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An abundance of research opportunities

State Energy Research Center opening doors for exploratory research­

The State Energy Research Center funded by the North Dakota Legislature is located in UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center. Photo courtesy Energy & Environmental Research Center.

When the North Dakota Legislature established UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) as the State Energy Research Center (SERC) less than two years ago, the idea was to encourage exploration into new ideas by providing funding for basic research.

As Tom Erickson, Director of Exploratory Research at EERC notes, the designation has opened the door to a variety of exploratory research projects at the EERC, collaborations with other research entities on campus, activities with other North Dakota University System (NDUS) institutions and research projects through which undergraduate and graduate students from around the state can gain valuable experience.

“We have our portfolio for exploratory research, which is very early-stage, fundamental-type research that has definitely grown,” Erickson said. “It’s grown because of the funding for exploratory research that accompanied UND EERC’s designation as SERC. Over the past 15 months, 59 new fundamental research ideas were brought forward by EERC researchers, of which 25 have been funded.”

Tom Erickson

In 2019, the Legislature approved a bill to establish UND EERC as the State Energy Research Center. It set aside $5 million to fund research each biennium in emerging topics critical to North Dakota’s energy industry and environment.

“We’re less than a year and a half into the initial SERC program,” Erickson said. “It’s exploratory and fundamental, so it takes time for things to move forward. But we’ve already seen six new invention disclosures as a result, and we will see more before the first biennium is up.”

Erickson listed some of the exploratory research highlights at the EERC that have received funding through the SERC program.

  • Making graphene dots from North Dakota lignite coal: “Graphene is a unique, high-value material,” he explained. “A single layer of carbon atoms provides tremendous strength. Typically, a strand of graphene the size of a human hair could hold up a grand piano. Producing graphene from lignite would enable it to be produced in greater quantities, thus making it less expensive and more widely available for a wide variety of uses.”
  • Extracting rare earth elements from North Dakota lignite and Bakken shale: “These elements are present in coal in very small quantities,” Erickson said. “But in lignite coal, we believe they’re a lot easier to extract. We’re focused on environmentally friendly methods of extracting rare earth elements and concentrating them. We’re also in the process of obtaining funding to characterize the rare earth elements in the Bakken shale of the Williston Basin, as well as the business environment that would enable us to exploit this opportunity.”
  • Using electrochemistry for improved energy production: “Electrochemistry has been a growing area of exploratory research for us at the EERC,” according to Erickson. “It’s using electricity to drive a reaction rather than just chemicals to drive the reaction. We’ve been successful in winning awards through the U.S. Department of Energy to exploit electrochemistry methods. It’s been spearheaded or accelerated, at least in part, by the State Energy Research Center funding.

“To produce ethanol in North Dakota, microbes or bugs are used to turn sugars into alcohol,” he continued. “We use some electricity to help drive the reaction, which lowers CO2 emissions while producing more ethanol from the same amount of corn. We’ve also had some great success with the idea of using electricity to create ammonia in what we call a reverse fuel cell. It allows us to potentially use wind-generated electricity to produce ammonia, then combust the ammonia to generate electricity when the wind isn’t blowing. It acts as an energy storage technology.”

Exploratory research conducted by EERC researchers through the State Energy Research Center includes developing analytical techniques to better understand Bakken shale and improve enhanced oil recovery. Photo courtesy Energy & Environmental Research Center.
  • Analytical techniques to better understand oil and minerals in the Willison Basin: “We’re developing a better understanding of how fluids interact with the Bakken shale formation, which enables us to exploit future enhanced oil recovery techniques,” Erickson noted. “The Bakken doesn’t act or react like anything traditional. With brand-new analytical techniques, we’re trying to understand things like how Bakken oil and carbon dioxide interact. What’s the fundamental property or the fundamental action that’s going to allow us to get more oil out of the Bakken? We’ve been focused on something we call the swelling of the Bakken and measuring the swelling. We believe it’s given us a lot of insight that we hope will allow us to exploit enhanced oil recovery in the future.”
  • Using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for pipeline inspection: “We’ve been looking at marrying some of our technology with work across campus at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, specifically with UAS, utilizing technologies to help detect pipelines and spills or leaks, both above and below the surface,” Erickson said. “We’ve actually flown some tests ourselves on property just east of the EERC in partnership with RIAS (Research Institute for Autonomous Studies).”
  • Collaborating with the UND College of Engineering’s petroleum engineering program: “We’ve been working with schools in the College of Engineering on a couple different projects,” Erickson said. “One of them is looking at new methods to understand how hydraulic fracturing works in the deep oil reservoirs and optimizing it to increase oil production. We’ve been collaborating with petroleum engineering and utilizing some of our modeling work and their expertise to help us better understand how it happens and to better control it. The goal is to end up with more oil production from the same well.”
Finding a greener method to dispose of wind turbine blades is one of the research projects being conducted at the EERC. Photo courtesy Energy & Environmental Research Center.
  • Finding techniques to repurpose and recycle wind turbine blades: “We know there’s a significant issue looming with how we dispose of wind turbine blades once they’re reached the end of their useful life or after they’ve been upgraded to more efficient blades,” Erickson said. “Right now, the primary method of disposal is a landfill. We’re looking at ways to recycle and repurpose wind blade materials to take a green technology and keep it green. We’ve been working on technologies that would let us scan a blade and pick out the different materials used to make it. The lightweight material could be ground and utilized as a fuel feedstock for a cement kiln. The fibrous material could add bulk and possibly strength to the cement. The thick, strong part of the blade could be used for building materials or a structural component, such as laminated bricks.”

In addition, the EERC’s Energy Hawks program continues to provide opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students from UND as well as the other North Dakota institutes of higher education to participate in research projects, providing valuable hands-on learning experience. Some of them have been hired by the EERC after graduation.

“Next summer, regardless of the pandemic, we’ll be broadening the program to 14 students, six of whom we expect to come from outside UND,” Erickson said “The idea of Energy Hawks is to use this multidisciplinary group to look at problems and come up with solutions. Now we’ll have students who come from different geographical areas and different educational backgrounds.”