Saudi Arabia 2020 | EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

The King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals has long been the backbone of Saudi Arabia's formidable drilling expertise. Today, it is working to train the next generation of renewable energy and water management scientists.

Sahel N. Abduljauwad

Sahel N. Abduljauwad holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from KFUPM and received his master's in science and doctorate degrees in civil engineering from the University of Colorado-Boulder. He is a professor in the Civil Engineering Department and has served as department chair (1990-1996), director of the Academic Development Center (1999-2002), dean of academic development (2002-2007), vice rector for applied research (2007-2016) and vice rector for graduate studies and scientific research. Dr. Abduljauwad is a fellow in the American Society of Civil Engineers. He has published over 100 papers in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings.

KFUPM registered a total of 237 patents in 2018. Could you tell us more about your strategies in place to have this ecosystem where research leads to new ideas?
After KFUPM completed development of its research infrastructure and processes, it embarked on developing an ecosystem for innovation that helps in translating research outcomes into economic impact. To achieve this, KFUPM planned to spread the culture of academic innovation at its campus. The plans included increasing awareness about intellectual property, providing training in patenting to faculty, researchers, and students, and stimulating them to innovate through recognition/reward system. Additionally, the university established a technology transfer system according to best practices of US universities, which included an effective invention/discovery disclosure system that linked every research activity with a patenting process. These are major factors behind positioning KFUPM among the top universities in the world in terms of number of annual issued patents. Research excellence and a focus on KSA's strategic technological challenges and needs, quality, and commercialization of research outcomes are other important aspects of KFUPM's research system.

What kind of research does KFUPM do?
With regard to research excellence, though KFUPM started by building its capacity locally through providing training to its faculty, it collaborated internationally on specific research programs with MIT, Stanford, Caltech, and Cambridge. We established Dhahran Techno-Valley (DTV) Science Park to bring in some of world's most advanced industrial expertise. DTV Science Park succeeded in attracting the R&D centers of some of the world's largest multinational corporations in energy, petroleum upstream, and industrial instrumentation, automation, and control. This was a major approach toward strategically focusing KFUPM's research and creating a platform for collaboration with industries on topics of the utmost importance to KSA. Creating impact out of research outcomes is another area KFUPM gave special attention to in developing the innovation ecosystem. This is why the university invested in building a system and an environment for technology commercialization.

Originally focused on the extraction and processing of natural resources, you have expanded your scope across a range of programs including renewables. Could you tell us more about those?
The KFUPM research agenda includes programs for both conventional and unconventional energies. Though KFUPM established the College of Petroleum and Geosciences with the aim to position it among the top petroleum schools globally, no less attention is being given to renewables and sustainability. The university has a research excellence center for renewable energy, and there is a critical level of research activities in the renewables field. In the same direction, KFUPM signed a major agreement with King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE) to collaborate mainly in the field of renewables. Additionally, the university has an advanced center for water and environment studies. The center caters to a significant part of the country's applied research needs and services, and Saudi Aramco is one of its major clients. As well, the university established a research center for water desalination, as KSA is one of the leading global consumers for desalination technologies. Among the technologies licensed by KFUPM is one to purify heavily contaminated water and another to detect water leaks. A large percentage of the portfolio of KFUPM research outcomes—in terms of either publications or patents—is in the fields of renewables, water, and environmental protection.

What are the main goals for the coming years?
Improving the quality of undergraduate education is a continuous goal for KFUPM. Making sure that university graduates have a good number of job opportunities and fulfilling current and future recruitment needs of strategic local industries and sectors is part of the plan. KFUPM had been a research-based university for several decades. However, recently the university started planning to become a research-intensive university. This will enable us to reach a critical level of research activities that is necessary for achieving the university's economic impact targets.