Institute pushes research to cope with energy scarcity

Texas has long been the top US energy-producing state. A major think tank in San Antonio, Southwest Research Institute, is making it a leading source of energy information as well.

With almost 3 million barrels of oil pumped from the ground each day in the Lone Star State, the idea of an energy shortage would seem of distant concern here.

Yet, scientists at this sprawling, ranchlike institute have geared much of their research to helping the United States cope with a scarcity of conventional fuel sources. They have explored some very unconventional solutions, including:

* The development of a new road-paving material made of sulfur, under contract with the Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.

The new product, called "sulphlex," does not require any oil and could save the US millions of barrels of petroleum which now go to produce conventional asphalt. Surfacing of roads consumes the equivalent of about half a million barrels of oil daily in the US, scientists have estimated.

Sulphlex was put to public use for the first time in August, when 1.5 miles of a San Antonio highway was paved with the material. It will provide a test of how sulphlex performs under daily use.Scientists here hope the product will eventually gain broad acceptance by state highway departments and road paving contractors.

Sulphlex also has the potential of providing a constructive use for the vast amounts of sulfur byproduct that may result from increased burning of high-sulfur coal in the United States.

* An analysis of how much energy potential there is in the geopressured zones along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast. These zones are deep pockets of natural gas, contained in hot water under intense pressure.

Geopressured zones could be of great value as a source of methane, thermal energy from the hot water, and hydraulic power from the intense water pressure. So far, however, the costs of separating the natural gas have made the resource uneconomical.

Southwest Research Institute analyzed the 20 best-known geopressured sites along the Gulf Coast, and in a recent report for the Electric Power Research Institute said the resource base of natural gas appears much less than others have estimated. It concluded those sites may contain about 7 trillion cubic feet of methane, compared with other recent estimates putting the resource at several hundred to more than a thousand trillion cubic feet.

Further, the analysis determined it would cost at least $5 per thousand cubic feet to produce gas from the geopressured zones. That is still considerably more expensive than conventional domestic natural gas, and somewhat more costly than imported gas from Canada and Mexico.

* An assessment of what substitute transportation fuels might be used in a sudden shortage of gasoline in the United States.

In a new report for the Department of Energy, Southwest Research Institute has analyzed the various environmental and energy-efficiency trade-offs involved in using alcohol and other liquid fuels to extend the supply of gasoline.

It shows, for example, that in a severe energy pinch, vegetable oils can be used effectively as an automotive fuel when blended with diesel. But not just any vegetable oil will do. The study determined that for greatest engine efficiency, soy oil is the best and sunflower oil the worst.

The nature of its energy work is not the only conspicuous feature of Southwest Research Institute. Situated far from the major industrial and educational establishments of the East and West Coasts, the institute has had "an uphill fight to get good technical people to come here," conceded A. W. Betts, senior vice-president of planning and program development.

Nonetheless, as the San Antonio economy has expanded, and local colleges and universities have grown, the research center has prospered. In 1980 it will conduct an estimated $72 million worth of private and government research, compared with $65 million in 1979.

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