UND Today

University of North Dakota's Official News Source

Picking up steam

UND teams with NDUS partner Valley City State on technology to power campus for the long term

Mike Mann and Steve Benson
Mike Mann (left), Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and Institute for Energy Studies executive director, and Steve Benson, EERC associate vice president for research, have combined forces to help Valley City State University develop technology for its new steam plant that would produce and sell activated carbon in partnership with the private sector. In an era of budget cuts, this technology could potentially make money and pay for the cost of heating and cooling the campus. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

Instead of paying to heat and cool a campus, imagine that money instead pouring out of the steam plant.

That dream is close to reality for Valley City State University (VCSU).

The idea is to add technology developed by the UND Institute for Energy Studies (IES) at the College of Engineering and Mines and the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) to the new VCSU steam plant to produce and sell activated carbon in partnership with the private sector. In an era of budget cuts, this technology could potentially make money and pay for the cost of heating and cooling the campus.

The project, which was approved unanimously by both the North Dakota House and Senate, is now in conference committee at the Legislature.

Miracle product

If you’ve ever seen the black granules in a household water filter, you’ve seen activated carbon. “It’s a miracle product that grabs the ‘nasties,’” said Rick Tonder, director of facility planning for the North Dakota University System (NDUS).

“It can be used to clean up lakes, and water treatment plants use tons of it,” Tonder said. It’s also used to generate potable water in developing countries and is a key component for super capacitors, which store electricity from wind turbines.

“Just one gram of activated carbon has the surface area of a third of a football field,” said Tonder. Activated carbon captures contaminants permanently, and it’s a high-demand product with a growing market.

The need to replace aging university and hospital steam heating and cooling systems in North Dakota prompted a feasibility study by UND’s IES and EERC, NDUS and VCSU for the manufacture of activated carbon using steam. They also wanted to provide education and training opportunities for students and develop a testing platform. Results showed a strong potential to convert steam plants within the North Dakota University System from a cost liability to a revenue generator while reducing air pollutants and carbon footprint.

And VCSU is the test project.

Win-win-win project

The project is a win-win-win, said Tisa Mason, president of Valley City State University. VCSU, which is in the process of building a new steam plant to heat and cool campus, will use UND technology to capture, convert and sell byproducts from distilling North Dakota lignite coal and biomass. The long-term vision, Mason said, is to help the environment, produce a stream of revenue that can help replace aging heat plants and infrastructure, and provide opportunities for student research.

“The collaborative nature of this project is fabulous,” said Mason. “This project is so good for the state, country, students and the universities. I’m grateful to the Legislature for investing the time and energy to bring this to fruition.”

It costs about $750,000 per year to run the steam plant at VCSU. If it’s successful, the activated carbon project could instead generate $2.5 million in revenue for 10 years and $4.3 million per year after the debt is retired.

It could also generate jobs and revenue at VCSU. It could generate even more revenue if it was adopted by other universities in the system, said Mike Mann, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and IES executive director. “It will generate revenue and income for the state.”

Technology to endure

“This is technology for the long term,” said Steve Benson, EERC associate vice president for research. “The technology makes the best use of our precious lignite resources by producing steam and electricity for campus while generating other products such as activated carbon.” And lignite is precious, Benson said. It contains recoverable rare earth elements that are used in all types of modern electronic and green technologies.

Along the way, the project will provide opportunities for students at both Valley City State and UND. VCSU students in environmental sciences are working on reclaiming land with fly ash cover at coal mining sites, and UND engineering students are working on the technology development.

“Lignite can generate lots of products,” said Benson. “It can produce rare earth elements, activated carbon, be synthesized into a gas that can be used to make plastics, and it can even be used to make pharmaceuticals.”

“Instead of pouring money into steam plants, money could pour out,” said Tonder. “The revenue could be used to advance maintenance projects on campuses, repair and replace aging infrastructure, and refurbish classrooms.”

“This is a great way to move the ball forward for North Dakota,” said Tonder. “Every dollar we save is a dollar that can be used for education and research.”