Unique, high-potential technology to be developed at UND

ELF Technology to develop oil filtration system with UND College of Engineering & Mines

ELF Technology, which is working with the UND College of Engineering & Mines, sees the wind energy industry as a major market for its oil filtration technology. Photo courtesy of North Dakota Tourism.

A new technology is coming to North Dakota through UND, a technology that could significantly change the wind energy industry and create jobs in the state, while offering potential benefits to a wide range of other industries, too.

A month after the North Dakota Department of Commerce announced its Intellectual Property (IP) Commercialization Initiative with UND, North Dakota State University and the Bank of North Dakota, the program has attracted its first project. ELF Technology, headquartered in Stillwater, Minn., is bringing its electrostatic lubricant filter (ELF) system to UND for testing, additional development and manufacturing.

Amy Whitney

Amy Whitney, director of the UND Center for Innovation, said the total grant award from Research ND is $298,000, with a 1-to-1 budget of direct costs and cost share. ELF will initially conduct field tests of its technology by working with the UND College of Engineering & Mines and Michael Mann, chemical engineering professor and executive director of the Institute of Energy Studies.

“Step One of our partnership was securing Research ND funds through the last round of awards, which was successful,” Whitney said. “We are very excited to see a win already and hope that this project can help illustrate the type of work we are doing with the IP commercialization initiative.”

Charged for cleaning

Electrostatic technology has been used for decades to clean air, ranging from huge electrostatic precipitators that remove pollutants from the exhaust gases of coal-fired power plants to small filters in home furnace systems. They clean air by using electrically charged surfaces that attract and trap fine particles and other contaminants.

ELF Technology will first conduct field tests of its electrostatic lubricant filter system at North Dakota coal-fired power plants before downscaling the technology for use in wind turbines. Photo courtesy UND EERC.

Rapidly spinning turbines and other machinery – including internal combustion engines – use oil as a lubricant to greatly reduce friction. When the oil becomes dirty or is contaminated by tiny metal filings, it must be replaced, which results in downtime and maintenance expenses.

The ELF system acts as a magnet, positively charging contaminated particles in oil and causing them to stick to metal plates. Essentially, the oil is continuously cleaned and recycled, significantly reducing maintenance needs and downtime costs.

Michael Mann

“Once the oil is cleaned, it circulates and starts to remove the deposits and buildup,” Mann said. “In essence, you have clean oil circulating in a clean system. You’re circulating clean oil all the time, as opposed to oil that gets dirtier and dirtier. It reduces the wear and tear on equipment. For industries using big motors, big turbines and big pumps, it has the potential for substantial savings with regard to maintenance costs.”

James Rickson, president and CEO of ELF Technology, said that while the concept of using an electrostatic charge to clean oil isn’t new, the company’s ELF system offers 18 levels of filtration, compared to two in previous versions. Rickson said ELF technology has been tested on power plant turbines with 10,000-gallon reservoirs of oil lubricant, but he is focusing on another market with greater potential: the wind energy industry.

“Right now, there are 357,000 wind turbines operating in the world, and that number is growing at 20 to 40 percent per year,” he said.

Wind energy industry potential

Located in the nacelle on top of a tower, a typical wind turbine has a reservoir of about 100 gallons of oil used to lubricate the turbine when operating, Rickson said. So, monitoring the oil and keeping it clean is a big maintenance issue, as an article last year in Wind Power Engineering & Development magazine explained.

“Manually changing the oil is a difficult and time-consuming task,” wrote Frank May, a service engineer at GlobeCore GmbH in Oldenburg, Germany, in the article.

“Workers lift and lower oil in special canisters using lifting devices (elevators or ladders). This would commonly require a team of three or four and about eight hours of work time.”

In his article, May recommended periodically testing the oil used for wind turbine lubrication and replacing it at least every two years.

“The cost of gearbox maintenance and replacement, along with the costs associated with the inevitable downtime, are a significant part of wind turbine operation losses,” he wrote. “The condition of gearbox oil in the wind turbine is an important factor in saving on these costs.”

Currently, efforts are underway to field test the ELF system on large turbines used in some of North Dakota’s coal-fired power plants.

Explained Mann, “it will be an independent set of eyes to ensure that the testing protocol is done properly and that it’s a fair and unbiased evaluation. The goal is to provide ELF Technology with test results that have been independently verified to show that the technology is everything it’s advertised to be.”

Answering questions

Data gathered during testing will also help ELF Technology answer other questions about its system, such as: How long will it extend the life of the oil?

“We’re not sure what the oil life will be,” Rickson said. “Once we’ve run a couple hundred demonstration scenarios and we have the data to back it up, then we’ll be able to make a more definitive claim. Right now, we know the oil life is dramatically longer.”

Besides applications in the energy industry, ELF Technology is exploring other uses for its system in shipping, mining and defense. Photo courtesy of ELF Technology.

For the second part of the project, Rickson will work with Mann’s team at UND to downscale the ELF system to fit inside the nacelle of a wind turbine. They hope to test it in North Dakota with a wind energy company.

“In the wind turbine industry, if it works here in North Dakota and what we prove is the solution to the problem, it’s going to be required in every wind turbine across the globe,” Rickson predicted.

Mann agreed that the wind energy industry is a potentially major market for ELF Technology.

“I think of all the wind farms in the nation; that, by itself, is a huge market,” he said. “Just from the sheer cost of changing oil in a wind turbine, it would make a big difference. And ELF Technology could design a range of products to fit with many different industries.”

Rickson is already exploring other uses for his company’s technology. For example, he noted the commercial shipping industry uses turbine-powered cargo ships and tankers. Large equipment in the mining industry could benefit from using a system providing clean, continuously recycled oil. The U.S. Department of Defense, with thousands of ships, vehicles and aircraft, could use a similar system to quickly supply and maintain frontline units in the field, Rickson said.

Green technology

Finally, Rickson noted that the environmental benefits of ELF Technology’s oil filtration system shouldn’t be overlooked.

“There’s a great green story here,” he said. “Every barrel of oil that we filter is a barrel that doesn’t come out of the ground and a barrel of oil that doesn’t get disposed of. It doesn’t get any greener than that.”

Tom DiLorenzo, UND vice president for academic affairs and provost, said the project with ELF Technology demonstrates the importance of commercializing IP by matching the capabilities of North Dakota’s research universities to the needs of business and industry.

“The collaboration between ELF Technology, the College of Engineering & Mines and the Center for Innovation is a great example of why UND should be considered ‘The Innovation University,’” DiLorenzo said, noting that UND last year was named one of the top 25 most innovative universities in the U.S. “The state program not only gives us great flexibility in commercializing research, but also positions us to work toward this goal with business, industry, the state Department of Commerce and the Bank of North Dakota.”