Institute

seeing green

A new clean energy-focused institute emerging on the University of Houston campus has been buoyed by funding from an energy behemoth.

Shell USA Inc. and Shell Global Solutions (US) Inc. has granted UH a $10 million gift to establish the Energy Transition Institute. According to a news release, the institute — focused on three core areas: hydrogen, carbon management, and circular plastics — is expected to receive financial support that will likely exceed $52 million across donations from all parties.

With UH as one of the most ethnically diverse research universities in the country and its founding partner Shell, the initiative will focus on serving vulnerable communities and leading the energy transition in an equitable way.

“Houston is poised, like no other city, to lead the energy transition and the Energy Transition Institute will be essential in pursuit of that goal,” says UH Chancellor and President Renu Khator in the release. “Along with advancing energy equity and social impacts in our communities, Shell’s generous gift will help UH maintain its leadership role in the energy transition.”

Khator says this initiative will work in collaboration with Houston's energy industry and welcomes more partners like Shell to join in on the project.

“Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime — and it’s partnerships like this, along with other key drivers such as policy and technology, that together can help the US make progress on its net-zero goals,” says Shell USA President Gretchen Watkins in the release. “When you put brilliant minds together with the resources they need to do the work, amazing things can happen.”

Within the three clean tech verticals, the new institute will target four disciplines, according to the university:

  • Science, engineering, and technology: Recruit faculty energy transition research and technology expertise and drive new on-campus collaborations.
  • Policy and regulation: Develop new public-private partnerships and infrastructure for measuring success, as well as recruit new faculty in policy and regulation.
  • Equity, diversity, and justice: Drive stakeholder engagement across communities, including minority serving institutions universities, as well as research programs across disciplines focused on energy equity and environmental justice.
  • Workforce and talent: Upskill the existing workforce on topics related to sustainable energy development and work closely with Shell and other industrial partners

Shell is no stranger to UH and is founding member of the University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, which is expected to collaborate with the new Energy Transition Institute to innovate all things carbon capture, storage, and utilization — as well as hydrogen commercialization and circular plastics.

“These are important building blocks to transition society to a net zero future while still providing the products and services that people have come to expect and demand in their daily lives,” says Selda Gunsel, president of Shell Global Solutions, in the release. “The Shell technology community looks forward to working with the institute to co-develop crucial technology in these areas, as well as nurturing the diverse talent needed to drive the energy transition into the future.”

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity. Photo via Getty Images

3 businesses join Houston initiative for carbon capture and storage

seeing green

Three big businesses — Air Liquide, BASF, and Shell — have added their firepower to the effort to promote large-scale carbon capture and storage for the Houston area’s industrial ecosystem.

These companies join 11 others that in 2021 threw their support behind the initiative. Participants are evaluating how to use safe carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at Houston-area facilities that provide energy, power generation, and advanced manufacturing for plastics, motor fuels, and packaging.

Other companies backing the CCS project are Calpine, Chevron, Dow, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Linde, LyondellBasell, Marathon Petroleum, NRG Energy, Phillips 66, and Valero.

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity.

“Large-scale carbon capture and storage in the Houston region will be a cornerstone for the world’s energy transition, and these companies’ efforts are crucial toward advancing CCS development to achieve broad scale commercial impact,” Charles McConnell, director of University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, says in a news release.

McConnell and others say CCS could help Houston and the rest of the U.S. net-zero goals while generating new jobs and protecting current jobs.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial activities that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and then injecting it into deep underground geologic formations for secure and permanent storage. Carbon dioxide from industrial users in the Houston area could be stored in nearby onshore and offshore storage sites.

An analysis of U.S Department of Energy estimates shows the storage capacity along the Gulf Coast is large enough to store about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than 130 years’ worth of industrial and power generation emissions in the United States, based on 2018 data.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a single technology, but rather a series of technologies and scientific breakthroughs that work in concert to achieve a profound outcome, one that will play a significant role in the future of energy and our planet,” says Gretchen Watkins, U.S. president of Shell. “In that spirit, it’s fitting this consortium combines CCS blueprints and ambitions to crystalize Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world while contributing to local and U.S. plans to help achieve net-zero emissions.”

In addition to the $5 million partnership, Shell also pledged another $1 million to create a career pipeline for PVAMU students. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

Shell forms $5M carbon capture research partnership with Houston-area university

struck a deal

Houston-based Shell Global Solutions and Prairie View A&M University signed a $5 million partnership this week that aims to foster innovative and effective carbon dioxide utilization and carbon capture methods.

The five-year research agreement will be headquartered out of the Historically Black University's College of Agriculture and Human Sciences. A portion of the $5 million will go toward building new infrastructure and state-of-the-art greenhouses on the university's nearly 700 acres of land devoted to farm research.

Shell staff members are also slated to collaborate on research projects developed at the site.

In addition to the $5 million partnership, Shell also pledged another $1 million to create a career pipeline for PVAMU students. The funds will go toward university infrastructure, retention programs, and work experience opportunities.

"[Shell's] comprehensive approach — involving infrastructure, research collaboration, internships and ongoing staff involvement — is especially welcome," Ruth J. Simmons, president of PVAMU, said in a statement.

The new research program is funded through Shell's Projects & Technology organization, which "helps to ensure that neither people nor nature are harmed during the construction and operation of Shell’s facilities, and it supports Shell’s carbon-management activities," according to the company's website.

Shell has launched more than 220 research and development projects through this branch of the organization over the years.

In 2019, the energy giant committed to a $10 million arrangement to launch the Carbon Hub at Rice University, a research initiative aimed at developing zero-emissions technologies. The hub made its first seven seed grants in August.

Shell is also an industry partner on the University of Houston's Data Science for Energy Transition project.

The partnership also marks a milestone for PVAMU as the first significant partnership under the university's new classification as a Research 2 Institution, according to PVAMU's website. The university attained its R2 Carnegie Classification, the second-highest ranking for research and higher education institutions in the country, earlier this month.

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How this Houston innovator's tech is gearing up to impact EV charging, energy transition

houston innovators podcast episode 172

With more and more electric vehicles on the road, existing electrical grid infrastructure needs to be able to keep up. Houston-based Revterra has the technology to help.

"One of the challenges with electric vehicle adoption is we're going to need a lot of charging stations to quickly charge electric cars," Ben Jawdat, CEO and founder of Revterra, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "People are familiar with filling their gas tank in a few minutes, so an experience similar to that is what people are looking for."

To charge an EV in ten minutes is about 350 kilowatts of power, and, as Jawdat explains, if several of these charges are happening at the same time, it puts a tremendous strain on the electric grid. Building the infrastructure needed to support this type of charging would be a huge project, but Jawdat says he thought of a more turnkey solution.

Revterra created a kinetic energy storage system that enables rapid EV charging. The technology pulls from the grid, but at a slower, more manageable pace. Revterra's battery acts as an intermediary to store that energy until the consumer is ready to charge.

"It's an energy accumulator and a high-power energy discharger," Jawdat says, explaining that compared to an electrical chemical battery, which could be used to store energy for EVs, kinetic energy can be used more frequently and for faster charging.

Jawdat, who is a trained physicist with a PhD from the University of Houston and worked as a researcher at Rice University, says some of his challenges were receiving early funding and identifying customers willing to deploy his technology.

Last year, Revterra raised $6 million in a series A funding round. Norway’s Equinor Ventures led the round, with participation from Houston-based SCF Ventures. Previously, Revterra raised nearly $500,000 through a combination of angel investments and a National Science Foundation grant.

The funding has gone toward growing Revterra's team, including onboarding three new engineers with some jobs still open, Jawdat says. Additionally, Revterra is building out its new lab space and launching new pilot programs.

Ultimately, Revterra, an inaugural member of Greentown Houston, hopes to be a major player within the energy transition.

"We really want to be an enabling technology in the renewable energy transition," Jawdat says. "One part of that is facilitating the development of large-scale, high-power, fast-charging networks. But, beyond that, we see this technology as a potential solution in other areas related to the clean energy transition."

He shares more about what's next for Revterra on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Report: Houston's hot medical office market might be on track to cool

by the numbers

Houston’s medical office market is on a roll.

A report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows net absorption and transaction volume saw healthy gains in 2022:

  • The annual absorption total of 289,215 square feet was 50.5 percent higher than the five-year average.
  • Transaction volume notched a 31.7 percent year-over-year increase.

Meanwhile, net rents held steady at $26.92 per square foot, up 1.3 percent from the previous year. The fourth-quarter 2022 vacancy rate stood at 15.9 percent.

Despite those numbers, the report suggests a slowdown in medical office rentals may be underway.

“Tenants who may have previously considered building out or expanding their lease agreements are now in a holding pattern due to increased construction costs and higher interest rates,” the report says. “These factors are having a direct impact on financial decisions when it comes to lease renewals, making it more likely that tenants will remain in their existing location for the foreseeable future.”

Still, the report notes “a number of bright spots for the future of healthcare in Houston.” Aside from last year’s record-high jump in sales volume, the report indicates an aging population coupled with a growing preference for community-based treatment “will lift demand even higher in coming years.”

The report shows that in last year’s fourth quarter, 527,083 square of medical office space was under construction in the Houston area, including:

  • 152,871 square feet in the Clear Lake area.
  • 104,665 square feet in the South submarket.
  • 103,647 square feet in Sugar Land.
Last fall, JLL recognized Houston as a top city for life sciences. According to that report, the Bayou City lands at No. 13 in JLL’s 2022 ranking of the country’s top 15 metro areas for life sciences. JLL says Houston “is poised for further growth” in life sciences.

Houston financial services firm announces acquisition, plans to grow

M&A radar

A Houston-based financial services company has made a recent strategic acquisition that gives it a new banking status.

LevelField Financial, which is creating a platform that combines traditional banking and digital asset products and services, announced this week that it is acquiring Burling Bank, an FDIC-insured, Illinois state-chartered bank. According to the company, once it receives regulatory approval, "LevelField will be the first full-service bank to offer fully compliant traditional banking and digital asset services."

The financial terms of the deal's transaction, which is expected to close later this year, were not disclosed.

The combined company will be able to provide traditional banking services, as well as LevelField's digital asset management. Burling Bank's senior management team will join LevelField's leadership, per a press release. They will focus on serving the bank's existing clients and growing the banking business nationwide.

"We conducted a broad review of banks in the U.S. to find the ideal institution with both an existing business and a management team who are aligned with our vision; we exceeded our expectations with Burling Bank. With this acquisition, LevelField will become a traditional bank, albeit one serving customers interested in the digital asset class," says Gene A. Grant II, CEO of LevelField Financial, in the release.

"We are thrilled to have the Burling executives join our leadership team, and together we intend to deliver fantastic customer service and well-designed products to customers who have an interest in accessing the digital asset class through a traditional bank," he continues.

Founded in 2018 by former banking executives, LevelField's leadership believes "the future of money is digital and that banks will continue to be a trusted provider of financial services," according to the website. This acquisition comes ahead of the company's plans to expand nationally.

"LevelField's strategic approach presented a tremendous opportunity for the bank to expand beyond our local footprint and serve customers with shared interests across the nation," says Michael J. Busch, Burling Bank president and CEO. "Together, we will continue to provide superior service and demonstrate that we truly understand the expanding and unique needs of our customers. Additionally, through the carefully developed suite of products we can address our customers' interests in digital assets and introduce them to LevelField's safe, simple, and secure platform."