Energy Center: a technology gusher in the making?

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The University of Oklahoma has discovered how tricky it is to build on oil.

Just a year ago, the university's dynamic young president, William S. Banowsky, launched a $65 million project to create an interdisciplinary Energy Center for research here. That was when the oil business was booming. One prominent oilman, Bill D. Saxon of Saxon Oil Company in Dallas, led a field of eager donors by pledging $30 million to his alma mater for the Energy Center.

But the gasoline-price plunge that pleased car drivers this past summer was bad news for Energy Center plans. One after another, cash-short oil men asked for more time before honoring their pledges.

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At the Energy Center ground breaking in September, university officials announced the project would go ahead - but without Bill Saxon's $30 million. Saxon Oil had tumbled to the brink of bankruptcy, unable to meet payments on its bank loans.

Despite funding setbacks, Dr. Banowsky remains fully committed to the Energy Center, which he calls ''my No. 1 priority.'' He hopes construction of the massive red-brick complex of research facilities will be completed by autumn 1985. But he accepts that this timetable ''may slip by as much as a year.''

Instead of shelving plans due to the oil industry's economic swings, Banowsky explains that ''this downturn in the oil and gas industry confirms the need for continuing study of energy issues and increased research into alternate supplies such as coal.''

Energy Center executive director Jay T. Edwards, former commander of the nearby Tinker Air Force Base, agrees. He says that if the center had been built five years ago, Saxon Oil might not have run into such severe problems. General Edwards hopes to focus research on the extraction problems encountered in Oklahoma's energy-rich Anadarko Basin, where ''the high underground temperatures and pressures hurt our (then) biggest contributor, Bill Saxon.''

Current University of Oklahoma research projects include a number of efforts to improve the efficiency of natural gas and oil recovery. One university team is studying the use of microorganisms to help oil flow more freely. Another group is working on salt solutions as a replacement for the conventional drilling ''muds'' which can accumulate underground and reduce recovery from ''tight'' rock formations. Other researchers hope to turn abundant Oklahoma coal into a road-surfacing material, freeing the oil used in asphalt for other uses.

Edwards says he sees his Energy Center becoming a source of many new products and technologies. One key to progress, he says, will be that geologists, chemists, engineers, mathematicians, political scientists, sociologists, and experts from many other disciplines will have the opportunity to work alongside each other.

Edwards explains that research advances are urgently needed because ''we really don't have an energy glut.'' Instead of an oversupply, he insists, ''what we have is an economy that has slowed down.'' Edwards warns that ''when the wheels of industry start turning again, demand may exceed our capacity to meet it.''

Dean of Engineering Martin Jischke, who has watched the energy-center concept develop from ''brown-bag seminars'' bringing scientists from different departments together, lists four key objectives:

* Training a new generation of energy experts accustomed to an interdisciplinary approach.

* Developing better recovery techniques to reduce the amount of energy needed to squeeze oil, natural gas, and other energy sources from underground.

* Developing ''a far broader variety of energy sources'' to replace the world's diminishing supplies of oil and natural gas.

* Educating the public.

Professor Jischke says that drawing up policies to meet future energy needs depends on public recognition that energy is part of a ''highly complex, interactive system.''

Banowsky says that one obstacle to effective planning for the future has been that ''there is too great a gap between the universities and the practical world.'' Sitting beneath portraits of the university's past presidents, Banowsky explained that economic pressures are forcing far closer ties between the academic world and the private sector. He says he expects both to benefit.

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