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International Impact

Researchers at the University of North Dakota’s (UND’s) Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) successfully connect with peers and clients across the country and the world, sharing EERC ideas and expertise to address energy and environmental problems that affect every country on Earth.

Since 1987, the EERC has had over 1225 clients in all 50 states and 51 countries. International clients, collaborators, and visitors often come to the EERC, but EERC researchers also travel around the world, bringing their expertise to clients and peers. In just the last 2 years, EERC researchers have traveled to the countries of Australia, Canada, China, India, Japan, Mexico, Mongolia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, and nine countries in Western Europe.


“We bring value-added research, development, demonstration, and commercialization to clients wherever  they are. The two general ways we work with clients are by further advancing their technology or by developing new technology that solves a problem they are currently encountering,” said Gerry Groenewold, EERC Director. “We are also having successes in international licensing and commercial deployment, which directly promotes us to future international clients.”

Nine EERC researchers recently returned from Kyoto, Japan, in November of 2012, for example, where they presented their work on various aspects of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) at the International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies, or GHGT. Several researchers presented on EERC CCUS work through the Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership. Another researcher who presented at the GHGT conference was EERC Deputy Associate Director for Research Mike Holmes.

“I presented a summary of the EERC work in CO2 control in gasification systems and had very positive responses on our test capabilities, our CO2 capture work, and our warm-gas cleanup of impurities in the product gases from gasifiers,” reported Holmes. He also met with current clients and networked with others in the field, including possible research collaborators and clients, throughout the week at the conference.

Jason Laumb, EERC Senior Research Manager, and Josh Stanislowski, EERC Research Manager, have made three trips to Germany in as many years to share the EERC’s expertise on gasification processes through a partnership with the University of Freiberg. The partnership began with a visit to the EERC from the Department of Energy Process Engineering and Chemical Engineering at TU Bergakademie Freiberg, Saxony. The department is the leading institution in research in the field of large-scale gasification processes in Germany.

“They’ve asked for us to be involved in their semiannual International Freiberg Conference on IGCC & XtL (integrated gasification combined-cycle; XtL is an umbrella term comprising gas to liquids, biomass to liquids, and coal to liquids) Technologies,” said Laumb. “I am on the conference organizing committee, and EERC researchers present papers every year. They asked me to chair a session in 2010 and to give the closing address at the 2012 conference. In 2011, they asked that Josh and I be instructors at their 3-day compact gasification course in Freiberg at the Institute.”

The partnership includes a student/employee exchange program. To date, three University of Freiberg students have spent a semester working at the EERC on gasification projects. “We have some of the most advanced gasification test facilities in the world,” said Laumb. “Implementing gasification in cost-effective and environmentally sound ways is what countries are trying to do with gasification now, and we can help them with that.”

EERC Senior Research Advisors John Pavlish and Denny Laudal, experts in mercury control and mercury measurement, respectively, have brought international attention to the EERC. Pavlish is the U.S. representative to the Mercury Emissions from Coal (MEC) International Experts Working Group on Reducing Emissions from Coal and is a member of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Global Mercury Partnership on Reduction of Mercury Releases from Coal Combustion and the BiNational Strategy Utility Mercury Reduction Committee. Pavlish has also served as a Technical Director for the EERC’s Air Quality Conferences.

Perhaps one of the highest profile roles Pavlish and Laudal have had is in their work with MEC and UNEP, which coordinates the United Nations’ environmental activities, develops guidelines and treaties, and assists developing countries in implementing environmentally sound policies and practices.

The MEC workshop series was established to facilitate the interaction of international experts representing utilities, governmental bodies, research institutes, and commercial industries to discuss how they can work together to address the problem of mercury emissions from coal combustion. Laudal and Pavlish presented at the by-invitation-only 2012 meeting, which gathered around 70 experts from 20 countries and was held in St. Petersburg, Russia. Pavlish has presented at MEC around the world since its inception in 2003, Laudal several times.

“The UN asks mercury experts around the world to provide information and experience that can be transferred to developing countries to help control mercury worldwide,” said Laudal. “Developing nations may have to do things differently than a U.S. utility might. They need to reduce costs and control the most mercury possible for a certain amount of money, so instead of 90% control, you might be looking at 40%. On the measurement side, a continuous mercury monitor costs $250,000, which is beyond the limit for many clients in developing countries, so we need to make the testing equipment cheaper, simpler, and more portable.

“With our input as one of the leaders in developing sorbent trap technology, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, working with UNEP, designed and developed a ‘Mercury Measurement Kit,’ which relies on sorbent trap technology housed in a truck and moved from facility to facility. This way, the UN and developing countries are able to monitor mercury emissions at a more reasonable cost,” Laudal said.

“Many contacts are initially made at conferences and meetings, but it’s not easy to build relationships through e-mail,” said John Harju, EERC Associate Director for Research. “There is no substitute for face-to-face meetings and shared work experiences. We have clients from every corner of the globe. Often they come here to see our work in the laboratories or the pilot-scale testing facilities, but it can be important for us to work with them where the problem occurs or the technology is used. We’ve worked with clients nearly everywhere in the world.”

EERC accessibility is a major drawing card to EERC partners worldwide. The EERC’s portfolio includes the development and commercialization of innovative technologies involving strategic energy and environmental issues such as clean coal, energy and water sustainability, hydrogen technologies, alternative fuels, biomass utilization, water management, flood prevention, global climate change, waste utilization, energy efficiency, and contaminant cleanup. 

The Water Energy Nexus and Biopower Production

A recent workshop on water and energy confirmed my understanding of the dynamic relationship water and energy share. Although the fossil power industry is becoming less reliant on large water resources because of the advent of more efficient and lower-cost air cooled- and hybrid air–water–cooled condensers used in cooling boiler intake water, the need for large volumes of water still exists for the foreseeable future. For biomass power systems, the same cooling and other peripheral requirements for water still exist, but in many cases, especially for energy crops and agricultural residues, there is the added water balance requirement of agricultural water used in growing the green renewable fuel. Natural gas seems to be the greatest challenger for biomass right now, and besides its current lower cost, water adds another challenge for biomass power development.

The power industry is second only to agriculture as the largest domestic user of water, accounting for 39% of all freshwater withdrawals in the nation, of which 71% is used in fossil fuel-based electrical generation. The same technologies used to produce electricity from fossil-based fuels are, and will continue to be, used for a significant amount of biomass-based power production. 

Biopower systems, therefore, are going to be challenged in obtaining site permits for new biomass power plant construction. The availability of water for use in biomass electric power generation may be limited in many parts of the United States, and biomass power plants must compete with other industrial customers, agricultural interests, and households for this limited commodity. Difficulty in obtaining necessary water permits can lead to delayed or abandoned projects.

Infrastructure needs may also create a challenge with respect to water and biopower. A system for sustainable water supply can take years to develop with today’s entanglement of water rights and laws. Usually, these types of water rights issues are settled in court (over 90%), as opposed to the conference room. In areas that do not have an adequate water source, biomass power plant construction is often not even considered, even though these locations are ideal in other respects. In addition, potential regulations curtailing CO2 emissions will impact water use. Because of the corrosive nature of carbonic acid, water will need to be removed to very low levels prior to the CO2 being pipelined to its final destination.

In lieu of these challenges, all hope is certainly not lost as testified by many biopower projects that are moving forward. Along the lines of water savings and efficiency, the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), in conjunction with several commercial partners, is investigating several water-saving technologies. Tremendous new strides are being made in air-cooled condensers, hybrid air-cooled systems, water capture/recycle, and novel heat exchange media for hybrid cooling tower systems.

One example is a hybrid wet/dry cooling system that utilizes a direct-contact jet spray condensing cycle that is air-cooled in conjunction with a conventional wet cooling loop. This system can dramatically reduce water use and also has the potential to be retrofitted into existing plants. Retrofits in existing systems can be particularly difficult for conventional dry or hybrid systems because of space limitations required for modifications at the condensing site after the turbine and the required footprint needed for air-cooled systems on the grounds and all of the requisite ducting.

Another example currently under development at the EERC is a novel dry cooling technology. The system uses a nonvolatile heat-transfer fluid that takes advantage of primarily sensible heat rejection and only minimally relies on the latent heat of evaporation. The end result is a great reduction in water input.

These are just a few examples of how solutions are being found to reduce the overall water footprint of heat and power production utilizing biomass.  The biomass industry can play a part in reducing the water footprint of biomass utilization systems, whether it is in power production or in the production of bioproducts or biofuels, and the EERC is working with industry to do so.

By Bruce C. Folkedahl, Senior Research Manager, Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC)