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Basic research is an extremely critical component for advancing tomorrow’s energy solutions. Basic research involves the very early stage research activities in which industry is commonly not yet willing to invest because of the uncertainty and high risk. Basic research can support a broad range of critical energy initiatives, such as providing the foundation for new energy technologies that are more economical and environmentally friendly; developing new analytical techniques and new equipment to improve system understanding, efficiency, and design; and developing the experience and expertise necessary to rapidly respond to and get ahead of new issues as quickly as possible.

With a world-class staff of scientists, engineers, and support personnel, the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) has been extremely successful in advancing applied research to serve the needs of industry, state, and federal organizations. The EERC has routinely worked with a wide variety of entities, including the oil and gas industry, the lignite industry, agricultural producers and processors, the wind industry, municipalities, and regional manufacturers. However, it must be understood that applied research, funded in part or wholly by industry, is commonly only made possible because of earlier basic research activities. Unfortunately, federal funding available for basic research has declined significantly over the last 5 years, especially with the loss of federal earmarks focused on strategic, critical, forward-thinking programs.

Because of its experience, the EERC knows how investments in research at the earliest stages of development can lead to tremendous economic and environmental successes. For example, starting with a small basic research program, the EERC developed and patented a mercury control technology which currently includes over 35 patents and pending patents. The path from concept to commercial product requires many forms of investment and development.

In order to develop new mercury control strategies, the EERC first had to develop new analytical techniques to measure mercury. It then needed to do fundamental studies to understand the complex chemical transformations that mercury goes through within a power plant and the atmosphere. Once this process was understood, only then could technologies emerge that led to full-scale demonstrations throughout the United States. What started as a relatively small basic research program grew into a large applied research program of tens of millions of dollars in federal and industry funding. The technology is now licensed to a North Dakota entity that has over 15 power plants currently contracted for commercial deployment. This EERC-developed technology has the ability to capture over 90% of the mercury from coal-fired power plants and save each utility millions of dollars a year compared to competing technologies. Basic research funding was a very small portion of the overall funding necessary to move this technology to market; however, it was arguably the most important funding.

For North Dakota’s future, basic research holds the key to unlocking the potentially colossal synergy between the lignite and oil and gas industries. The EERC is working to develop both the ways in which lignite power plants can produce low-cost electricity and capture the CO2 and, at the same time, the way CO2 can become a valuable tool for enhanced oil recovery in the Bakken.

North Dakota has the second-largest known reserves of lignite in the world (behind only Australia). It is estimated that the state’s reserves will last more than 835 years at the current rate of consumption. Despite these tremendous reserves, the long-range outlook for lignite use is in question because of regulatory uncertainty, especially regarding CO2emissions. At the same time, demand for electricity is expected to increase 3 GWe over current production by 2032 based on needs largely related to oil and gas production. 

The Bakken petroleum system is conservatively estimated to hold 300 billion barrels of oil. With current production methods, recovery factors are estimated at 3%–10%. The EERC is working to develop methods that will significantly increase that recovery factor. How much of the generated oil is recoverable remains to be determined, but even an increase of 1% in the recovery would produce as many 3 billion barrels of additional oil. In addition, the Bakken is an unconventional resource that requires an unconventional approach to tap its full potential. To date, a limited set of laboratory experiments and detailed characterization of the Bakken petroleum system have yielded promising results at the EERC. 

It is essential that the EERC build its basic research programs to go along with its tremendous applied research portfolio. How/where that funding is secured is currently unknown; however, what is certain is its necessity in fostering future energy development throughout North Dakota and the United States.

Successful basic research will lead to successful applied research, which will lead to demonstration projects and, eventually, to:
  • Next-generation coal facility(ies) being built in the state of North Dakota.
  • Recoverable oil from the Bakken growing by 100%, 200%, 300%, or more, with a smaller environmental footprint.
  • Existing power plants in North Dakota continuing to produce economical, reliable, and environmentally responsible electricity. 
  • Cost-effective and reliable renewable technologies that can be integrated into existing infrastructure. 
  • Continued availability of low-cost energy for sustaining North Dakota’s agricultural industry while increasing local fertilizer production, growing the production of biofuels and the utilization of agricultural residues.