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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)