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EERC works toward goal of clean coal at less cost

GRAND FORKS -- Housed inside a demonstration facility at University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center is a new way to better use an abundant resource: coal.

"One of the strategies for achieving that is figuring out how to make coal cleaner," said Neeta Patel, director of energy systems with Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

A developer of rocket and energy technology, PWR and the EERC unveiled a step toward that goal Tuesday. They introduced a prototype gasification system that they say can harvest more energy from coal while reducing the amount of carbon it produces, lowering the cost of the process and shrinking the scale needed for a gasification system.

Gasification is not a new process, but the prototype introduces a new way to do it. The key is using dry coal.

Coal gasification usually uses a slurry of coal and water, but the use of water reduces the efficiency of the process. It also requires large quantities of water.

The new technology allows a gasification system that is 90 percent smaller than other systems and 20 percent less expensive to build, according to PWR. Compared to other gasification technology, the process also produces 10 percent less carbon dioxide.

The technology also works with biomass and other solid fuels.

"It burns coal more efficiently, converts it to energy more cleanly," said PWR President Jim Maser.

Proving prototype

The EERC hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the prototype attended by federal, state, local and UND officials and representatives of the center's partners.

The gasification prototype is built around what PWR's Tim Saunders called "an M1 tank on stick," a 60-ton dry solids pump that can feed 400 tons of fuel a day into a gasification unit to produce clean synthetic gas. Coal is pulverized into dust and kept under 1,200 pounds per square inch of pressure to induce the solid to behave like a liquid.

"That's not easy to do, folks," said EERC Director Gerald Groenewold.

The absence of water in the process means it converts the fuel more efficiently. It also removes water from energy production, a process that accounts for a major share of water consumption worldwide.

The system was built as a tower in a 40,000-square-foot demonstration building next to the EERC's main building. It will remain there, running for days at a time, to prove the technology as PWR develops commercial applications for the system.

"In 2015, we're going to start looking at commercial plants worldwide," said John Vilja, PWR vice president of strategy, innovation and growth.

The system's smaller size, higher efficiency, lower costs and reduced emissions should give it commercial appeal.

"It has a very, very rosy future," Saunders said.


Other partners on the project were the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory and Canadian agency Alberta Innovates - Energy and Environmental Solutions.

PWR chose the EERC as a partner through a competitive process with other organizations.

"This is sort of the poster child for the things we like to do," Groenewold said.

In his remarks to introduce the prototype, he paraphrased Thomas Edison's philosophy of never inventing something nobody wants.

"The market is pulling everything we do," he said.

PWR president Maser said his organization has been built on rocketry and space exploration. On this project, the gasification system could be considered another type of rocket science.

"At our heart, we're fundamentally an energy conversion company," he said. Rather than converting energy into propulsion for a rocket, the project converts energy from fuel into synthetic gas.

Maser credited the EERC for the energy expertise it brought to the project.

"A key part of our strategy is to find partners who understand how energy works," he said. "It's actually an ideal partnership."

Bjorke is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.