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Driving the future of research

Scientists at The University of Texas at Austin are changing the way we understand everything from artificial intelligence to hydraulic fracturing

Feb. 6, 2012

Scientists at The University of Texas at Austin are changing the way we understand everything from artificial intelligence to hydraulic fracturing. Many of these faculty members will be joining leading researchers from around the world this month at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Peter Stone takes a ride in an autonomous vehicle
Dr. Peter Stone takes a ride in Marvin, an autonomous vehicle, while it drives him down the street.Photo: Wyatt McSpadden

One of the best-attended and most widely followed forums for science around the globe, the conference will demonstrate how research conducted at The University of Texas at Austin is changing the world.

Intersections of the Future: Using Fully Autonomous Vehicles

The future looks like this: You are sitting in the backseat of the car drinking coffee and reading the news on your tablet.

The car drives itself, and it careens through intersections with no stop signs and no stoplights, barely missing the hundreds of other autonomous vehicles buzzing through the intersection at the same time. There are no traffic delays.

Computer scientist Peter Stone‘s research is leading us to this future, and he says it is near.

His research focuses on developing systems in which artificially intelligent (AI) vehicles coordinate with one another at intersections, speeding themselves safely and quickly through our cities.

In a new virtual system he recently created, AI driver agents “call ahead” and reserve space and a time at an intersection, an arbiter agent – called an “intersection manager” – approves the request, and the vehicles move through seamlessly.

Hold on tightly. That first time through the intersection is going to be a screamer.

Hydraulic Fracturing: Understanding the Science

A drilling rig explores for natural gas in the Arkoma Woodford Shale play
A drilling rig explores for natural gas in the Arkoma Woodford Shale play in southeast Oklahoma. The Woodford is among a growing number of emerging shale natural gas formations that are being tapped through recent technological advancements and continuing innovation. Photo: Devon Energy

The extraordinarily rapid acceleration of shale gas development, made possible by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, has transformed the outlook for North American energy production.

Indeed, recent estimates indicate natural gas extraction from shale gas development could provide a relatively clean and affordable source for the continent’s energy needs for the next 100 years or more.

Enthusiasm for shale gas as a game-changing resource is tempered, however, by fears that hydraulic fracturing could contaminate groundwater, worsen air quality and even trigger seismic activity. In response, some U.S. states and Canadian provinces have imposed moratoriums on further shale development until more is known about hydraulic fracturing and its effects on the environment.

Energy Institute director Raymond L. Orbach, a physicist and former Under Secretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy, will moderate a panel that will provide an overview of hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. and Canada.

The panel will feature Engineering Professor Danny Reible and Energy Institute associate director Charles Groat and other scholars, who will discuss a new study that analyzes reports of groundwater contamination and other environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing; examine specific concerns relating to water use and frac water disposal; examine claims of seismic activity attributed to the practice; and discuss prospects for consensus among policymakers on the regulation of shale gas development in building a more sustainable energy future.

Computing and Collaboration: Studying Earthquake Engineering

Ellen Rathje holds a mapping device used for Haiti research
To minimize personal injury and structural damage from future earthquakes, Dr. Ellen Rathje led a team to map and survey Haiti’s damaged areas.

Imagine a virtual office where scientists and engineers from anywhere in the world are able to share large files, collaborate, simulate and analyze data using high-performance computing as if they were sitting in the same room looking at the same screen. Based on the principles of hub technology, which allows a group of users to collaborate in a secure digital space, such a system has been developed to study earthquake engineering science.

Earthquake engineer Ellen Rathje with the Cockrell School of Engineering Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering will present a session at the AAAS conference on how the George E. Brown Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) is using hub technology (NEEShub) to facilitate research critical to future global safety and infrastructure needs. Rathje is part of the NEEShub IT development team, which includes scientists from across the U.S. and is headed by Purdue University.

The NEEShub is a great case study for other fields of engineering and science on how to expedite the research process to arrive at solutions faster and more efficiently.

Net Energy: Understanding the True Cost of What We Use

Photovoltaic solar arrays
Photovoltaic solar arrays.

“As society transitions to new forms of energy, we need to evaluate each source’s net energy quality,” says Carey King, “to anticipate its long-term economic impact.”Photo: NREL

Amid growing uncertainty about the sources of energy that will power society in the future, businesses and policymakers are evaluating a broad range of technologies and systems. Yet in many cases, experts are only looking at half of the economic picture, according to Carey King, a research associate at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy.

Traditional economic analysis of energy focuses on the production costs and market prices of sources such as gasoline and electricity to figure out which ones can be provided at the lowest cost. But King says society also needs to pay attention to “net energy,” which is the amount of energy obtained from a system after subtracting the energy put into it.

The concept of net energy forces a definition of energy quality that’s broader than the immediate price of an energy source. This is important because the two worst recessions of the past 65 years, including the most recent one, occurred when the net energy quality of fossil fuels dipped below a critical threshold. From this perspective, we can begin to ask of each potential future energy pathway: Will this pathway help or hurt economic growth? Ultimately, net energy analyses must be used in tandem with traditional economic analyses. Together, they can project a more complete picture of our energy future.

3 Comments to "Scientists at The University of Texas at Austin are changing the way we understand everything from artificial intelligence to hydraulic fracturing"

1.  Ross Pumfrey said on Feb. 9, 2012

After the AAAS meeting, will the powerpoint presentations from the session on hydraulic fracturing be available to the public (or, better yet, a video of the session)?

2.  Gene C Walker said on Feb. 9, 2012

The concept of net energy cost is valid but very
difficult to implement because of the ingrained
history of only looking at immediate easily visible
costs. For decades some economists and socially
aware advocates have pressed for “total costs”
in evaluating many different systems in society.
For instance in energy what is the environmental
cost of taking down mountain tops to get to coal?
What is the true cost of using coal vs natural gas
considering the dispersion of mercury and the
heavy CO2 load in the atmosphere caused by
coal burning? Are the medical costs of various
human activities a part of the true total costs of
those activities? I am afraid we will continue to
look only at the most visible cost elements when
evaluating energy and a host of other activities
because some costs are harder to determine and
political positions make it easier to dismiss those
costs that require judgement to evaluate.
Economists and politicians know the price of
everything and the true cost and value of nothing.

Gene Walker UT Austin BSME 53 MSME 55

3.  Theodore Magee said on Feb. 9, 2012

42 is the answer, but what is the question? Maybe it’s, “How many roads can a man in a fully autonomous vehicle drive down in his life?”
I liked the article about the AI technology in cars. Somebody in that program likes the writing of Douglas Adams.