Dr. Mark Weichold, Dean of Texas A&M University at Qatar
Dr. Mark Weichold was appointed Dean of Texas A&M University at Qatar in January 2007. As a former engineer for companies in the US and Professor of Electrical Engineering at Texas A&M University holding three US patents related to electronic devices and fabrication, he brings a wealth of academic and industry experience to his role in Qatar.
With the support of QNRF, he has overseen a boom in research based at the University involving a substantial and increasing percentage of local students. He looks forward to continued progress along these lines as local projects evolve from applied levels to high-impact research and development stages.
Q: Why do you think that Texas A&M University was favored more than other engineering schools as the choice for Qatar?
A: Texas A&M was extended an invitation by Qatar Foundation to establish a campus here based on the strength of our petroleum engineering program. It’s typically ranked first and never less than third in the US. But it’s not enough just to have petroleum engineers; you need to have the disciplines that support them. As a result, the invitation grew to include not just petroleum engineering, but chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering, as well.
Q: Many people are aware of Texas A&M University at Qatar’s role in the gas processing and engineering industry. Could you speak in detail about the research going on in these areas?
A: We’ve got a couple of teams looking into the GTL [gas-to-liquid] process, in which methane gas is converted to a range of products, from diesel to, at the extreme end, paraffin. These teams are looking at ways GTL can be improved, the catalysts involved and chemistry at play.
We’ve also got some researchers looking at how ethanol can be converted into diesel and jet fuel. They’re looking at the process as well as the properties of those fuels. So we have jet fuel, and we not only want it to make the engine perform well, but we also want to make sure that when that airplane is flying at 35 to 40 thousand feet, and the temperature is -60 degrees Fahrenheit, that the fuel doesn’t turn into something like wax. You need fuel to flow, and that’s why researchers focus on its properties.
One of the cutting-edge projects underway involves one of our mechanical engineering professors, Dr. Nesrin Ozalp, who is working in collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute in Dresden. She is looking at using solar energy to crack the methane molecules to produce pure hydrogen and pure carbon black. Carbon black is a highly sought after commodity and, of course, hydrogen is a fuel. She’s at a point now where she’s overseeing a design phase based on calculations she has run through our super computer. Fraunhofer has taken her design and is building it for her.
Q: There might be a stereotype out there that Texas A&M at Qatar is just about oil and gas and that’s it. Can you touch on some of the research happening outside of the oil and gas industry?
A: I think that people do think that engineering here and in general is focused on the oil and gas industry but, in fact, there are a lot of other things going on. We’re looking at wireless technologies in medical applications and collaborating with medical institutions here in Qatar. One of the wireless researchers is even starting his own company.
Some of our chemical engineers are looking at corrosion as an issue in the Gulf. Corrosion of maritime [underwater] pipelines is a big problem. So, we’re making sure that the pipeline material in offshore piers can withstand the Gulf’s harsh conditions.
We also have in the chemical engineering field what has been established as the ‘better water and energy initiative.” As a part of this initiative, researchers are looking at a particular process for desalinating water that does not produce a liquid discharge. The normal desalination process can produce two to three times as much wastewater as it does pure drinking water. This wastewater is extremely salty; it’s basically brine and you have to find a way to dispose of it. These researchers have developed a zero liquid discharge process.
So in principle you can take a desalination plant, set it right in the middle of a country and tap into some of the groundwater there to produce good drinking water and not have to worry about the brine. This could also contribute to irrigating crops, which brings me to mention the researchers here working with the food security program. Our research teams are also looking at ways of developing agriculture or aquaculture that is specific for the region. They’re working on everything from the development of policies to heat-resistant crops.
So there’s a pretty broad range of research going on here.
Q: How many research departments and PIs are here, and how many centers are they collaborating with around the world?
A: The way we organize our research is typically not by department. More often, the model reflects research being done by a single principal investigator, some of whom have partners or are on a team. As background, we have about 80 faculty and about 60 are faculty researchers. We do have a lot of collaborations around the world—good ties with colleagues in College Station, Texas, as well as colleagues here throughout Education City and the QF community and Qatar University. However, if you go outside the country, we are involved in collaborations with about 30 institutions around the world.
Texas A&M in Qatar
Texas A&M University at Qatar
Q: How would you say QNRF is supporting Texas A&M at Qatar’s research and advancements?
A: I can’t say enough about QNRF. Although it is a relatively young organisation, it has done a tremendous amount for research in the State of Qatar. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that had they had not come into being and done everything they’ve done in the past four years, we would not have the research infrastructure and research capability that we have here today. At Texas A&M at Qatar, we get about 80 percent of our external research funding from QNRF and most comes through their National Priorities Research Program grants.
That said, we also get support from QNRF for our undergraduate programs and have between 80 and 100 students involved in research. This is good for them; it gives them practical perspective on what they’re learning in class and it certainly helps the researchers. We also view student research programs as a way to help the students get interested in graduate school as they enhance their research capabilities.
Q: What advances do you predict over the next five years?
A: Building research capacity. In January, QF signed an agreement to provide Texas A&M at Qatar with more infrastructure—everything from back-end accounting and finance to machine shop personnel. They will also provide very advanced and sophisticated equipment for us. This will build on the unique capabilities we already have, including some of the best machine shop facilities in the country, if not the region.
Looking into the future, I think we’re going to see research mature toward development through such channels as Qatar Petroleum, RasGas or QSTP. Or we might see, as we have begun to, these advances through highly motivated faculty members who want to start a company. In either case, we’ll start to push these research findings out into the community and see some practical applications of them.
Q: Any new programs?
A: Within just a few weeks we will be seeing our first chemical engineering Masters students, which is exciting. We are in discussions with QF about starting some other academic programs and have some data to support that. Other projects have to do with our link to QSTP and the migration of research over there.
A: Research always presents challenges and if there weren’t any I don’t think a lot of researchers would go into it. That said, there are particular challenges faced here, mainly supply-side challenges that have gotten better over the years. There are researchers who need special gases, chemicals and well-trained technicians, and four years ago it was challenging to get these. Now it has become easier. As the research grows, there is a bigger demand and we are hoping that the supply-side will be able to respond.
Q: Any specific comments on intellectual property regulations as findings move toward development?
A: It’s very important for a knowledge-based economy to have mechanisms in place that provide protection for intellectual property (IP), for the inventors as well as those who are funding. I think QF is working very hard to get these in place. I see challenges; yet, if QNRF is a model for others, we’ll address these. The IP issue is a key component in having a knowledge-based economy. If you don’t have that, why would somebody want to come here and invent the next iPad?
Dr. Weichold, we thank you very much for this interview and wish you, and all Aggies, the best of luck with your future research.
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