A history of research
For nearly 50 years, Gulf Oil Corp. operated a petroleum research center at what is now the University of Pittsburgh Applied Research Center (U-PARC).
The company built science and analytic laboratories, offices and a drilling building, where it used an 80-foot oil derrick to duplicate field conditions, according to photos at the Sen. John Heinz History Center.
In 1957, Gulf dedicated several buildings to conduct fuel and lubricant testing for high-powered engines, analyze geophysical data and study how nuclear energy could be used in the petroleum industry, according to History Center information.
The nuclear science testing included studying whether an on-site atom smasher could help locate “locked in” oil by bombarding a bore hole with gamma rays or neutrons to chart field composition, according to a 1957 article published in the New Kensington Daily Dispatch.
Entomologists worked in a “bug center,” where they tested an insecticide manufactured by Gulf, called “Gulfspray.” Auto testing included operating engines in a chamber where temperature could drop as low as -75 degrees, the article said.
At one time, about 1,500 people worked at the Gulf research center.
Among the research staff in 1946 were 214 chemists, chemical, electrical and mechanical engineers, metallurgists, physicists, geologists and entomologists as well as 519 field geophysicists and assistants and 91 draftsmen and instrument makers, plus nearly 500 technical assistants and office personnel, according to a listing of industrial research labs in the United States.
The research facility operated from 1935 to 1984, when Chevron acquired Gulf.
The only thing most people know about the University of Pittsburgh Applied Research Center (U-PARC) in Harmar is that it has a building with the Pitt logo on a tower along Route 28.
The center’s campus is on a hill, hidden by trees unless one drives up Gulf Lab Road, where there are dozens of buildings, many housing high-tech manufacturing companies that make products such as the latest innovation for LED screen displays.
But there are more traditional companies such as Busy Beaver, the Allegheny Valley Credit Union and Dolan Insurance Agency.
“That’s what is so unique about the facility — it can accommodate a Ph.D. chemist or we can accommodate an insurance agent,” said John Cressler, U-PARC facilities manager with Oxford Realty Services, which has managed and marketed the site since it opened in 1986.
The 85-acre, 53-building site was a Gulf Oil Corp. research facility from 1935 to 1984. When Chevron acquired Gulf in 1984, it donated the Harmar facility to Pitt for use as a research center.
Although U-PARC started as a business incubator, it has morphed into a hybrid of an incubator and industrial park.
The site is a university subsidiary, and income from leases provides for daily operation and improvements. The University of Pittsburgh pays about $319,000 in property taxes annually.
About 1,000 people work at more than 100 businesses ranging from the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Emergency and Special Operations to start-up companies to established research and development firms, including Fortune 500 companies such as global manufacturing giant Koppers Inc., which has a tech center and makes wood protection products there.
“The ability to have labs and offices all maintained within the park site is pretty neat,” said Matt Reitz, site operations manager for Solvay, a maker of electronic display technology. “It enables a diverse mix of business capabilities on site.”
U-PARC maintains an industrial feel, with nondescript, yellow brick buildings. Steam pipes and electrical wires snake through the park in overhead pipes. There are numerous tanks filled with various industrial gases such as nitrogen and argon, and signs warn against open flames and smoking.
But inside many of the buildings, the carpeted hallways and cubicle work spaces look like a typical office building.
In addition to the buildings, nearly all of the site’s features were built by Gulf.
These include an underground tunnel system providing indoor building connections, an electrical substation, boiler facility for steam heat, sanitary sewage and chemical drain systems and a water production plant. “U-PARC benefits from the unique office and research facilities, which remained in place from Gulf’s operations,” University of Pittsburgh spokesman John Fedele said. “There is a well-balanced mix of office, lab and light industrial space.”
The facility can customize office or lab space and provide power, ventilation and waste removal based on each tenant’s needs.
At Solvay, formerly Plextronics, the flexibility of the workspace at U-PARC has been a benefit, Reitz said.
“As the company grew, we were able to expand,” he said. “We started out on the first floor, then took over the second and third floors and the basement.”
The company specializes in making organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) for screens such as cellphone displays. Reitz’s office is across from a lab with nitrogen gas-filled glass boxes with long, black rubber gloves sticking out.
Yellow light instead of florescent illuminates the room because of the type of manufacturing taking place.
The lab is testing the application of a transparent OLED coating without using an evaporator. The process would greatly reduce the cost and time needed to apply the coatings.
The University of Pittsburgh has 10 of its own programs at U-PARC.
Several research groups at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering have laboratories at the site.
Among them is Pitt’s Manufacturing Assistance Center (MAC), which offers small and mid-sized manufacturers the ability to evaluate new manufacturing processes, technologies, equipment and prototypes without large up-front costs.
Pitt started MAC in 1994 through a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to increase the global competitiveness of Western Pennsylvania manufacturers.
Perks include hands-on training on advanced machine tools.
“Right now, we’re training machinists, who are in short supply, and we also undertake technical production for companies,” said Bopaya Bidanda, chairman of the Department of Industrial Engineering, who helped found the Manufacturing Assistance Center.
Doctoral students do dissertation work using the equipment at U-PARC and undergraduates use labs and equipment that aren’t available at the main campus in the fully developed Oakland section of Pittsburgh.
“It is a huge asset to (Pitt) because the university is constrained by space,” Bidanda said.
The University Physician Assistant Program uses U-PARC facilities for the education and training of students.
Program director Deborah Opacic, who helped start the program in 2009, said that by locating it at U-PARC, they were able to custom build the facility.
“We were able to design the area to fit our needs,” she said. “We designed the classroom, skills labs, exam rooms, the anatomy lab and office space.”
There are 42 students who attend class at U-PARC; many of whom live in the immediate area.
Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or firstname.lastname@example.org.