State-of-the-Art programs, infrastructure quenches thirst for ‘Fuels of the Future’


Derek Walters

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State-of-the-Art programs, infrastructure quenches thirst for ‘Fuels of the Future’

The world’s thirst for fuel is driving an increasing need for alternative feedstock 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 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 more than $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 Technologyâ (NCHTâ) facility, which was completed in 2008.

“The number of demonstration units and other equipment has grown rapidly in the last two to three 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 nonpetroleum-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 of 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.

Derek Walters Communications and Outreach Manager

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