Powering up North Dakota and the world’s energy future

UND dedicates one-of-a-kind engineering facility for training and research

Eric Kolb, research engineer with Microbeam Technologies (right), and Ashish Kotwal, a UND graduate student, overlook the pilot plant that will produce rare earth elements from North Dakota coal. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

A building that once generated electricity for Grand Forks and the surrounding region will help lead North Dakota’s energy industry to new techniques, technologies and training opportunities.

On Oct. 22, UND’s College of Engineering & Mines (CEM) formally dedicated and held a grand opening for the Drilling & Completion Lab (DRACOLA) and Research Facility in the former Minnkota Power Cooperative power plant building in Grand Forks.

Attendees to the dedication of the Drilling & Completions Lab toured the facility during an open house. Photo by Paige Prekker/UND College of Engineering & Mines.

DRACOLA will enable UND petroleum engineering students to gain firsthand experience on a working drilling rig, as well as assist North Dakota’s oil and gas industry in testing equipment and drilling techniques. Another major research effort in the building is a pilot-scale plant to extract valuable rare-earth elements from North Dakota lignite coal. A third project is a wind tunnel to test unmanned aircraft system (UAS) designs.

“This facility is a symbol of our commitment to serving North Dakota,” said Brian Tande, CEM dean. “The projects taking place here support two of our largest and most important industries: the oil and gas industry and lignite energy industry.

“The facility also supports emerging industries like unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and geothermal,” he continued. “And it addresses rare earth elements, an area of significant concern to our national security.  As a native of this state, I’m very proud of the work that we are doing here.”

UND President Andy Armacost, who cut the ribbon during the dedication ceremony, said, “This facility is a collection of organizations and people with a strong interest in the economy of North Dakota and the oil and gas economy across the United States.

“The result is a great facility where we can test out new technologies, new ideas, involve students and faculty members in that work, and really build those partnerships with industry,” he added.

During his remarks, Tande recalled how all the pieces came together two years ago to make the CEM research facility a reality. It started when Sidney Green, founder and retired CEO of TerraTek, approached UND with the idea of gifting the drilling lab simulator to UND. Vamegh Rasouli, petroleum engineering chair, and Harry Feilen, now the DRACOLA director, played a lead role in bringing one of the world’s largest drilling simulators to UND.

In remarks recorded for the dedication ceremony, Green said, “When I was considering where this facility would go, a number of universities became very interested – several to the point of very strongly indicating they wanted the laboratory.

“But only one – UND and Professor Rasouli – really had the vision of the laboratory’s capabilities and had someone like Harry Feilen who could set up and operate a large-scale testing facility,” he said. “As I met with them, I quickly concluded that this is a group that could take the equipment and really do something with it. I was convinced right away.”

At the same time, Tande said research on extracting rare earth elements from North Dakota coal was gaining steam. Michael Mann, CEM associate dean for research, and his team needed a location to build a pilot plant to scale up the process toward commercialization.

“This is an important project that has national security implications, as well as the potential to create an entirely new revenue stream for lignite producers and the state of North Dakota,” Tande said.

The College of Engineering & Mines research facility includes a wind tunnel for testing unmanned aircraft system designs. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

In addition, Forrest Ames, a professor in the CEM mechanical engineering department, needed space to build a wind tunnel to support work on unmanned aircraft.

As Tande noted, “With all of these projects coming together, we were very fortunate to find this facility that could accommodate all three.”

“This is fabulous!” exclaimed Kathy Neset, CEO of Neset Consulting in Tioga, N.D., and former State Board of Higher Education member, after touring the drilling lab.

“You read in a textbook, you listen in class, but until you get out on a drilling rig out in the field and really see the operation, you can’t appreciate what’s going on,” she explained. “When you have students and researchers who can utilize a lab like this, they will be miles ahead of others who are doing the same thing in other locations.”

Commercializing the process to extract rare earth elements from North Dakota coal represents not only a potential new market for the state’s abundant lignite resources, but also addresses a national security concern. China produces most of the world’s rare earth elements, important components in everything from electric cars to smartphones to electronic sensors and radars.

UND President Andy Armacost (right) and College of Engineering & Mines Dean Brian Tande cut the ribbon to dedicate the Drilling & Completion Lab and Research Facility during homecoming activities last week. Photo by Paige Prekker/UND College of Engineering & Mines.

Nolan Theaker, technical group manager on the rare earth project at the CEM Institute for Energy Studies, said the project has received support from the North Dakota Industrial Commission, the Lignite Energy Council and the mine and power plant operators in the state.

“Our plan is to process a couple hundred tons of that coal here and give them all the information they need to go out and build their commercial plant,” he said. “We’ll act as support for those commercial plants.

“We’re expecting that January through March, we’ll be producing rare earth elements in kilogram quantities, which will be some of the first rare earths produced at that scale from lignite resources,” he continued.

Theaker said the U.S. Department of Energy has set an aggressive timetable for commercial production of rare earth elements.

“In the next three years, we expect this technology to be real and out in the field,” he said. “That would be right beside one of our North Dakota mines. It would be producing rare earth elements and potentially making a significant difference in the Department of Defense’s demand.”