UND research: Open for business
University’s Institute for Energy Studies helps region’s small businesses with R&D
Whether it’s exploring the potential of an innovative idea or getting assistance in solving a difficult technical problem, Professor Michael Mann’s team of researchers at UND’s Institute for Energy Studies is providing valuable expertise to small businesses.
“I look at us as the research arm for small companies,” Mann said. “If you can’t afford to have a research and development section, you can work with UND. In essence, the University becomes your R&D component.”
Mann lists a dozen businesses inside and outside North Dakota engaged in one or more projects with IES in the College of Engineering & Mines. Some projects are funded by various state programs. Others get their money through federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, most of which address problems relevant to North Dakota.
Steve Kemp, president of Wellspring Hydro in Williston, N.D., first came to UND in 2016 with an idea of how to extract lithium – a valuable element used in rechargeable lithium ion batteries – from “produced water,” the salt-laden water produced from deep underground during oil and gas extraction in North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation.
“UND worked for us as a business with an idea, but with no research capability and no huge budget,” he said. “We didn’t have millions of dollars to throw at this problem.”
An idea takes shape
The idea became a senior research project for a group of UND engineering students, who determined that mining lithium from produced water wasn’t economically feasible. However, the study revealed other byproducts that could be mined, such as the salt. When run through the company’s Chlor Alkali process, it can make hydrochloric acid – used by the oil and gas industry – and caustic soda – used in a wide variety of industrial applications, including paper and pulp mills, as well as oil refineries.
With grants Wellspring Hydro received from the North Dakota Industrial Commission and the city of Williston, Minneapolis-based Barr Engineering conducted a study showing the feasibility of extracting the chemicals for industrial use. And because the economics have improved, Wellspring Hydro continues to work with Mann’s research team on the best method and technology to extract lithium from oil and gas wastewater, Kemp said.
“If we could mine all the lithium from all 1.8 million barrels per day of produced water in the Bakken, we could provide 32 percent of the world’s annual lithium consumption,” he said. “The technology for extracting lithium is still a bit on the new side, and that’s why we really want UND’s help to determine the best path forward.”
Another benefit of the Wellspring Hydro process is that once the salts and minerals are removed, the produced water is near the quality of distilled water. In addition, Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Project Tundra with the UND Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) can use caustic soda to capture carbon dioxide from the exhaust gases of the Milton Young Station near Center, N.D., for underground sequestration.
“It’s a huge win for the state and a huge win for the industry,” Kemp said. “Our oil and gas partner is looking for a green project. If you think about it, this is a perfect fit because we’re recycling and mining produced water, which has never been done before.”
According to Kemp, Wellspring Hydro is planning to build a facility in Williams Country.
Jobs, economic development
“Once we prove this concept, we can take it on to the next level,” Kemp noted. “This business will produce over $50 million in annual revenue, provide 60 full-time jobs and a significant amount of revenue for the state. Williams County would receive about an additional $1.4 million in taxes annually.”
Without the assistance of UND’s researchers, Kemp said Wellspring Hydro wouldn’t exist.
“This idea would have been born and died in 2016 without the help of UND,” he offered. “I can say with absolute confidence that we would not have gotten where we are in developing this business without the help of UND.”
Making energy more efficiently
Jim Rickson, president and CEO of ELF Technology, is another technology developer who’s benefited from working with Mann’s research team, UND’s Center for Innovation and the North Dakota Department of Commerce.
“It’s a beautiful thing when you can marry the expertise of these organizations, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. I’m excited because the quality and caliber of the people in North Dakota is something unique in this country. My experience has been extraordinary.”
ELF Technology, based in Stillwater, Minn., last fall brought its electrostatic lubricant filter (ELF) system to UND for field testing. The ELF system acts as a magnet, positively charging contaminated particles in oil and causing them to stick to metal plates. The oil is thus continuously cleaned and recycled, significantly reducing maintenance needs and downtime costs, both in power plants with large turbines to generate electricity and in much smaller wind turbines.
Large-scale versions of the ELF system have been demonstrated at two coal-fired power plants in western North Dakota: the Coyote Station near Beulah and the Leland Olds Station near Stanton. UND’s IES research team has designed and built a down-scaled version of the system for trials with Xcel Energy and Nexterra in North Dakota’s wind farms.
“The miniature units will go in the nacelle of the wind turbines,” Rickson said. “They’ve got the technology inside of them to read the particle count – the contamination of the oil – and upload that information to the cloud, where it can be downloaded from anywhere on earth. That way, the turbine operator can see the condition of the oil without sending someone up to sample it or look at it.”
If the technology proves viable, it would be similar to having a car in which the oil rarely has to be changed because it’s being continuously cleaned.
Rickson credits Mann and his research team with helping him tailor the ELF Technology system to meet the needs of industry.
How to succeed with business
“Part of the reason we’re successful with some of these businesses is instead of doing esoteric or academic research, we can show them an end – a process for solving a big problem particular to their application,” Mann explained. “That’s why the first thing we do is listen very hard to what their problem is and what the concern is. We can propose a research approach that maybe they haven’t thought about.
“They don’t look at us as being academic researchers,” he continued. “They look at us as being problem solvers. It’s all about how you frame the question, how you frame the work. We focus on the problem at hand, using an engineering approach.”
Cortnee Jensen, manager of intellectual property commercialization development at the state Department of Commerce, said such collaborations are what the North Dakota Legislature had in mind when it created her position to help find matches between the state’s research universities and business.
“When the prioritization of commercialization is combined with legislative support, it creates fertile ground for these projects to bloom,” Jensen said. “As a state, our priority has been on business growth and business maturity. For businesses to grow and mature, they must have access to new technologies and new products they can bring to the market. And that’s done most easily with experienced researchers.
“It’s not just about new start-up businesses – which are critical – but also about creating new opportunities for existing businesses,” she added. “It’s expanding, it’s diversifying and creating new markets. Entrepreneurship as a focus is good for all of us, for our businesses, for our state and for our universities.”
Written by Patrick C. Miller