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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)