UND research and North Dakota: Energy and environmental sustainability

UND houses one of the largest energy research enterprises in America, and it directs that research to benefit the state

UND researchers routinely try to find ways of extracting more energy from North Dakota’s natural resources, including Bakken shale. Photo courtesy of the UND Energy & Environmental Research Center.

Editor’s note: In this special issue, UND Today is highlighting the statewide impact of UND researchers and research. We’re doing this by publishing roundups on five key North Dakota topics, including Rural Health, Autonomous Systems and Western North Dakota. Then in each roundup, we’re listing and linking to recent UND Today pieces that show how the University’s work is affecting that topic. 

This story: Energy & Environmental Sustainability

In developing UND’s Grand Challenges, University leaders tried to match North Dakota’s needs with UND’s capabilities. In which areas could UND deliver the most bang for the buck – the most useful and significant services, in areas of the state’s most pressing needs?  

Rural Health & Communities was one of those areas.  

Energy & Environmental Sustainability is another. It, too, became one of UND’s five Grand Challenges, and has evolved into a specialty that UND is known for around the world 

Take the Department of Petroleum Engineering, which the University launched as recently as 2010. That makes the program one of America’s newest. But this comparative youth hasn’t diminished the programs achievements, as shown in the UND Today story, Big rig for Petroleum Engineering is big deal, published last January.

As the story noted, “UND will soon host the world’s largest – and only – full scale oil drilling and completion lab.”

In this photo from early 2019, Vamegh Rasouli, Continental Resources Distinguished Professor of Petroleum Engineering and department chair, stands in front of components for what will become the world’s largest – and only – full scale oil drilling and completion lab. The lab is located in a former Minnkota Power building in Grand Forks. UND archival image.

“This drilling and completion laboratory, when fully completed, will be a $40-million experimental facility that does not exist anywhere else in the world,” says Vamegh Rasouli, Continental Resources Distinguished Professor of Petroleum Engineering and department chair, in the story. 

Of course, the lab is being built for the same reason that the Department was opened in the first place: to help North Dakota by serving the state’s Bakken oil-producing region. The Department does this not only by producing a steady stream of trained engineers, but also by conducting research, as Assistant Professor Minou Rabiei’s work shows. 

In Machine learning at UND pumps up North Dakota’s oil productionRabiei describes how her artificial-intelligence work can boost oilfield productivity. In layman’s terms, “because she uses Big Data to figure out how to squeeze more oil out of North Dakota’s Bakken formation, Rabiei’s keyboard is one of the world’s strongest amplifiers, turning her keystrokes into the practical equivalent of kilotons of additional force,” as the story summarizes. 

And of course, because North Dakota’s energy industry involves many other sources besides oil, UND’s energy research brings to bear many other experts besides petroleum engineers. Even Microsoft is tanking note: As UND, Airtonomy receive state’s first Microsoft AI for Earth Grant reports, Grand Forks-based Airtonomy and UND are using the Microsoft grant to learn how to monitor bird and bat mortalities at wind energy sites, using UAVs.

UND’s Dreamer Geothermophiles designed a Pipeline Interventions Gadget or PIG to reduce mineral buildup in pipelines. Schematic provided by Dreamer Thermomphiles.

Winds of Change, a story from late 2019, describes an equally fascinating project, one 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.”

The project? Developing electrostatic filters to continuously clean the oil in wind-energy turbines, which are located in hard-to-reach spaces atop 330-foot-tall towers. The potential? “Right now, there are 357,000 wind turbines operating in the world, and that number is growing at 20 to 40 percent per year,” says James Rickson, president and CEO of ELF Technology, in the story.

Pipeline safety is another focal point of UND and UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center research. In iPipe puts pipelines on path to zero spills, we learn about Pipers, golf-ball-sized devices – packed with electronics – that get dropped into pipelines, and can detect possible weak spots in the pipe as the device travels downstream.

Pipers represent a very significant safety advance, by the way. And in Engineering students team up with industryUND mechanical engineering students help Hess Corp. solve a vital problem with the technology: how to retrieve the tiny devices from a pipeline pulsing with flowing oil. 

The Pipeline Interventions Gadget or PIG that another group of UND students proposes to put into pipelines is considerably larger. But as PIG in a pipeline explains, the UND engineering team likewise had their eyes on a pipeline problem: mineral buildup or scaling, which reduces flow and can be expensive to remove. 

Speaking of solving problems, UND’s EERC is leading the world in figuring out what to do with power-plant CO2 emissions, a global greenhouse-gas problem. In Going undergroundUND Today notes that “the EERC got nearly $17 million in April from the U.S. Department of Energy “for a project that will directly support Project Tundra, a carbon capture, utilization and storage research and development project led by Grand Forks-based Minnkota Power Cooperative.”

Counting another $7.9 million in funding from the North Dakota Industrial Commission “brings the total funding to $24.9 million for the CarbonSAFE Phase III project,” the story reports. And as U.S. Sen. John Hoeven from North Dakota suggests, “efforts like this will help ensure our nation continues to harness all of its abundant energy resources, including affordable, reliable and resilient fuels like coal.” 

UND researchers are involved in a Department of Energy project to transform corn stover — the stalks, stems and leaves left after corn is harvested — into a fuel capable of power jet aircraft. UND archival image.

The following stories show even more of the state and national reach of UND’s energy research. Modern alchemy: UND aims to turn corn stalks, stems & leaves into jet fuel describes how a consortium of research laboratories, led by UND, is working to turn corn waste into jet fuel. 

Protecting the power supply describes Associate Professor Jun Liu’s research on boosting the cybersecurity of America’s coal-, oil- and natural-gas-fired power plants. 

UND research: Open for business notes how the University’s Institute for Energy Studies is helping the region’s small businesses with their R&D.

And in both Fueling the future and An abundance of research opportunities, UND Today readers learn about the State Energy Research Center, the designation that the North Dakota Legislature awarded the EERC. “Over the past 15 months, 59 new fundamental research ideas were brought forward by EERC researchers, of which 25 have been funded,” says Tom Erickson, Director of Exploratory Research at the EERC, in the latter story.  

With the prospect of SERC researchers figuring out how to extract rare-earth elements – almost all of which now are exported by China – from North Dakota shale and lignite coal, the Legislature’s designation is starting to pay off. Especially because that’s just one of the major projects the researchers are working on, as the stories explain.