This is the second Q&A in the Scientists and Scholars series. This time the City Beat interviewed Tom Erickson with UND’s Energy and Environmental Research Center.
As noted previously, this is a notebook dump and is very long. Skip it if you don’t have the time or patience. I edit my Q&As pretty heavily to reduce them to publishable size and this is the original version, which itself are useful fragments of what was a 45-minute interview.
I interviewed Tom because, recently, a vegetable oil-based jet fuel that the EERC had developed was recognized by Popular Science as one of the year’s top 100 innovations. The jet fuel had launched a rocket out in the desert in July. I heard about this at the EERC’s biomass conference when Chris Zygarlicke, EERC deputy director for research, said the fuel was so powerful it blew the fins off the rocket.
There’s a huge future for this product, according to Tom, because the Air Force wants to replace half the fuel it uses in its domestic fleet with renewable fuels. Tom wasn’t quite sure of the timeline, but I found it in this document by the secretary of the Air Force (see page 8). It came out in June.
Besides jet fuel, the process the EERC developed could turn vegetable oil into gasoline, diesel, fuel additives and plastic feedstocks. The group is working to test this at Tesoro’s Mandan, N.D., refinery so North Dakotans might get to try veggie gas soon.
Here’s the interview:
Q. What was the technical hurdle you faced with the rocket fuel?
A. What we started with were crop oils, the same thing biodiesel is made from. Biodiesel is a different fuel. Chemically, it does not look like diesel fuel. Chemically it has different properties. It’s one thing for a vehicle to have problems that’s on the ground because the fuel’s not quite right. It’s another thing when you have a high performance aircraft in the air having problem with the fuel.
Our job was to not make a different fuel but to make one that is identical to what the military uses. The military has done a significant amount of work already to transition their aviation fleet to be able to fly on JP-8 jet fuel. They did not want to have to go through all that process to build high efficiency engine that would operate on different fuel.
The challenge was first to truly understand the chemical makeup of the fuels they were using today. and then to take a crop oil, which is a different chemistry, and remanipulate it so the chemistry looks like jet fuel and acts like jet fuel. You can imagine if you took soybean oil and stick it outside in the witner time when it’s 20 below. It becomes a big solid chunk of oil. We needed something that could go lower than 50 below and still flow freely.
The chemical makeup is what we’re focused on but the end result is having the freeze point, the energy density, all those sorts of things that the military needs.
Q. How did you do that?
A. The beauty of using crop oil is you allow nature to do a lot of the work for you. Nature got it somewhat close. All we have to take it from there to a fuel rather start from scratch.
You actually use processes that are very similar to what the petroleum industry uses today. However, we just have to manipulate them in different manners and use different catalysts. It’s not using technologies that are completely new. It’s using existing technology in a different manner. That’s one of the reason we think we can spin this off and do commercial production much faster.
Q. What’s the market potential on the civilian side?
A. Our focus initially is with the military. We really try to refine the technology for the military applications. In addition to the military JP-8, there’s the civilian jet fuel. There is no solution for a renewable fuel for aviation other than a drop-in compatible fuel. They cannot run on ethanol and they cannot run on biodiesel.
In terms of diesel and gasoline, there’s a lot of opportunities there. In the same way we can create a drop-in compatible jet fuel, we can do the same thing for diesel and gasoline.
Q. But how economical would it be?
A. The economics are always a challenge. The primary reason is the crop oils we start with are fairly expensive. We’re working on a number of projects to look at lower grade oil and lower grade of feedstocks as well as algae oil.
Essentially, you’re growing algae and squeezing the oil out of it. You can grow a significant amount of algae on an acre as compared to soybeans on an acre. It has great promise to create much greater quantities at a cheaper price.
Q. What’s the timeframe for all this? When will I be able to go to the gas station and fill up on algae at a reasonable price?
A. I don’t think you will see 100 percent drop-in compatible fuels for at least five years if not longer. But you will likely see in the not too distant future a small component of that fuel being made up from renewable fuels. Right now we’re working with Tesoro on the first commercial demonstration system at the facility in Mandan, somewhere in the neighborhood of a 3-million-gallons-per-year facility, so fairly small to start with, that would produce the renewable fuel and other components that can go in as additives to existing fuel.
The military’s already started larger-scale testing and we’re working with them to produce additional fuels. We’re working with SAIC, one of the largest government contractors, to produce fuel from algae oil. They are also purchasing some larger quantities of fuel to begin testing in more and more aircraft. They do have a goal of operating 50 percent of the CONUS, or continental U.S., fleet on renewable fuels.
Q. Once you have refineries for JP-8, it wouldn’t be a big step to produce other kinds of fuels?
A. We wouldn’t design a facility to produce just JP-8. We would design it to produce a suite of fuels, as well as a range of chemical and polymer feedstocks, much like a traditional refinery today. We may optimize it more for JP-8 or we may optimize it more for gasoline.
Almost everything that we currently produce from petroleum, you can produce in a facility of this nature. Not everything, but pretty darn close.
Q. How does renewable fuels reduce our use of petroleum? I’ve always been confused by this because doesn’t it take petroleum in the form of fertilizer and fuel for farm machinery to produce ethanol or crop oils?
A. There’s a lot of focus on producing fuels that are truly sustainable and have a low carbon footprint. So we are not looking to produce fuels from… we’ve done it from soybean oil, we’ve done it from canola oil, we’ve done it from corn oil. We don’t see that as the future at all. We’ve shown you can do it, but the future is looking at more sustainable, low carbon footprint feedstock, such as algae oil and other waste oil. We’re looking at oil crops that could be used on more marginal land, land that currently is not highly productive, but for certain oil crop it could be productive. The focus is, No. 1, not produce with food crops, but also have the low carbon footprint and have something that would be sustainable.
[Just a note: I talked to EERC Director Gerry Groenewold back in July at that biomass conference, and wrote this:
The EERC's Groenewold agreed that algae has great potential. One acre of soy beans can produce 50 gallons of jet fuel or diesel, he said, but an acre of algae can produce 5,000 to 15,000. The EERC, he said, is working on a Pentagon project with a major defense contractor to convert algae into fuel. ]
Q. The future would be enormous algae farms? Can we build them here?
A. There’s a lot of research and debate going on in this area. In our first facilities, we’ll see other oil crops that will be the primary feedstock. But the strong focus down the road is algae oil. There are many different ways and many different systems you can grow algae. There’s a significant amount of focus at co-locating algae production systems with coal-fired facilities. One of the primary feedstock that algae needs to grow is CO2. It takes CO2 out of the air and releases oxygen. As much as 50 percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere is placed there by algae.
By co-locating it with a coal-fired facility, we can enhance the algae growth and have it grow even faster, by having a concentrated CO2 stream. That CO2 will still eventually make it into the atmosphere from a power plant, but you’ll have used it twice. You’ll have used it once to create electricity and a second time to produce fuel, displacing petroleum fuel.
You can co-locate it with any facility with any facility that produces CO2, like a natural gas facility. An ethanol facility has a very concentrated CO2 stream.
There are two fundamentally different technologies for growing algae. One is an open-pond design. You can imagine that wouldn’t work too well here in North Dakota at 20 below. The other technology are bio-reactors, enclosed reactors that you can put inside a greenhouse. You could grow algae in North Dakota with a coal-fired plant. Sen. Byron Dorgan has been a big proponent of this. He’s focused a lot of effort with funding and legislation to restimulate the algae program.
The bio-reactor process is probably cheaper for the overall capital cost. We’re talking very very large algae farms. You have a huge construction opportunity over many hundreds or thousands of acres to design these ponds. Bio-reactors have a potential to be cheaper, maybe faster to construct. However, I think their operational cost will be higher in the end. There are very few systems in existence today.
Q. So, we’re talking about an industry that’s now in its infancy. But you’ll need explosive growth to make enough fuel.
A. To truly displace a significant portion of petroleum we use today, you would need a very large infrastructure for algae growth. But, we can use a transition of other crop oils as algae starts to come on line.
Q. Let’s turn now to a hydrogen fuel technology that you’re also working on that’s related to alternative fuels and that’s the conversion of ethanol into hydrogen. Tell me about that.
A. To the consumer, it would be very similar to the way you gas up today. You’d have an underground tank that contains ethanol or methanol or maybe biodiesel. When you wanted to fill up your hydrogen tank, the system would pull the fuel from the underground tank and run it through a very specialized reforming process that we’ve developed. That system would produce the hydrogen and purify it at very high pressures right before it goes into the tank of your vehicle. It will produce the hydrogen as you need it.
It’s essentially a nozzle you stick in and screw tight. There are various sensors to make sure everything is as tight as it should be. Today, when you fuel up, your car and the fueling system doesn’t communicate with each other. However with the new filling system, they will communicate with each other to make sure there are no issues. We do it all the time today when you bring your liquid propane tank in to be filled.
Q. How will this become widespread? It’s the chicken-or-the-egg dilemma. You need cars that run on hydrogen to see gas stations with hydrogen and vice versa.
A. There already are cars on the market with hydrogen fuel cells and there are already fueling systems on the West and East Coasts. The way the hydrogen vehicles are evolving is in a cluster system. They need to first put in a cluster of refueling systems and cars that can service an area and then grow it out from there.
One of the areas we’d like to see is the Grand Forks Air Force Base. They’re kind of a captive vehicle market so you don’t have to build quite the same cluster. Ground maintenance vehicles, cars, other maintenance vehicles,they can all utilize that hydrogen within the base infrastructure.
Q. Why does it make sense to convert ethanol to hydrogen? Aren’t you already using energy to make ethanol and then you’re using more energy to convert it to hydrogen?
A. You’re exactly right when you say it may not make sense to make the ethanol first and then convert it to hydrogen. It would make much better sense to start with the raw feedstock you produce the ethanol from and we’ve worked to do that as well. The reason we are looking at using more finished products is they’re already easily distributed and it allows this technology to move quicker.
In the long run, you’d want to focus more on producing hydrogen from raw feedstocks, such as agricultural products or coal or natural gas. The thing to remember is a hydrogen fuel cell is much, much more efficient than a gasoline engine. In gasoline engines probably 15 to 20 percent of the energy content of the gas goes to moving the vehicle. There’s waste heat, auxiliaries and other things. With the hydrogen, it’s more like 70 percent of the energy content goes to moving the vehicle. So you actually need less energy in your fuel tank.
Q. How does the conversion work? You’ve told me before about how it makes no sense to convert H2O to hydrogen. Why not?
A. Most of us in high school did the experiment with the test tube where we separate oxygen and hydrogen from water and stuck the match in and heard the pop. But right now, it’s much more expensive to produce hydrogen from water via electricity, it takes a lot of electricity to break apart that hydrogen-oxygen molecule. There are different ways being looked at to decrease the amount of energy, but right now it’s still not economical.
Rather than having to add electricity, we use the natural fuel within the crop oil or the coal and allow that fuel to produce the heat and provide the energy, so you don’t have this big energy input.
Q. What’s the next step for drop-in compatible fuels and the hydrogen conversion?
A. Our focus is to get technology out to the market place. Right now, we’re working very closely with a number of corporate partners to advance the technology further. One of the first things is the commercial demonstration at the Mandan facility. At the same time, we will continue to explore new and cheaper feedstocks. There are always ways you can improve efficiency. There are always new feedstocks. And there are always new fuels we can tailor the process to. We talked about JP-8, but the military also uses more unique fuels. One of the attributes of our technology is it allows us to really tailor the fuel to the exact needs of the end user. We can produce JP-8, but we can also produce JP-9 and other fuels.
Q. We’ve not touched on various tax incentives that might come down the road to further encourage renewable energy. You don’t seem to need those incentives to make this work.
A. When we develop a technology, we aren’t focused on "well, if you can get $9 a ton for your carbon credit, it’ll become economical." We’re focused on creating a technology that’s economical regardless and then, if those tax credits are there, great. Our industry partners will be more than happy to use those incentives. Our focus is on creating something that stands on its own, being technologically and economically feasible.