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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.