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A Global Perspective

Serving a global market requires a global perspective. One of the ways the EERC gains and maintains that perspective is through the breadth of its employees’ personal experience. Many EERC employees have come to the middle of the North American continent from countries all over the globe, enriching the EERC’s research with their different worldviews and perspectives, their knowledge and experience, and their creative problem-solving abilities.

The countries of origin of permanent and temporary employees, visiting researchers, and students at the EERC just since 1997 is a list of countries of the world: Australia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, India, Iran, Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Mexico, Nepal, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia. More international employees have come from China and India than any other country.

Although individual employee goals may vary, one of the most common reasons they give for wanting to work at the EERC is the opportunity to solve global energy and environmental problems and gain first-hand experience working with the EERC’s preeminent teams of scientists and engineers. International employees clearly bring as much to the EERC as they get, however. Five of the EERC’s current employees, their hometowns, and their educational training are highlighted here.

Mr. Saurabh Chimote, Web Developer/Administrator, came from Mumbai, Bombay, India, to attend the University of Cincinnati, where he earned a Master of Science in Information Systems and a Master of Business Administration. Chimote came to the EERC in 2010 because of a “good job opportunity working with some sharp minds in a great organization.”

Dr. Guoxiang “Gavin” Liu, Research Manager, came from Kunming City, Yunnan Province, in the southwestern part of China. Liu received his bachelor’s degree in Analytical Chemistry from Yunnan Normal University, P.R. China; his master’s degree in Computer Science from Leiden University, The Netherlands; and his Ph.D. degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from West Virginia University. He is currently pursuing a second master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, with a focus on Computational Fluid Dynamics, at West Virginia University. Liu joined the EERC in 2009 and appreciates the “family-like cooperation and teamwork for such great projects at the EERC.”

Dr. Kan Luo, Research Scientist, left Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, in P.R. China, to obtain her Ph.D. in Polymer Chemistry at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Luo was encouraged by a colleague to apply for a job opening at the EERC in 2009. She says, “I feel fortunate to work with such great professionals while pursuing my career goals here at the EERC.”

Dr. Dayanand Saini, Research Manager, received his B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the Chaudhary Charan Singh University, Meerut, India, and then joined Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited, a national oil company of India, as Reservoir Engineer. A keen interest in research led Saini to Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, where he earned a Ph.D. in Petroleum Engineering. Saini came to the EERC in 2011 and says, “The main catalysts for my joining the EERC were the unique position of the EERC in the area of CO2 enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and storage research through the PCOR Partnership and, in general, a great opportunity to conduct research for developing new EOR technologies for unconventional Bakken reservoirs.”

Ms. Jenny Sun, Research Scientist, came from Beijing, China, to attend South Dakota State University, where she obtained an M.S. in Analytical Chemistry. Sun has been at the EERC since 1990 and says she “has had the privilege of witnessing the EERC grow in the past twenty-some years.”

Whatever our reasons for wanting to be here and wherever we approximately 300 employees come from, our common goal at the EERC is to make the world a better and cleaner place to live. 

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) 

Biomass Gasification: The Future of Renewable Power

As this article is being written, the outcome of the upcoming election is unknown. Both political parties have espoused an “all of the above” strategy for energy production in the United States to move the country toward lower-cost energy and enhanced energy security. It seems to make sense to utilize both our vast fossil and growing renewable resources to bolster a North American energy economy, which is essential to bring the United States out of the second worst recession in American history.

While natural gas is currently at a historically low price and we have seemingly vast reserves of new found oil, as evidenced by the Bakken Formation in North Dakota and comparable other discoveries, reliance on a single energy industry or technology is ill-advised based on past experience.

Development of the U.S. capability to produce power and electricity from renewable resources is only prudent to provide for and maintain an energy-secure status. One aspect of a renewable power future is biomass gasification, which the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota has been involved in advancing for several years. While still not at the “off the shelf” stage for smaller systems such as distributed-scale models, many advances have been achieved recently.

The EERC has been active in advancing distributed-scale as well as large central station-scale gasification systems using fundamental research and practical design engineering. Several in-house test gasification systems support industrial activities and provide answers to challenges that primarily include efficient continuous gasification with low tar production, gas cleanup, maximized syngas energy content, and turnkey operation.

The smallest system employed at the EERC is the integrated bench-scale gasifier, used only for fundamental thermodynamic and kinetics studies. This system is charged with approximately 1 gram of fuel at a time. Stepping up in size are two systems that operate at the pounds-per-hour-of-fuel-input scale, an indirectly fired fixed-bed gasifier and a fluidized-bed gasifier. Both are heavily instrumented, and the fluidized-bed system can be run at pressures of up to 120 psi.
Slightly larger than these are two more systems that run at approximately 20 lb of fuel per hour input, an entrained-flow system and a pressurized continuously fluidized-bed gasifier. Again, the systems are heavily instrumented and are capable of continuous operation for up to 200 hours or more to perform longer-duration testing for a variety of applications.

Finally, the EERC has several gasifiers that consume hundreds of pounds of fuel per hour, including a unique down-draft fixed-bed system that is portable or skid-mounted in design and can produce electrical power or clean syngas for conversion to liquid fuels like methanol or renewable distillate fuel.

Another system is a pilot-scale version of a pressurized fluidized-bed gasifier that is being commercialized by an EERC partner. All of these systems are actively being used in collaborative efforts with industrial partners to advance the state of the art in power and energy production from biomass fuels through gasification.

Renewable and sustainable biomass energy offers nonpartisan technologies that are a necessary component of the overall energy security path forward. We are confident that technology breakthroughs will occur in this energy development area for clean and affordable small-scale power options.  

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

Carbon Storage Research: PCOR Partnership celebrates tenth successful partners' meeting

The Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership’s tenth partners’ meeting was held September 12–13, 2012, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The meeting provided an overview of carbon management topics, including new developments in carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) strategies; updates on projects within the region and beyond; regulatory updates; and relevant associated products and services. The meeting also provided opportunities to show appreciation to the numerous stakeholders from the public and private sector who make up the PCOR Partnership. The time line below, featured at the meeting, displays some of the highlights of the PCOR Partnership’s three phases of activities and also spotlights partner involvement over 9 years.

“From the first kickoff meeting, we recognized the need to maximize the value to all of our partners and minimize any disruption to site operations beyond what is part of ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ procedures,” said John Harju, EERC Associate Director for Research. “This client-based, value-driven philosophy has encouraged partner loyalty, regulatory support, and commercial viability and has led to the ongoing success of the PCOR Partnership Program.”

The PCOR Partnership is led by the EERC and is one of seven regional partnerships competitively awarded by DOE NETL’s Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership (RCSP) Initiative as part of a national plan to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The PCOR Partnership region includes all or parts of nine states and four Canadian provinces within the central interior of North America.

The RCSP Initiative comprises a significant portion of NETL’s Carbon Storage Program and is a government–industry effort tasked with determining the most suitable technologies, regulations, and  infrastructure needs for CCUS on the North American continent.

In the Characterization Phase (2003–2005), the PCOR Partnership assessed and prioritized opportunities for CO2 storage in the PCOR Partnership region and helped to identify the technical, regulatory, and environmental barriers to the most promising storage opportunities.

The PCOR Partnership utilized the findings contained in its two dozen topical reports and half-dozen fact sheets, as well as the capabilities of its geographic information system-based Decision Support System (DSS © 2007–2012 EERC Foundation), to provide a concise picture of the storage potential for both geologic and terrestrial sequestration in its region based on assessments of sources, sinks, regulations, deployment issues, and capture and separation.

The Validation Phase (2005–2009) was an extension of the characterization phase and focused on carbon storage field validation projects designed to develop the local technical expertise and experience needed to facilitate future large-scale CO2 storage efforts in the region’s subsurface and terrestrial settings. These activities included four field validation tests (three geological and one terrestrial): 1) injection of acid gas (H2S-rich CO2) for the dual purpose of carbon storage and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in the Zama oil field in Alberta, Canada; 2) injection of CO2 into a deep carbonate reservoir in the Williston Basin of North Dakota for the dual purpose of EOR and carbon storage; 3) injection of CO2 into an unminable lignite seam in North Dakota for the dual purpose of enhanced coalbed methane production and carbon storage; and 4) management of the Prairie Pothole Region wetlands and the subsequent evaluation of the net reduction in greenhouse gas fluxes of CO2, CH4, and N2O.

“Our work during the characterization phase, expanded by the results of our field validation tests and other activities, clearly showed that the PCOR Partnership region has tremendous carbon storage potential,” said Ed Steadman, EERC Deputy Associate Director for Research. He added that CO2 EOR represents the primary near-term opportunity for managing CO2 in the region and a key near-term regional CO2 source is natural gas-processing facilities.

Building upon these findings, in the fall of 2007, the PCOR Partnership began its 10-year, multimillion-dollar Development Phase focused on implementing commercial-scale geologic carbon storage demonstration projects in the region. An RCSP programmatic goal is the injection of at least 1 million metric tons of CO2 for each project along with understanding the necessary regulatory, economic, liability, ownership, and public outreach efforts needed for successful CCUS.

The PCOR Partnership selected two demonstration project sites: 1) the Bell Creek oil field in southeastern Montana and 2) the Fort Nelson site in northeastern British Columbia. The PCOR Partnership is working closely with Denbury Onshore LLC (Denbury) to determine the effect of large-scale injection of CO2 into a reservoir for the purpose of simultaneous CO2 EOR and CO2 storage at the Denbury-owned and -operated Bell Creek oil field. CO2 from the ConocoPhillips-owned Lost Cabin gas-processing plant in Wyoming will be transported to the Bell Creek oil field via the 232-mile-long Greencore Pipeline and then injected into an oil-bearing sandstone reservoir at a depth of approximately 4500 feet. The activities at Bell Creek will inject an estimated 1 million tons of CO2 annually beginning in early 2013, much of which will be permanently stored.

If determined feasible, the Fort Nelson project plans to inject up to 2 million tons of sour CO2 (mixture of CO2 and H2S) a year into a deep saline formation. The CO2 would be captured from Spectra Energy’s Fort Nelson gas-processing facility near Fort Nelson, British Columbia, and transported approximately 10 miles via pipeline to the target injection location, the Devonian-age Elk Point carbonate rock (limestone and dolomite) group at a depth of more than 7200 feet.

“During the next few years, the PCOR Partnership will work with the demonstration site owner-operators to characterize and model CO2 behavior in the subsurface as a basis for designing comprehensive monitoring plans,” said Charles Gorecki, PCOR Partnership Program Manager and EERC Senior Research Manager. “We will perform detailed site characterization, modeling, subsurface risk analysis, and monitoring, which will allow site operators to account for the CO2 injected and to verify that the CO2 remains in place once operations are complete.”

For more information or to obtain copies of the many outreach materials produced by the PCOR Partnership, please visit the PCOR Partnership Web site at

Key Partners Visit the EERC

Members of the Industrial Commission of North Dakota (NDIC) came to Grand Forks on September 24, 2012. NDIC members attended a University of North Dakota (UND) presentation, visited UND’s North Dakota Geological Survey Wilson M. Laird Core Library and the North Dakota State Mill, took a tour of the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), and met with the EERC directors to discuss current and upcoming research projects.

“We have been fortunate over the years to have NDIC as a partner in many of the EERC’s projects,” said EERC Director Gerry Groenewold. “We were delighted to show them the cutting-edge research facilities we have here.”

NDIC was created by the North Dakota Legislature in 1919 to conduct and manage certain utilities, industries, enterprises, and business projects as established by state law. Widely known for overseeing the Department of Mineral Resources’ Geological Survey and Oil and Gas Division, the Commission also oversees, consults with, or has direct responsibility for a number of agencies, such as the Bank of North Dakota; the Building Authority; the Housing Finance Agency; the Lignite Research, Development, and Marketing Program; the Mill and Elevator Association; the Oil and Gas Research Program; the Pipeline Authority; the Public Finance Authority; the Renewable Energy Program; the Student Loan Trust; and the Transmission Authority.

Members of the Commission include Governor Jack Dalrymple as chair, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem as general counsel, and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. Attending with the Commission was NDIC Executive Director Karlene Fine.

Energy Security

U.S. Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) held a press conference at the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) on July 27 to announce the Domestic Energy and Jobs Act of 2012 (DEJA), a wide-ranging package of 13 diverse energy bills that addresses both traditional and renewable development, including approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, providing access to the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, offering lease sales off the Virginia coast, and limiting new regulations on surface mining.

A similar measure was introduced by Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), which passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in June. Hoeven introduced the legislation with additional features in the Senate. The legislation was referred to a Senate committee, read twice, and referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which will consider it and, if recommended, eventually put it to a full Senate vote.

“DEJA is the foundation to develop a comprehensive energy policy to help our country,” said Hoeven. “The act streamlines the permitting process, both onshore and offshore, and reduces regulatory burden.”

DEJA is also designed to boost domestic energy supplies, build American energy infrastructure, and safeguard America’s supply of critical minerals used in modern high-tech manufactured products such as cell phones and computers.

“The EERC is actually taking the kind of integrated approach to energy development that the Domestic Energy and Jobs Act is designed to foster,” Hoeven said. “The nation, like North Dakota, is blessed with an abundance of energy resources and the entrepreneurial talent to develop them for the benefit of our entire country. We need to take the same kind of comprehensive, step-by-step approach that we’ve used in North Dakota to the national level.”

“This legislation falls in line with the EERC’s goal of facilitating the use of North Dakota’s technology, talent, and resources, which will become major components of achieving energy security in the United States,” said EERC Director Gerald Groenewold. “Senator Hoeven continues to provide wise and effective leadership focused on enhancing the use of our nation’s bountiful and diverse energy resources. This legislation is very supportive of and complementary to the EERC’s diverse technical portfolio.”

Hoeven stated that DEJA is similar to North Dakota’s comprehensive state energy policy, EmPower ND, which was developed in 2007 when Hoeven was Governor of North Dakota. EmPower ND’s Web site states that between 2007 and 2010, North Dakota increased its energy production by 65%. While there were improvements in all of the energy sectors during that time frame and through July 2012, none were more significant than in the oil and gas industry, where North Dakota went from being the eighth largest oil-producing state in the nation in 2007 to the second largest in 2012.

“DEJA is about jobs, economic activity, growing the economy, and national security,” said Hoeven. “We need to produce more energy than we consume and, looking around this room, in an environmental stewardship way, which is what the EERC is doing.”

Advanced Biofuels, A Transformative Industry

At the recent U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)-sponsored Biomass Conference 2012: Confronting Challenges, Creating Opportunities, much of the focus was on liquid fuels from biomass. Several presenters, including U.S. Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu, mentioned butanol as a highly regarded advanced biofuel.

As part of the ongoing research at the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), we have been developing a catalytic pathway to convert ethanol or mixtures of methanol and ethanol to higher alcohols including butanol through Guerbet condensation reactions.  Simply stated, cellosic biomass like wood chips can be converted into a mixture of gases in a gasifier, and the resulting “syngas” can be passed over a catalyst and converted to alcohols like ethanol. The goal of EERC’ s research is to alleviate one of the major challenges and costs involved with cellulosic ethanol production, which is the coproduction of undesired quantities of methanol with the ethanol product. Current biorefinery processing technology and associated commercial catalysts render the production of unwanted concentrations of methanol unavoidable.
Methanol production is undesirable as it is not an ideal gasoline additive because of its water affinity, corrosive nature, volatility-raising impact when blended with gasoline, and low volumetric energy content versus gasoline. Two potential solutions to the methanol problem are to limit its production and/or separate it from ethanol. Both of these potential solutions present economic challenges.

Rather than fight methanol production during the syngas conversion process, the EERC is developing technology to capitalize on it. Utilizing an easily produced mixed-alcohol product from a biomass-derived syngas (about 60% methanol, 30% ethanol, 10% higher alcohols) as feedstock to a condensation reaction yields a mixture of branched alcohols (isoalcohols) comprising at least 65% isobutanol and significant quantities of higher isoalcohols including isohexanols and isooctanols.

According to the Argonne National Laboratory, use of cellulosic ethanol to displace gasoline reduces greenhouse gases by 85%. By extension, the use of cellulosic isobutanol and higher isoalcohols to replace gasoline should reduce greenhouse gases by a similar amount. Because isobutanol offers gasoline compatibility advantages versus ethanol, gasoline–isobutanol blends may be transportable via pipeline, which would further reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The EERC technology will maximize the yield of mixed alcohols and subsequent isobutanol from biomass while also generating replacements for high-value normal alcohol- and isoalcohol-based chemical intermediates and solvents currently derived from fossil fuels.

The flexibility to produce fuel and higher-value normal alcohol and/or isoalcohol chemical intermediates represents a commercial advantage that should serve as an offset to the financial risk of building a cellulosic fuel plant. Propanol, butanol, isobutanol, and isohexanol have broad markets, carry a higher price, and are renewable in derivation, making them eligible for various credits and incentives worldwide. Of course there is the added branding of lower-carbon-footprint fuel and chemicals that can displace appreciable volumes of their petroleum-derived counterparts.

Additionally, this technology could take ethanol produced in current grain-based plants and react it with higher alcohols, commanding a greater return when compared to fuel-grade ethanol, enhancing profitability at these plants.

Dr. David Danielson, DOE Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, believes that building a substantial, clean, renewable energy industry in the United States will be transformative and once again prove that the United States is capable of anything. The EERC plans to be part of that transformative industry.

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

"Bakken Map" proves a valuable resource

The Regional Drilling Activity in the Bakken and Three Forks Formations map, or the “Bakken map,” as it has come to be known, has proved to be a valuable resource for those with a stake in the state’s oil boom. The 2-ft × 3-ft map, which was designed and produced by the EERC with support from 22 industry sponsors, displays regional drilling activity in the Bakken and Three Forks Formations of western North Dakota. Wells are represented by dots of different colors, which signify the years in which the wells were drilled. Requests for the map have exceeded supply for both the 2011 and 2012 editions. Why are these maps so popular?

“I think people inherently like maps. Maps are a nice way for people to relate back to things they’ve seen, things they’ve experienced, and the map becomes a focal point for people to discuss items of common interest,” said EERC Associate Director for Research John Harju. “So, for anyone who has some involvement with this oil resource development in the Bakken, it’s a visually appealing and efficient means of distilling an astounding amount of information.”

The idea for the map started about a year and a half ago, according to Harju, who said that the work the EERC has conducted with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and specifically the National Energy Technology Laboratory, allowed the EERC to accumulate a great degree of knowledge regarding the Bakken System through its oil and gas programs.

“Based on the demand we had for some smaller Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership maps focused on oil fields in the Williston Basin and in conjunction with the work we’d been doing in the Bakken System,” said Harju, “we decided to approach producers and service companies who were active across the Bakken System in the Williston Basin with the idea of a sponsored map that would illustrate where activity was occurring and the magnitude of that activity.”

In addition to the oil wells drilled in the state, the first version of the map in 2011 highlighted what Harju called “notable wells”: wells that were really successful, those that had large numbers of completion stages, or those that were very historic or prolific in terms of production. The map included the Bakken “discovery well”—the well drilled on land owned by a farmer named Henry Bakken in 1951 that tapped into oil and was part of the first oil boom in western North Dakota.

The map was revised in 2012 to include wells beyond western North Dakota into the neighboring areas of Canada and added a stratigraphic column of the Williston Basin in general and a more specific breakout of the Bakken System. Two other key modifications to the new map are the addition of all gas-processing plants in the state and an annotated graph of historical oil production for the state of North Dakota. The annotations call out notable points in time and their incumbent influence on production, and the graph illustrates the remarkable increase in production in the region as a result of the Bakken oil play.

Well data for both maps were obtained from the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s Department of Mineral Resources and the respective state and provincial oil and gas resource offices for Montana and Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada.

The 5000 maps printed for the 2011 edition were sent to all attendees of the Williston Basin Petroleum Conferences (WBPCs) for 2010 and 2011, all members of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, map sponsors, state legislators, and local governmental officials. Inquiries from people who had seen the map soon flooded the EERC. The 2012 printing was increased to 7500 and again sent to all attendees of the growing WBPC and other former recipients. Although 50% more maps were printed for 2012, it was still not enough to meet demand, and an additional 2000 were ordered.

In addition to its value as an informative resource, Harju said the map has also been a great way to showcase the logos of some of the companies that have sponsored this effort and, in many cases, other EERC research.

“Some of our sponsors have had the map matted and framed and proudly feature it up on their walls,” said Harju. “It is a very rewarding experience when I walk into a client’s office and see that.”

For more information on obtaining a copy of the map, go to 

Water: Reducing Our Use

More freshwater is now used for thermoelectric power production than for agricultural irrigation in the United States—41% to 37%, respectively (U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1344, 2005). Much of this generation operates according to the steam-driven heat engine process known as the Rankine cycle. In a Rankine cycle-based power plant, heat generated from the combustion of conventional fuels (e.g., coal, gas, oil) and renewable fuels (e.g., biomass, waste-to-energy), or through the use of concentrated solar energy and geothermal energy, or through nuclear fission is used to boil water to make high-pressure steam that is expanded through a turbine to generate power. The exhausted steam must be condensed by dissipating heat to the environment before being returning to the boiler to complete the cycle.

For many years, the most popular cooling option for thermoelectric power was once-through cooling (or openloop cooling) because it requires the lowest capital costs. In this system, the water is withdrawn from a body of water and diverted through a heat exchanger (typically called a condenser) where it absorbs heat from and condenses the turbine exhaust steam. The water is then returned directly to the water source with minimal water consumption. However, open-loop cooling does require large water withdrawals and returns water to the source at a higher temperature.

At the high flow rates utilized for open-loop cooling (~30,000 gal/MWh), water intake structures can remove aquatic organisms through impingement and entrainment, causing direct kills of fish and eggs at the intake; aquatic ecosystems can also be altered as a result of the elevated water temperatures near plant water discharge, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These systems are no longer considered to be a viable design option for new plants, and existing installations are under increased regulatory pressure to switch to technologies with less environmental impact. For example, EPA is currently proposing to update regulations that would require implementation of a closed-loop cooling technology or another design change equivalent (e.g., reducing intake flow rates, installing fish deterrents, etc.) to the entrainment reductions associated with closed-loop cooling.

Closed-loop wet cooling systems recirculate water through a condenser and a cooling tower. The cooling tower rejects the heat from the steam to the atmosphere via evaporative cooling using mechanical or natural draft airflow. Although closedloop systems recirculate a majority of system water, evaporative losses need to be continuously replaced; therefore, significantly less water is withdrawn but more water is consumed (~750 gal/MWh) compared to open-loop cooling systems.

Water-based cooling is cost-effective and efficient, but lack of water availability frequently makes water-based cooling a contentious issue because cooling needs are often perceived to be in conflict with sustainability of water resources.

“Two EERC projects are focused on reducing water use for thermoelectric power,” according to EERC Director Gerry Groenewold. “One is a novel dry cooling technology that can eliminate the need for cooling water. The second project involves a new hybrid cooling system that will economically decrease water requirements.

“Optimizing cooling systems used in power generation to increase water use efficiency is key to long-term sustainable energy development and economic development,” said Groenewold.

Novel Dry Cooling
Dry cooling options reject heat directly to the atmosphere, but they are more costly than wet systems and do not work as efficiently or produce as much electricity during hot weather. Conventional dry cooling systems cost 3.5 to 4 times as much as a wet cooling system. Particularly in those hot, dry areas of the country where water is scarce, there is a unique need for a dry cooling alternative.

The EERC has developed a novel new dry cooling technology with support from DOE and the Wyoming Clean Coal Technologies Research Program that is applicable to all Rankine-based power plants and similar heat rejection loads. The project also has in-kind assistance from SPX Cooling Technologies. This unique system uses a hygroscopic fluid as a coolant, which is nonvolatile and does not evaporate. This eliminates the continual need for cooling water, making the technology most suitable for locations without adequate water.

“One of the most remarkable aspects of the technology, to me, is that the coolant absorbs moisture from the air at night when temperatures are lower and, as the day heats up, evaporates the excess water, which is a benefit for cooling and helps to moderate performance,” said Research Engineer Chris Martin. Martin invented the technology and serves as project manager for its evaluation.

In late 2011, the EERC designed and built an experimental validation test facility at its research complex in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Testing in early 2012 showed that the initial feasibility concerns can be overcome and that the process dissipates heat to the atmosphere efficiently. Evaluation testing will continue in  2012 to demonstrate that the EERC technology offers improved cost vs. performance compared to conventional dry cooling methods. Future developments could include a long-term outdoor demonstration at a power facility with industry support.

Improved Hybrid Cooling
Systems that integrate both wet and dry cooling components are referred to as hybrid cooling systems. Hybrid systems generally have a lower capital cost than a dry cooling system and use less water than a completely water-cooled system. There are various configurations to achieve hybrid cooling, including a system that consists mainly of 1) a wet stream–surface condenser plus a wet cooling tower and 2) a dry  stream–jet condenser plus a natural or mechanical draft air-cooling tower.

The EERC and GEA Heat Exchangers, Inc. (GEA), with DOE support, partnered to build and evaluate a first-of-its-kind hybrid condenser, which combines the operations of a jet condenser and a surface condenser. The hybrid condenser was designed by GEA to maintain the benefits of a hybrid system, while further reducing costs.

A prototype module of the hybrid condenser design was fabricated and tested at the EERC to validate its potential to more economically reduce water consumption in electricity generation applications. GEA conducted the testing with the EERC to ensure operations and data were representative of conditions seen in  commercial industry. Data and economic evaluation is currently under way.

“This project reflected, to me, the best of the EERC, such as working in partnership with commercial, global companies like GEA, as well as using our pilot-scale fabrication and system-testing capabilities,” said Research Engineer Kerryanne Leroux, who, as the project’s principal investigator, oversaw the initial testing in the summer of 2012.

There is a growing market for the hybrid condenser, specifically at existing power plants with water-based cooling where water availability is becoming limited. The ability of the hybrid condenser to be retrofitted into these power plants’ existing footprints and the resulting water savings realized during operation make the hybrid condenser an attractive solution. 

Passion drives turkey waste project

Research Scientist Nikhil Patel has 18 years of experience in the combustion and gasification of biomass, coal, and unconventional, difficult-to-burn liquid and solid industrial wastes, focusing on inventing and implementing innovative zero-effluent discharge gasification processes. Patel has been interested in researching local waste utilization since he joined the EERC in 2002.

“I was interested in poultry waste, particularly, because of the complexities of the fuel,” said Patel. “My interest began at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India, where I pursued aerospace engineering for my Ph.D. My professors, who are known aerospace scientists, were also heavily into biomass gasification. I think the gasification process and associated technology can be optimized to make the whole industry energy self-reliant and self-sustaining.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 248 million turkeys were raised in the United States in 2011. Whether the turkeys were raised on pastures or in facilities, the manure and litter need to be dealt with, either by spreading it on available land or selling it for fertilizer, both of which have associated cost expenditures.

Late 2005/early 2006, discussions began between Patel and DenYon Farms owner Dennis Weis, a turkey farmer in Iowa. Weis and others of the Iowa Turkey Federation were looking for ways to handle the waste from their farms in a cost-effective and responsible way. Patel and Weis had several conversations and meetings over the years. Then one day, Weis’s son delivered a bag of turkey manure to Patel for gasification.

“We did some initial experiments, and when Dennis came to the EERC, I showed him the flames produced from the syngas that was produced from the manure,” said Patel. “Dennis was so excited.”

From that day forward, Patel and Weis have been on a journey to develop the technology to turn turkey manure and waste into clean energy as well as recover turkey waste by-products, such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium. Recently, the EERC announced a partnership with DenYon Energy, LLC, and the U.S. Department of Energy to do just that. The EERC Foundation has licensed the technology to DenYon for use in the domestic poultry industry.

“The EERC’s role is to deliver a process flow diagram of an innovative technology that will work. We take it to a level where an engineering company could understand how to translate that into a working demonstration unit,” said Patel. “Once that demonstration unit is up and running at DenYon Farms, the design will be fine-tuned. Then it will be called a commercial system, and then you can replicate the system.”

Patel said Weis wakes up at 5:00 a.m. and works hard all day. Although the gasification technology is complex, Weis and his wife, Yonnie, believe in its possibilities, as evidenced by their investment in the project. Their confidence in and passion for the project match Patel’s.

“The benefits pertaining to the environment are some of the most critical driving forces for this project,” said Patel. “It is my personal goal to ensure that this world is a better, cleaner, and healthier place. I work every day to live up to these expectations.” 

EERC Set to Complete the New Fuels of the Future Facility

Ten years ago the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) instituted the Center for Biomass Utilization (CBU), which has evolved to become a world-class research program inventing, demonstrating, and commercializing new technologies for converting biomass to fuels, power, heat, and chemicals to aid in reducing dependence on fossil fuel imports as well as building a sustainable bio-industry in the United States. This program has grown considerably since its inception, and as part of that continued growth, the EERC is just completing a new facility that will be instrumental in developing future bio-based and alternative fuels.

The new Fuels of the Future facility incorporates a 70-foot-tall high-bay area with multiple levels and two control rooms to accommodate a wide range of biomass types and processing systems. The facility will enable the EERC to perform proof-of-concept studies for novel applications of conversion of biomass to fuels, heat, power, and chemicals that otherwise may not have been possible because of a lack of required vertical space. The 7500-square-foot facility is adjoined with the current National Center for Hydrogen Technology (NCHT) facility and is set to become a leading center for innovation and demonstration.

The EERC has already been heavily involved in converting crop and algae oils to drop-in-compatible hydrocarbon jet fuels for the U.S. Department of Defense. That research has involved upgrading catalytically cracked hydrocarbon fuel products using tall columns for distillation, separation, and reaction. This new facility will make those types of operations much more efficient and cost-effective to operate.
While the facility will be ready for occupancy in July, there is already a growing list of commercial entities waiting to fill this building with new systems and test equipment. Some of the early projects to be housed in the facility are the following:

  • As mentioned earlier, the EERC’s bio-based jet/diesel research requires suitable space for reactors and distillation columns. Work in renewable jet fuel development will continue in the Fuels of the Future facility to test new improvements to the catalytic cracking and upgrading process for renewable jet fuel, green diesel, and other renewable by-product fuels and chemicals. A system design for a subscale pilot facility has already been completed and will be optimized for conversion of non-food-grade biomass oils derived from crambe, camelina, pennycress, and even algae-based oils into liquid fuels.
  • Development of a novel modular gasification system for producing heat and power from agricultural wastes and manures. This technology will aid in reducing runoff of valuable nutrients from the soil which then enter the local watershed and cause eutrophication of rivers and lakes.
  • Development of new biochemical production systems that require tall separation and reaction columns for research that cannot be performed in traditional laboratory facilities lacking the space and accommodations. This technology can be pilot-tested at a scale allowing for easy scale-up to commercial systems, reducing the time and effort required to bring these essential technologies to market.
  • Several projects have been proposed for prototyping systems that actually make liquid transportation fuels from a combination of both unconventional natural gas and bio-based gas such as from a biomass gasifier or anaerobic digestion system. If the research projects prove out, these types of combination systems will help offset the overall carbon footprint of fossil fuels.
Along with the technical projects taking place in the Fuels of the Future facility, the EERC will also utilize this space for outreach activities, providing dissemination of lessons learned and clear and obtainable alternative pathways to a sustainable future for fuels.

Because of the dramatic increase in U.S. oil and gas production, fossil fuels will continue to be a dominant energy source, but bio-based fuels and chemicals will continue to gain ground. The EERC is committed to moving these sustainable technologies into the marketplace using new critical infrastructure such as the Fuels of the Future facility.

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

Patents underscore EERC’s worldwide expertise

During the first 6 months of 2012, the EERC Foundation has received an additional nine patents for EERC-developed technologies. The EERC Foundation aggressively pursues patents for a wide variety of EERC-developed technologies to support research, development, and commercialization activities. The EERC Foundation currently holds 33 active patents (19 U.S. and 14 foreign), with an additional three U.S. and four foreign patents that are expected to be issued in the very near future. The EERC Foundation has 23 U.S. and 28 foreign patents pending.

Of the nine patents that have been issued in 2012, five were issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO):
  • “Advanced Particulate Matter Control Apparatus and Methods,” inventors Jay Almlie, Ye Zhuang, and Stan Miller.
  • “Electrochemical Process for the Preparation of Nitrogen Fertilizers,” inventors Ted Aulich, Ed Olson, and Junhua Jiang.
  • “Sorbents for the Oxidation and Removal of Mercury,” inventors Mike Holmes, John Pavlish, and Ed Olson.
  • “Process for Regenerating a Spent Sorbent,” inventors Mike Holmes, John Pavlish, and Ed Olson.
  • “System and Process for Producing High-Pressure Hydrogen,” inventors Ted Aulich, Mike Collings, Mike Holmes, and Ron Timpe.

The other four patents were issued by foreign countries:
  • “Energy Efficient Process to Produce Biologically Based Fuels,” inventors Ted Aulich, Chad Wocken, Ron Timpe, and Paul Pansegrau, which was issued from the Russian Federation.
  • “Electrochemical Process for the Preparation of Nitrogen Fertilizers,” inventors Ted Aulich, Ed Olson, and Junhua Jiang, which was issued from Mexico Patents Divisional.
  • “Process of Regenerating a Spent Sorbent,” inventors Mike Holmes, Ed Olson, and John Pavlish, which was issued from the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.
  • “Application of Microturbines to Control Emissions of Associated Gas,” inventor Darren Schmidt, which was issued from the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.

The EERC’s ultimate goal is to work in partnership with clients in industry and government to develop, refine, demonstrate, and commercialize marketable technologies that provide practical solutions to real-world problems. When a process or equipment (a technology) is novel and useful, the EERC/UND and the researchers transfer rights in that technology to the EERC Foundation, which in turn facilitates technology commercialization activities. The Foundation’s role is to house EERC-developed technologies, develop methods of protecting those technologies (patents, copyrights, etc.), promote business relationships with strategic commercial partners, and facilitate the formation of spin-off companies that will commercialize EERC-developed technologies. The Foundation is a nonprofit corporation led by an independent Board of Directors that does not report to the EERC or UND. Revenues from commercialized technology support the Foundation’s commercialization efforts, reward the technology inventors, and are invested in valuable projects under development at the EERC. EERC inventors share 30% of net income earned from royalties.

The average time it takes from patent application to issued patent is 34 months, according to EERC Intellectual Property Management Project Manager Jim Duzan, but it can take significantly longer because of the backlog at USPTO. For example, the patent application for “Process of Regenerating a Spent Sorbent” was first submitted in 2005, and the patent was just received in May of 2012.

In terms of patents, Olson has been more prolific than any other EERC researcher, having been granted seven U.S. and three foreign patents, with pending applications for six U.S. and 13 foreign patents filed. Olson, who retired June 1, said he had lost count of how many patents he’s applied for and been granted over the years. Make no mistake, though; he’s still excited about every patent—no matter where it is in the process.

“When I received my first patent, I was thrilled, of course, but my goal was to get a patent out that was actually used by industry—something that would be a benefit to commerce and to people, such as a process that’s used in a factory,” said Olson. “I still feel that way today.”

“We’re extremely proud of our staff; EERC researchers excel at creative problem solving. USPTO, industry, and the world as a whole continue to recognize EERC contributions to unique and valuable intellectual property,” said Tom Erickson, Associate Director for Business, Operations, and Intellectual Property. 

Biopower and Biofuels: A State of Disarray or Opportunity?

An entire quarter of 2012 has gone by, and it is time to evaluate where the United States is headed with the development of bio-based fuels and energy.

A quick review of news articles could lead one to surmise that bioenergy is in complete disarray due to the sluggish energy economy, a weak set of federal incentives, and a fairly sudden development of huge natural gas resources. Further analysis, however, reveals that the real state of the bioenergy industry is fairly complex and not as bad as it seems.

Today, the primary driver for biofuels development in the United States is the second version of the 2007 U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act, now called by most, the Renewable Fuel Standard II (RFS2). The production tax credit incentive for ethanol is gone, and a similar tax credit for biodiesel is set to expire at the end of this year. The RFS2 rule is the only federal incentive remaining for biofuels. It states that 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel must be generated by 2022 and oil companies must purchase Renewable Identification Number (RIN) credits if they do not produce and use enough biofuels. A large portion of the 36 billion gallons must come from cellulosic biomass such as wood or straw. This rule states that 8.65 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels needs to be offered by distributors this year, which some are challenging as an unachievable requirement. Corn ethanol and vegetable oil-derived biodiesel are the only commercially available biofuels in the United States. Compounding the issue is lower demand in general for gasoline, so naturally the 10% blend of ethanol that is in most gasoline today is also in less demand. Overall, there is some amount of disarray in the bio-based fuels business this year.

Bio-based electricity is a different story, as the level of biopower output/consumption in the United States has remained stable for several years. About 3% of electricity and heat continues to be provided by biomass. The primary driver for electricity and heat production from biomass remains individual state-promoted renewable portfolio standards (RPSs). Twenty-seven states mandate renewable energy production by their utilities. That leaves 23 states either with no RPS or an alternate energy production standard which includes energy from biomass technologies or from advanced fossil fuel technologies such as coal gasification. Most renewable electricity production in the United States still comes from hydroelectric or wind resources.

For some states, an RPS has attracted development of smaller (20–50 MW) baseload biomass power plants. For other regions, communities have incentivized new biomass plants using local venture drives and grassroots support. These new biomass power plants have essentially replaced older units related to the pulp and paper industry. This offset or build one–close one scenario is one reason why the level of biopower remains about 3% nationally.

One unexpected impact on biomass-derived power, and perhaps on biofuels, is the fairly sudden increase of low-cost natural gas. In some states, RPSs are written to stimulate the development of wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, leaving biopower to compete in the electricity market against well-established coal generation and ever-increasing natural gas combined-cycle generation. With the upswing of low-cost natural gas, biomass has a more ferocious competitor. Some will say that we have seen these upswings and downturns before so nothing is different, but the data being presented seem supportive of a long-term sustained level of growing natural gas supplies with costs remaining stable. Of course, some new wrench could be thrown into this argument tomorrow, and these projections could all become nonsensical.

The bottom-line message is one of caution, not disarray. RPS incentives and green-minded communities are stirring up business for biomass. At a recent conference, several presenters from the northeastern United States described nine different biopower projects, six of which were all fully funded, all completely permitted and in some phase of construction. In each case, the biomass supply was well resourced at a reasonable cost for sustainable supply; the local communities were behind the projects; pollutant emissions were well within limits and certainly lower than comparable coal or oil-fired plants; and investors were satisfied with the margins of return. In these types of niche opportunities, biomass power systems are finding ground and proving their worth both environmentally and economically. This is not a picture of disarray.

By Chris J. Zygarlicke, Deputy Associate Director for Research, Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) 

State-of-the-Art Programs and Infrastructure to Quench the Thirst for Fuels of the Future

The world’s thirst for fuel is driving an increasing need for alternative feedstocks for fuel production. At the same time, renewable fuels can reduce our carbon footprint. Over the last three decades, the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota (UND) has been actively inventing, demonstrating, and commercializing new technologies to convert coal and biomass into fuels, alcohols, chemicals, heat, and electricity—with the ultimate goal of reducing U.S. dependency on foreign imports and stimulating the domestic economy.

Because of this, the EERC has experienced tremendous growth in infrastructure the past few years. This new infrastructure supports projects with clients from throughout the world and has already resulted in over $40 million in new EERC contracts.

To satisfy the world’s hunger for renewable fuels, the EERC is pursuing several new programs and infrastructure to foster the development of a variety of new demonstration projects.

Construction is nearly complete on a new $4 million facility dedicated to Fuels of the Future, which is being added onto the EERC’s National Center for Hydrogen Technology (NCHT) facility (completed in 2008).

“The number of demonstration units and other equipment has grown rapidly in the last 2–3 years, and the availability of new space within the NCHT building was the biggest driver. Fortunately, considering the economy, it is already completely full,” said Associate Director for Business and Operations Tom Erickson. “This new facility provides essential new space to install more demonstration systems and gives us the opportunity to expand programs that are waiting in the wings.”

The new building, located on the southwest corner of the EERC’s complex, was constructed to focus on the development and demonstration of critical technologies for the production of non-petroleum-derived liquid fuels (renewable jet, diesel, and gasoline) and hydrogen, utilizing valuable domestic energy resources. It will allow the EERC to transfer critical additional research from the laboratory into the marketplace.

“This expansion is an investment in the future of the EERC and is paramount to its continued success, because the EERC is a key economic engine for the Grand Forks region and, indeed, all of North Dakota,” said EERC Director Gerald Groenewold. “This is the cornerstone facility for advancing fuels of the future into commercially marketable products. It is not intended for research and development alone, but also for working with key corporate partners to commercially deploy innovative technologies," he said.

Structurally, the new 70-foot-high building will include a high-bay area with multiple levels, two control rooms, and additional logistics space for handling equipment and materials.

“The systems and test equipment that will fill the building will result from existing and future contracts with commercial and government partners,” said EERC Associate Director for Research John Harju. “This facility was conceived with several specific technologies in mind that required the specs that this building offers. We expect our corporate partners to take full advantage of that immediately after its completed.”

A major area of infrastructure growth at the EERC recently has been in gasification, which converts a solid fuel into a synthetic gas (syngas) with high hydrogen content. The gas can be used to produce electricity, natural gas for sale, liquid fuels, or chemicals. The EERC greatly enhanced its gasification capabilities through the development of several gasification systems that have already been installed throughout the EERC’s facilities.

As an example, the EERC and one its major corporate partners, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Inc., in partnership with ExxonMobil, has commissioned a revolutionary gasification system. The commercial-scale prototype feed pump system is a unique technology that paves the way for high-efficiency, low-emission gasification of solid fuels. The system can feed a wide range of fuels, such as coal, petcoke, and coal–biomass blends at very high pressure, providing a very efficient, clean system.

“Technologies such as this exemplify the EERC business model,” said Groenewold. “Once demonstrated here, this pump system will be made commercially available to U.S. companies in support of several gasification technologies worldwide.”

Groenewold added that as long as America has a need for energy, innovative solutions for fuel technologies will be required. “The world continues to look to the EERC’s expertise and facilities to advance new fuel technologies with our private sector partners throughout the United States and abroad,” he said.

EERC developing alternative liquid fuel for military

The Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) in Grand Forks, N. D., is developing alternative liquid fuels for military and commercial applications.

EERC deputy associate director for research, Mike Holmes, notes developing the alternative liquid fuels will improve energy security, improve cost and efficiency, improve sustainability and develop the availability of a system that can coproduce electricity and liquid fuels.

“The military has been good at developing products that private companies and consumers can benefit from,” he states. “This has the possibility for development of moderate-scale systems that allow distributed production of power and fuels, utilizing coal and regional sources of biomass.”

The Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, Inc. (CCAT) in East Hartford, Conn., awarded EERC a $906,000 contract to develop the alternative liquid fuels. The EERC will demonstrate gasification-based technologies for converting nonpetroleum feedstocks, such as coal and biomass, into liquid fuels.

Dr. Tom Maloney, CCAT’s director of technology, research and applications, states the military will benefit from technologies that are commercially viable.  He adds there are at least two reasons CCAT and EERC are working together on the project.

“We would rather use an existing facility rather than duplicate facilities,” he says. “We also want to utilize the best resources, like EERC, to save money. The collaboration among EERC, DoD, DOE, CCAT, and project partners Arcadis and Avetec have allowed us to leverage the existing EERC resources to the benefit of everybody involved.”

According to a joint press release, the EERC is supporting the CCAT team by using the EERC’s transport reactor development unit and bench-scale entrained-flow gasifier (EFG) systems to evaluate the impact of fuel quality and operating conditions on synthetic gas composition, gas cleanup, system performance, overall process efficiency and CO₂ emissions.

The EERC is a research, development, demonstration and commercialization facility recognized as one of the world’s leading developers of clean, more efficient energy technologies, as well as environmental technologies to protect and clean air, water and soil.
CCAT helps private and public entities to apply innovative tools and practices to increase efficiencies, improve workforce development and boost competitiveness.

In January 2010, CCAT started looking at different gasification techniques to assist the military’s mandate on becoming more energy independent through the utilization of sustainable energy and fuels. EERC’s previous gasification testing drew CCAT’s attention and a partnership was formed between the two entities to test the viability of wood and algae as biomass for jet fuel.

Previous testing performed in the EERC’s gasification systems shows that a highly clean gas can be produced from coal and coal-biomass mixtures, which is essential for the production of quality liquid fuel, according to the joint press release.

“This will show the versatility of the system for various biomass feedstocks to be utilized at different bases,” Holmes says.

Maloney envisions a plant system in either the military or consumer sector. “The goal is to have a commercial plant up and running by 2020,” he says.

The major challenge is gathering more data and conducting more testing in order to prove the economic and technical viability of making liquid fuels from coal and biomass mixtures. “We still have a lot to learn,” Maloney says.

Alan Van Ormer, Prairie Business Magazine

Distributed Biomass Waste-to-Energy Technology for a Sustainable Future: How Do We Get There?

Currently, the majority of power generation in the United States is produced at large centralized coal-, gas-, or nuclear-fueled power plants. Only Hawaii still maintains significant oil-fired power generation. However, for the past several years, federal and state rules, incentives, and energy portfolio standards have led to significant new power generation from sustainable sources of energy that are distributed in their nature, such as locally available biomass.

Distributed biomass power generation systems can range in size from less than 1 to 50 MW, with the size determined by the amount of opportunistic, residual, or “waste” biomass fuel that is available. Oftentimes, landfill restrictions or higher costs stimulate interest in smaller biomass power systems. These opportunity biomass fuels and feedstocks can comprise forestry by-products, used railroad ties, high-moisture animal waste, or liquid effluents generated in ethanol distilleries and food-processing plants. In utilizing these waste materials, not only can power be generated sustainably, but it effects a significant reduction in material that requires either treatment or processing prior to landfilling, thereby reducing costs for producers.

One option for well-contained conversion of biomass to energy is to use gasification. The Energy & Environmental Research Center’s (EERC’s) experience in gasification goes back six decades in the coal industry and at least a decade with respect to distributed-scale biomass gasification. From a research standpoint, gasification is a good option for biomass-to-energy and value-added by-product recovery. With the innovative integration of a biomass-to-energy recovery technology with manufacturing or waste sources, both economic and environmental sustainability can be achieved.

A small biomass gasifier can produce clean combustible gases or syngas that can be utilized on-site in an existing boiler by offsetting natural gas use or can be utilized in a small internal combustion engine generator; both approaches produce renewable electricity.

A quick examination of commercially available distributed-scale power systems, however, reveals a lack of turnkey systems. Some of the key technical challenges responsible for the limited development are the difficulties in maintaining consistent gasifier performance with variations in the physical and chemical composition and moisture content of a biomass feedstock; the resultant presence of contaminants in the syngas requiring extensive syngas cleaning; and the lack of available efficient and reliable syngas-to-energy technologies such as engine generators, microgas turbines, or fuel cells.

In ongoing efforts to develop a reliable distributed waste biomass-to-energy technology, the EERC has partnered with Cummins, Inc., an industry leader in internal combustion engine generator technology and manufacturing. The EERC–Cummins partnership has three goals: 1) to develop an integrated gasifier–electrical generator technology with improved syngas-to-electricity efficiency, 2) to design a system that is tolerant of varying syngas compositions, and 3) to design a system with exhaust emissions that are well within environmental limits and with lower maintenance costs. Engine manufacturers provide warranties on traditional fuels such as diesel or natural gas, but varied compositions of biomass gasification syngas are currently difficult to certify for warranties.

Together, the EERC and Cummins plan to couple expertise in gasification processes and engine technology to find solutions suitable for commercial industry. A follow-on column will highlight incredible achievements toward producing a reliable biomass fuel distributed power plant.

By Nikhil M. Patel, Research Manager, Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) 

Economic Analysis of a Mobile Indirect Biomass Liquefaction System

As I described in last month’s column, the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) has built and tested a mobile system for converting wood waste into liquid products such as methanol. The system uses a unique gasifier to convert the wood waste into synthesis gas, which is cleaned, compressed, and converted in a reactor to a variety of possible liquid products. We have initially focused on the production of methanol because it can easily be reformed into hydrogen to power fuel cells to make electricity at remote sites separate from the biomass resource. The gasifier was specially designed by the EERC to handle wet wood waste with up to 40% moisture, thereby saving the need to separately dry the wood before gasification, as most commercial gasification units require.

We have found that the maximum wood feed rate of the system is largely determined by the size of the compressor which can fit on the trailer. The production rate of methanol is greatly enhanced at higher pressures, so we compress the gas to 900 psi before it enters the gas-to-liquids reactor. Given our current configuration, we are limited to converting approximately 160 standard cubic feet a minute of gas into methanol liquids using a system mounted on a single trailer. This is the amount of gas produced from gasifying approximately 200 lb of wet wood an hour.  The information gained from recent tests was used to validate a computer model of the system based on gas production rates and composition. Using the model results, engineers have come up with several improvements to the system that should increase the hydrogen content of the syngas and permit production rates as high as 100 gallons/ton.

At that production rate, the 300,000 tons of unused forest residue produced each year in Minnesota could be converted to approximately 30 million gallons of methanol. A fuel cell uses approximately 1 gallon of methanol to create 5 kWh of electricity, so 30 million gallons of methanol could be used to create 150,000 MWh of electricity by fuel cell in remote locations.

The system is primarily operated via computer control that can be largely automated. This significantly reduces labor requirements to that of handling upset conditions such as plugged filters, rather than continuous monitoring. Therefore, the system is designed to be operated at sites where labor is available sporadically from other ongoing  activities, significantly reducing labor costs.  One of the biggest operating costs is the price of electricity needed to run the compressor. One way to reduce this cost would be to use excess syngas to fire a modified generator to produce the electricity on-site, technology that the EERC is currently developing in cooperation with a generator manufacturer. If we assume that electricity is purchased at 7 cents/kWh, then production costs are predicted to be $1.58/gallon using grid power, but as low as $0.95/gallon if electricity is produced using excess syngas. Both of these costs are based on using wood waste that has no commercial value and is, therefore, free of charge.

In addition to the operating cost of the system, the capital cost of the system must be paid off. We estimate that the cost of the trailer-mounted system with an additional syngas-fired generator and other improvements to increase the production rate to 100 gallons/ton would be approximately $1 million. Assuming an 8% interest rate and payoff of the loan over 10 years, the combined capital and operating cost is approximately $3.05/gallon using grid power or $2.59/gallon using onboard generation. These costs are considerably higher than the current delivered cost of methanol created from natural gas, especially because of the low cost of shale gas being produced. However, in some situations, even these relatively high costs are acceptable, in particular, operation in very remote locations where the delivered cost of methanol may be very high or cases where additional incentives, such as carbon credits, are available. More commonly, production of other liquids, such as Fischer–Tropsch fuels or other organic chemicals, may be more economical at this time than methanol production, at least at the scale of a mobile system mounted on a single trailer.

Project funding is provided by customers of Xcel Energy through a grant from the Renewable Development Fund and the U.S. Department of Energy.By John P. Hurley, Senior Research Advisor, Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC)

Update on a Mobile Indirect Biomass Liquefaction System

Minnesota’s forestry operations produce 300,000 tons a year of wood waste that is not used in any existing or proposed facility. Through the process of indirect liquefaction, this waste can be converted into liquid fuels that could be transported to remote off-grid sites and reformed to hydrogen to power fuel cells to produce electricity. Using distributed power generation to off-grid sites eliminates the need to build transmission lines at remote sites, which ultimately saves utility ratepayers money. In addition, the wood-to-fuel technology provides a non-fossil energy-based, nearly carbon dioxide neutral method to fuel backup generators. Even in areas that are served by the grid, this saves utility ratepayers the cost of maintaining large backup power production systems. Ratepayers may also be able to take advantage of future carbon credits or avoid carbon taxes applied to fossil energy-based power production.

The Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) has developed and tested at small scales much of the technology necessary for distributed indirect liquefaction systems. With funding provided by customers of Xcel Energy through a grant from the Renewable Development Fund and the U.S. Department of Energy through the EERC Centers for Renewable Energy and Biomass Utilization, the EERC designed and built a mobile, demonstration-sized indirect wood waste liquefaction system and operated it in order to determine best construction and operating practices, overall system productivity, and necessary design changes to make the concept more commercially viable. The system was originally described in this column in the April 2011 issue.

The system uses a unique gasifier to convert the wood waste into synthesis gas, which is cleaned and compressed and flows to a gas-to-liquids (GTL) reactor to convert the gas to a liquid. In this program, we focused on the production of methanol, the simplest alcohol, because it can be easily reformed into hydrogen which can be used to power fuel cells to efficiently make electricity at sites separate from the biomass resource. The gasifier was specially designed by the EERC to handle wet wood waste with up to 40% moisture, thereby saving the need to separately dry the wood before gasification, as most commercial gasification units require.

Project funding provided by customers of Xcel Energy through a grant from the Renewable Development Fund, and the U.S. Department of Energy.By John P. Hurley, Senior Research Advisor, Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC)