UND researchers secure funding for clean energy efforts

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Research can benefit not only clean energy production and carbon storage, but also agriculture

Johannes Van der Watt, left, and Junior Nasah, researchers at UND’s Institute for Energy Studies, have received federal grants to study carbon-neutral power generation. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today

Clean energy from agricultural waste? Two UND researchers have both received federal grants to study the possibilities.

The grants total more than $2.5 million in research funding, with the majority of funds coming from the US Department of Energy.

Junior Nasah, a major project manager at UND’s Institute for Energy Studies (IES), has been awarded $2.12 million to study the feasibility of using various forms of renewable biomass to generate neutral hydrogen carbon for power generation. Hydrogen produced from biomass could also be used to create fertilizers for agricultural purposes.

Johannes Van der Watt, a research engineer also at IES, was awarded $400,000 to study the use of renewable biogas to remediate large piles of coal waste. This would happen through “carbon negative” electricity generation and pave the way for future regional clean energy efforts when this repair is complete.

“The Institute for Energy Studies has become a leader in the development of low-carbon energy technologies,” said Dan Laudal, director of the UND Institute for Energy Studies. “These two new Department of Energy awards are testament to our success, and I am very pleased for Junior and Johannes and our team as we begin work on these projects.”

A critical mass of biomass

Both research projects rely on renewable sources of biomass and, according to Nasah, North Dakota has plenty of it. Biomass comes in many forms, including agricultural or municipal waste, lawn or plant clippings, downed trees, and animal manure. As they decompose, these biomass sources release methane, a much more virulent greenhouse gas than CO2, Nasah said. Additionally, municipalities typically have to pay for the removal and storage of this waste, usually in a landfill, which means the waste-to-energy process can save money while providing environmental benefits.

Nasah’s research projects include converting biomass into syngas, “syngas” which is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Another chemical process will refine this gas into pure hydrogen, which can be burned as fuel for electricity generation or used to make fertilizer. Nasah said the system could be adapted for farms in the state to do both.

A key element of the project is its scale, which helps bring clean energy generation to where it is needed. Nasah said he was looking to produce between 1 and 5 tonnes of hydrogen per day. This amount could be used either by a municipality or by a farm. Producing hydrogen at low cost to a place where it is needed also solves the problem of having to transport it from the large factories where it is manufactured, which consumes fuel and increases emission levels unnecessarily.

The objective: hydrogen at a lower cost

Ultimately, Nasah said his goal is to create low-cost hydrogen derived from renewable sources that can be used in the region where it was created. His research will focus on the profitability of localized hydrogen production.

“A lot of what we’re claiming is that our conversion stage can go from biomass to hydrogen to produce electricity at low cost, where we can actually make that project economical,” Nasah said.

Nasah will work with Envergex LLC and Singularity Energy Technologies, both located at the UND Innovation Center. The first company works, among other things, on the conversion of solid fuels, and the second on waste-to-energy technology. Currently, the team is working to secure matching funds from the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s Renewable Energy Program, which has expressed interest in the project.

Similarly, Van der Watt is also investigating the use of biomass for the remediation of coal waste dumps. Coal waste, a fine powder mixed with soil and located primarily in the coal-producing regions of the eastern United States, is left in large, unsightly mounds after the commercial mining process. Biogas generated from renewable biomass sources can be co-combustible with this waste for electricity generation.

The objective is twofold: to clean up a region’s coal waste by transforming it into energy, and then to use the infrastructure put in place to continue burning biogas as a carbon-neutral energy source.

“These two things are really important today, and we have a way of connecting them to make sure we’re using the resources we have and using them wisely,” Van der Watt said.

Both research projects are also investigating ways to capture CO2 which will be produced from power generation, and plans are to either store it underground or find a use for it in a local market. One such use, Nasah said, could be to sell the byproduct gas to a brewery or similar business.

A marriage of skills

The two UND researchers work in tandem on the grants: Nasah is the CO2 fossil fuel capture and energy, and Van der Watt is leading gasification efforts.

“It’s a good marriage of our skills,” Nasah said.

Brian Tande, dean of the UND College of Engineering and Mines, praised the research projects and said the projects also showcase his university’s workforce development efforts.

“What I love most about these projects is that these new technologies will not only benefit North Dakota, but are also being developed by researchers who have been trained here in North Dakota. This is an important part of the College of Engineering and Mines mission – to help create a talented workforce to meet the needs of our state.

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