UND Today

University of North Dakota's Official News Source

Turning farm waste into clean energy

Imagine the possibilities, researchers at UND suggest — and the U.S. Department of Energy agrees

Johannes Van der Watt, left, and Junior Nasah, researchers with the UND Institute for Energy Studies, have received federal grants to study carbon-neutral energy production. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today

Clean energy from farm waste? A pair of UND researchers have both received federal grants to investigate the possibilities.

The grants total more than $2.5 million in research funding, with the majority of the funds from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Junior Nasah, major project manager with UND’s Institute for Energy Studies (IES), received $2.12 million to study the feasibility of using various forms of renewable biomass to generate carbon-neutral hydrogen for energy production. Hydrogen produced from biomass could also be used to create fertilizer for agricultural purposes.

Johannes Van der Watt, a research engineer also with IES, received $400,000 to investigate using renewable biogas to remediate large piles of coal waste. That would happen through the production of “carbon-negative” electricity, and would pave the way for future regional clean energy efforts when that remediation is complete.

“The Institute for Energy Studies has grown into a leader in the development of low-carbon energy technologies,” said Dan Laudal, director of UND’s Institute of Energy Studies. “These two new Department of Energy awards are testament to our success, and I am very excited for Junior and Johannes and our team as we begin work on these projects.”

A critical mass of biomass

Both research projects rely on renewable sources of biomass, and according to Nasah, North Dakota has plenty. Biomass comes in multiple forms, including farm or municipal waste, lawn or plant clippings, downed trees and animal manure. When they break down, biomass sources such as these release methane, a far more virulent greenhouse gas than CO2, Nasah said. Also, municipalities generally must pay for the removal and storage of such waste, usually in a landfill, which means the waste-to-energy process may save money as well as deliver environmental benefits.

Plans for Nasah’s research include transforming biomass into syngas, the “synthesis gas” that is a mix of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. A further chemical process will refine that gas into pure hydrogen, which may be burned as a fuel for power generation or used to make fertilizer. Nasah said the system could be adapted for farming operations in the state to do both.

A key component of the project is its scale, which enables clean-power generation to be brought to where it is needed. Nasah said he is looking to be able to produce between 1-5 tons of hydrogen per day. This amount could either be used by a municipality or a farming operation. Producing low-cost hydrogen at a location where it is needed also addresses the issue of having to transport it from large factories where it is manufactured, thereby expending fuel and adding to emission levels unnecessarily.

The goal: Low-cost hydrogen

Ultimately, Nasah said his goal is to create low-cost hydrogen derived from renewable sources that can be used in the region where it was created. His research will investigate the cost-effectiveness of localized hydrogen production.

“A big part of what we are claiming is our conversion step can go from biomass to hydrogen to power at a low cost, to where we can actually make this project economical,” Nasah said.

Nasah will work with Envergex LLC and Singularity Energy Technologies, both located in the UND Center for Innovation. The former business works in, among other areas, solid fuel conversion, and the latter deals with waste-to-energy technology. Currently, the team is working to secure the matching funds from the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s Renewable Energy Program, who expressed interest in the project.

Similarly, Van der Watt is also investigating the use of biomass for coal waste deposit remediation. Coal waste, a fine powder mixed with soil and located primarily in the Eastern US coal producing regions, is left over in large unsightly mounds after the commercial mining process. Biogas generated from renewable biomass sources may be able to be co-combusted with this waste for power generation.

The goal is two-fold: remediate coal waste from a region by turning it into energy, then using the infrastructure set up to continue to burn biogas as a carbon-neutral energy source.

“Those two things are really important today, and we have a way to connect those two to make sure that we utilize the resources we have at hand, and using them wisely,” Van der Watt said.

Both research projects are also looking at ways to capture CO2 that will be produced from the energy generation, and plans include either storing it underground or finding a use for it in a local market. One such use, Nasah said, could be to sell the byproduct gas to a brewery, or a similar business.

A marriage of skills

The two UND researchers are working on the grants in tandem: Nasah is the lead on CO2 capture and fossil fuel energy, and Van der Watt is the lead on gasification efforts.

“This is a good marriage of our skills,” Nasah said.

Brian Tande, dean of the UND College of Engineering and Mines, expressed praise for the research projects and said such projects also showcase workforce development efforts by his college.

“What I like most about these projects is that these new technologies will not only benefit North Dakota but are being developed by researchers who were trained here in North Dakota. This is an important part of the mission of the College of Engineering and Mines- to help create a talented workforce to address the needs of our state.”