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The 2020 Energy Hawks Take Flight

Left to right, Top row: Xueling Song, Hayden Drown, Elysia Taniguchi
Middle: Jacob Nelson, Atique, Rijana Adhikari, Colton Martin
Bottom: Umar Saeed, Auroura Eckberg, Ben Regorrah, Md. Saifur Rahman

What happens when you bring together 11 multidisciplinary, energetic students from across the globe to the Energy & Environmental Research Center for a summer internship immersed in energy and creative ideas? You get the 2020 Energy Hawks!

The 2020 Energy Hawks Program will conquer a new challenge: operating fully remotely. This year’s students began their multidisciplinary studies online with the EERC at the end of May. The program has also expanded its student base to include students from Bismarck State College and North Dakota State University in addition to the University of North Dakota. The 2020 Energy Hawks are as follows.

Xueling Song
BS Petroleum Engineering, pursuing Petroleum Engineering PhD at Univeristy of North Dakota (UND)
Qingdao, China

Hayden Drown
AS Liberal Arts and Sciences, pursuing Physics, Astrophysics, Mathematics MS/BS at UND
Roseau, Minnesota (MN)

Elysia Taniguchi
Quantitative Economics major, Mathematics minor at North Dakota State University (NDSU)
Minot, North Dakota (ND)

Jacob Nelson
Physics and Philosophy majors at UND
Forman, ND

Md. Saifuddin Ahgmed Atique
BS Aeronautical Engineering, pursuing Mechanical Engineering PhD at UND
Dhaka, Bangladesh

Rijana Adhikari
MBA, BBA, pursing Applied Economics MSAE at UND
Bhaktupur, Nepal

Colton Martin
Political Science major at Bismarck State College (BSC)
Anamoose, ND

Mian Umar Saeed
MS, BS Mechanical Engineering, pursuing Mechanical Engineering PhD at UND
Peshawar, Pakistan

Auroura Eckberg
Chemical Engineering major, Political Science minor at the UND
Detroit Lakes, MN

Benjamin Regorrah
Mathematics and Statistics majors, Biology minor at UND
East Grand Forks, MN

Md. Saifur Rahman
BS Computer Science & Telecommunication Engineering, pursuing Computer Science PhD at UND
Noakhali, Bangladesh

Energy Storage Opportunity Results from SERC

Last summer, ten projects were initiated through funding from the State Energy Research Center (SERC) at the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), and a project focused on energy production and supply processes in North Dakota has recently been completed. 


Energy production and supply processes are constantly changing, challenging utilities to respond to fluctuating grid demands. As electrical production and distribution evolve, the associated technology must adapt to maintain grid stability. Energy storage (ES) systems have the potential to alleviate the need to rapidly adjust for fluctuating energy generation resources, such as wind and solar, and electrical demand, reducing the overall strain on the electrical grid and the strain on fossil-based energy systems. 

A large portion of North Dakota’s coal-fired power plants and other utilities face challenges responding to rapid changes in grid supply and demand because of the intermittent operation of renewable energy resources. The inclusion of ES systems could alleviate the need to frequently increase the output of coal-fired systems when adjusting for variable demand and supply fluctuation, taking up excess energy and storing it for times of high demand. 

“Energy storage is growing as a topic of discussion and research, both in the public and private sectors, and it’s really exciting that we were afforded the opportunity to begin researching energy storage as part of SERC,” said John Brunner, Principal Investigator for the project. 

The EERC evaluated twenty different ES technologies to compare the advantages and disadvantages they provide and ascertain their viability. The technologies stem from concepts storing multiple forms of energy, including mechanical, chemical, electrochemical, and more. Analysis revealed hydrogen energy storage and two forms of thermal energy storage to be the most reliable and efficient ways to store energy for semi-long-term needs. 

Follow-up work in ES will include further analysis and development of technology models and a greater look into the system characteristics of integrating ES technologies at both power plant and electrical grid scale. National efforts are currently focused on the utilization of ES with fossil-based energy generation assets, such as coal or natural gas power plants. However, as renewables such as wind and solar energy become a greater part of the electrical grid, ES will become a vital part of those systems to regulate their intermittent nature of operation.

In Situ Leaching Potential in North Dakota

In the summer of 2019, ten projects were initiated through funding from the State Energy Research Center (SERC) at the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC). Recently, one project was completed focused on in situ extraction of rare-earth elements (REEs) from North Dakota coal. 

  
“When I had the idea to use in situ leaching with North Dakota coal, I though it fit the desire to seek ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas. I didn’t know what the outcome would be since this type of work hasn’t been investigated yet,” said Ian Feole of the EERC. “The feeling of succeeding when you were unsure of the potential outcome made the whole project even more rewarding.”

REEs consist of the lanthanide series of elements with atomic numbers from 57 to 71, plus yttrium (Y) and scandium (Sc). Because of their unique properties, REEs are crucial materials used in an incredible array of consumer goods, energy system components, and military defense applications. However, the United States is currently 100% reliant on Chinese imports of these critical materials, and the REE market is considered an issue of national security. Identifying and developing alternative domestic sources of REEs and methods developed to produce them are of high interest. Recently, coal and coal by-products have been identified as promising alternative resources. 

To date, the explored methods of extraction require coal to be mined from the ground and processed further through crushing, grinding, and coal cleaning prior to leaching to extract the REEs. However, coal seams that contain the highest levels of REEs identified in North Dakota are in areas not currently being mined in the extreme southwestern portion of the state. The possibility also exists that deeper coal seams not economical for surface mining may contain high concentrations of REEs and critical minerals. One alternative REE extraction technique that may address both limitations is in situ leaching (ISL). 

ISL, also known as in situ recovery (ISR) or solution mining, is a process by which a solution is injected into an ore body that leaches out the target mineral(s) from the ore. The mineral-laden solution is then brought to the surface from a production well. Next, the solution is processed to remove the targeted minerals. ISL causes minimal disturbance to the environmental structures. 

Testing showed that recovery of REEs from coal ranged from 5% to 9% of available REEs in the coal, while other valuable metals such as Manganese, Nickel, Cobalt, and Germanium provided greater variation in extraction percentage. Variations in pH, strength, and type of acid used for extraction from the coal were identified as crucial aspects in designing an extraction process. Economically, metals other than REEs provided the bulk of the value of the extracted material. Of the REEs, Scandium was recovered at the lowest percentage but has the greatest value. Future research is being pursued to maximize the recovery rate of REEs and high-value metals to enhance the economic potential and should also include site-specific investigation into potential coal seams for ISL operation.

SERC Project Focuses on EMP Impact

In the summer of 2019, ten projects were initiated through funding from the State Energy Research Center (SERC) at the EERC. One project that was recently completed focused on the effect of natural and man-made electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) on North Dakota infrastructure.


“This project was very exciting as it gave us the opportunity to move beyond hype and Hollywood representations of EMPs and begin to truly understand the issue and the scope of its effect,” said Principal Investigator John Kay. His project focused on identifying the potential effects of an EMP on North Dakota’s electrical grid. The EERC compiled a declassified list of available technologies and services, in relation to protection from EMPs. 

EMPs represent a significant threat to the national security of the United States. EMPs are caused by both man-made and natural phenomenon: high-altitude electromagnetic pulses (HEMPs) and geomagnetic disturbances (GMDs), respectively. Both types can cause massive harm to the electrical grid, critical communications infrastructure, and any electronic devices within the EMP’s affected zone. The electrical grid is especially susceptible because the long transmission wires of the grid act as antenna for the EMP, collecting and concentrating its energy. 

The federal government has issued directives to combat susceptibility to EMPs, beginning in 2013 with President Obama and continuing through 2019 with President Trump. The Obama order was largely to promote awareness and discussion about susceptibilities, and the Trump order establishes the roles and responsibilities of the federal government, as well as specific actions. Despite the recent efforts of the federal government to coordinate EMP protection efforts, little coordination or communication is occurring between federal and regional groups or at the regional level between critical infrastructure owners and operators, regulatory agencies, and state and local governments. Some organizations are working to understand EMPs and mitigation efforts, but utilities and other regional organizations are slower to act. The EERC project recommends that better communication be established between entities at the regional level, as well as between the regional and federal levels. 

“There is an overabundance of misinformation available to the general public that really confuses the problem and the solution,” said Kay. “The results of the work performed showed us that communication across all facets of the state, region, and country is strongly needed to reduce effects of an electromagnetic pulse on infrastructure and to keep people safe. We cannot prevent a pulse, but proper planning can reduce the effect on our lives afterward.” Follow-up work from this effort is now supporting regional conversations on EMP protection and recovery.