Oil industry executive Gene Voiland ‘69 and his wife Linda have promised $17.5 million to Washington State University’s School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, contributing to the school’s focus on energy research.

An immediate $2.5 million gift will allow the school to hire faculty who will focus on transforming agricultural and municipal waste into useful fuels and chemicals.

In the pressing challenge to develop clean and sustainable energy sources, researchers are looking for alternative energy solutions that can employ the existing petroleum-based infrastructure. Municipal and agricultural waste can be converted to fuels that look and perform just like gasoline or fuel oil. But, because they contain higher concentrations of elements such as oxygen and sulfur than fossil-based fuels, these materials have a greater tendency to poison the catalysts used in the traditional production process. Faculty to be hired will work with industry leaders to develop better catalysts to help in the production process.

“As a society, we face two major issues– developing clean and sustainable energy and creating technological solutions for health,’’ says Jim Petersen, director of the school. “The Voilands’ support advances our vision, strengthens our existing research, creates opportunity for collaboration and leveraging, and develops a niche area for WSU that will make us among the strongest in the nation in this research area.’’

Many of the school’s graduates, including Voiland, have had successful careers in petroleum production and refining. The Voiland commitment will allow for expansion of the school’s research into sustainable fuels, but the school will remain focused on producing industry-ready engineers with practical skills, says Petersen.

The remaining $15 million from the Voiland estate will become available in the future, ensuring the program will remain strong. The future director will have the discretion to use the money to advance the educational and scholarly programs within the school.

Gene Voiland received a degree in chemical engineering from WSU in 1969. He worked for Shell Oil Company for nearly 30 years. There, he met his wife, Linda, a graduate of the University of Houston. He later became President and CEO of CalResources LLC and Aera Energy LLC, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil. He retired in 2007. The couple lives in California.

The Voilands have long been involved with WSU. Gene led the investment committee for the WSU Foundation and serves on the Foundation’s board of governors. He is also on the advisory boards for the College of Engineering and Architecture and the School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering.

“We greatly value the education I received at WSU and believe it laid the foundation for our success,’’ says Voiland. “We hope this gift will continue the long history of success in the chemical engineering program and build a strong future for the school.’’

“We are so thankful to Gene and Linda Voiland for their generous gift,’’ says President Elson S. Floyd. “It demonstrates their deep commitment to the success of Washington State University.”

The school has been named the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering in their honor, Floyd notes.

“They are truly making a difference in the lives of many future students and helping us achieve our goal to become an outstanding land-grant research university.”