Clearing the Air
What’s good for North Dakota is also good for the planet.
Confirmation that the University of North Dakota’s Institute of Energy Studies (IES) has indeed arrived came in August when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded the program a grant to develop a technology that reduces greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
That’s not just good news for the UND School of Engineering and Mines, which operates IES, but it’s also a significant development for North Dakota’s lignite coal industry as well as other energy generation technologies that emit carbon dioxide (CO2) — a factor in climate change.
“The industry wants to be prepared for the future because we don’t know what the regulations might be,” said Steve Benson, IES director and professor of chemical engineering. “They don’t want to get caught without a viable technology that might cause a significant increase in the cost of electricity. We want to help industry maintain the low cost of electricity, and that’s the challenge when looking at CO2 capture.”
Hesham El-Rewini, dean of
the School of Engineering and Mines, said the DOE grant is a measure of success.
“It assures us that we are on the right track because we’re pursuing what’s important,” he said. “We have the right vision and we have the right core of people to get it going. This project will definitely benefit North Dakota, but the benefits will go beyond to the region, to the nation and to the world. North Dakota will not only benefit by applying the technology that’s developed here, but also by getting the word out that we are contributing to solving a major global problem.”
Benson said the project brings together a unique public/private team from UND, Envergex LLC and Solex Thermal Science. Envergex of Sturbridge, Mass., is a “green” energy company that produces carbon-based sorbents for reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants. Solex, headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, specializes in advanced heat exchange technology.
The DOE National Energy Technology Laboratory will provide nearly $3 million for the evaluation of a CO2 capture technology that uses hybrid sorbents. Project partners that include the North Dakota Lignite Energy Council, Saskatchewan Power, ALLETE, Minnesota Power and BNI Coal will contribute more than $700,000 to the project.
“We’ve come up with a technology that can significantly reduce the amount of energy it takes to regenerate a sorbent,” said Benson. “It’s 80 percent less than competing technologies. This is good for all types of combustion systems because it can be retrofitted. There are significant opportunities there for our state’s lignite industry to participate in this program.”
Benson noted that if the CO2 capture technology proves feasible, the next step would be to demonstrate it at UND’s steam plant for a small-scale study that could lead to commercialization.
“If you think about the energy infrastructure of the University, it’s like a mini-city,” he said. “By using the steam plant, there’s no better platform on which to train students and help people understand energy-related issues and their impacts.”
IES is also addressing the problem of mercury emissions from industrial
processes, an environmental issue that’s affected recreational fishing in Minnesota’s lakes.
“We’re testing technologies for mercury emissions control at taconite plants in Minnesota,” Benson said. “We’ve come up with some novel ways of using activated carbon made from North Dakota lignite to capture mercury in those specific systems and coal-fired power plants.”
The work is sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the taconite industry.
For El-Rewini, DOE funding for the CO2 capture project reaffirms the vision he had when he proposed creation of the IES nearly three years ago. The institute provided a mechanism to bring together the wide range of expertise at UND to collaborate and help solve energy and environmental problems.
“You can come up with the best technology, but if you don’t study the social and behavior impacts, the public might reject it,” he explained. “If it’s not going to be accepted in regulations and laws, then it will be useless. If you don’t study economics and the financial or business value of the technology, then it might not be practical. This is why we look at energy issues at UND from these perspectives.”
El-Rewini and Benson believe that with such disciplines as law, medicine, nursing, business, engineering, atmospheric science and education, UND has a unique opportunity to become a leading energy university. In addition, the University has facilities such as the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) and the North Dakota Geological Survey’s Wilson M. Laird Core and Sample Library.
“We have the engineers; we have the scientists; we have the business people; we have the people who deal with social issues; and we have people who deal with health issues — we have it all,” Benson said. “The institute brings these entities together to solve those energy-related problems. UND is developing into a premier energy university to tackle these problems. That’s really where we want to go.”
To put it simply, El-Rewini said, “When people think of UND, they should think energy.”
If all goes as planned, El-Rewini envisions a collaborative energy complex in the middle of campus that draws on the IES, the EERC, the newly instituted petroleum engineering program and the Jodsaas Center for Engineering Leadership and Entrepreneurship. It would not only make UND a world leader in energy technology, but also provide quality education opportunities.
“I’m very excited about the future and very optimistic about what’s going to happen here,” El-Rewini said.
Patrick C. Miller | Staff Writer