New UND National Center for Hydrogen Technology Already Needs Expansion

It's been more than two years in the making: construction began on April 17, 2006. Now that it is complete, the University of North Dakota Energy and Environmental Research Center’s (EERC) new National Center for Hydrogen Technology (NCHT) is already in need of expansion.

The $3.5 million facility was dedicated Sept. 5.

“This facility provides a cornerstone to address this nation’s enormous challenge of developing new technologies to guarantee energy security for the long term,” said Gerald Groenewold, EERC director. “Hydrogen is not only a key bridge to energy security, but also a key solution to managing our carbon footprint.”

The EERC was designated as the National Center for Hydrogen Technology in November 2004, recognizing more than 50 years of expertise in the field. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., has consistently provided critical cornerstone funding for the program.

Shortly after, the EERC went to work to secure funding for a facility to house the enormous amount of research anticipated in hydrogen. What was conceived was a facility designed to significantly enhance the strategic research, development, demonstration and commercialization of hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies at the EERC. The building includes specialized state-of-the-art equipment to provide solutions for the world’s growing energy needs.

Mike Holmes, program manager of the NCHT and deputy associate director for research, calls the facility a modern marvel.

“I am very excited about what this facility is already bringing to the EERC, the University and to North Dakota,” he said. “The work being done here is a major link to building a hydrogen economy in the United States.”

Return on investment

The NCHT represents a significant partnership between the federal government, the state of North Dakota, the city of Grand Forks, private industry, and UND’s EERC. Funding for the facility was provided by the North Dakota Centers of Excellence Commission ($2.5 million) and the city of Grand Forks ($500,000 in matching funds). The EERC contributed an additional $500,000.

“The Centers of Excellence application required a 2-to-1 match for funds from non-state sources and a strong commitment from the private sector,” said Groenewold. “The EERC’s proposal offered a 4-to-1 match immediately and a projected 20-to-1 match over the next five years.”

Currently, the hydrogen program is nearing that 20-to-1 match. As a whole, the EERC has more than $60 million in funded and pending projects in hydrogen, with more than 70 partners worldwide.

As a result of the building construction and the expansion of the hydrogen program, 50 to 100 new, high-paying private-sector equivalent jobs are being created as well as an additional 50 to 100 new jobs in the greater Grand Forks region.

Facility tour

Walking through the main entrances to the facility, you immediately notice the corporate atmosphere. Grand window panes allow light to pour through the main lobby. But beyond that is an intricate network of state-of-the-art laboratories and technology testing areas focused on bringing hydrogen into the mainstream.

On the first floor of the hydrogen facility, visitors gain access to the Gas, Prosecuting and Fuel Cell Laboratory, which houses highly specialized equipment for hydrogen purification, trace-metal removal and cleanup, and a solid oxide fuel cell test stand. Commercial partners involved in these activities include Corning Incorporated and Air Products and Chemicals, Inc.

To the south of the main lobby, a small access door opens through the 12-inch-thick blast-proof wall in the facility’s 30-foot-high demonstration/testing area. In here, a variety of hydrogen technology demonstration projects are under way, along with a staging area for vehicle testing.

Inside the testing facility, several large projects involve hydrogen production from natural gas or industrial-flare gas, on-demand hydrogen production from liquid fuels, and coal and biomass gasification to produce hydrogen and liquid fuels.

One particular project is demonstrating the production of hydrogen from a variety of feed stocks, including natural gas or industrial byproduct gases that are normally flared off as waste gases. The $3-million project is being conducted with one of the EERC’s corporate partners, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. The technology could revolutionize the way that industrial quantities of hydrogen are produced and thus radically redefine its market economics. Hydrogen is a key ingredient in many industrial processes, including the manufacture of gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, plastics, agricultural fertilizer, pharmaceuticals, and food oil products.

“Producing hydrogen from a variety of feedstock available to an industrial site is a key to revolutionizing the market economics of hydrogen production,” said Jay Almlie, research manager. “Add to that a process with much smaller hardware size, greatly diminished capital and operating costs, and increased product purity, and the Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne process has real potential to revolutionize the way industrial hydrogen is produced and thus affect the cost of everything from fertilizer to plastics and fuels.”

This process is unique in that it also produces a concentrated product stream of carbon dioxide, with tremendous potential for environmentally beneficial carbon sequestration for an industrial site.

The NCHT’s second floor contains meeting space overlooking the entire EERC facilities to the northeast. The Materials Laboratory is also located here, which houses multiple projects with Siemens Power Generation involving the creation of advanced alloy metals and bonding materials for use in high-temperature hydrogen-utilizing turbines. Several high-pressure hydrogen gas purification technologies and other spinoff applications are also being tested.

Developed out of that work is a highly specialized silicon carbide material, an extremely hard ceramic, which is currently being tested on the International Space Station for meteorite and heat shield protection on spacecraft. The materials can withstand extremely high temperatures encountered during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere or in the process of “aerobraking,” using a planet’s atmosphere to slow an approaching spacecraft for orbit.

The material was developed by John Hurley, senior research advisor, whose love for astronomy has significantly enhanced his personal investment into the project.

“I was totally beside myself watching the space shuttle Endeavour lift off on March 11, 2008,” Hurley said. “Once the materials return, and if they perform well, we will then talk further with Boeing, NASA and, possibly, the U.S. Department of Defense to pursue commercial deployment opportunities for the material.”

Also located on the NCHT’s upper level is a central control room with a bird’s-eye view of the entire facility. With the help of modern technology, researchers can monitor the progress of any demonstration through remote cameras and video screens.

Vehicle testing is another key focus of the EERC’s hydrogen program. The EERC has already demonstrated several vehicles, including a fuel-cell battery/electric hybrid ice resurfacer (the eP-Ice Bear); a Hyster fuel-cell forklift; and three tri-fuel Chevrolet 4x4 internal combustion vehicles, which run on standard gasoline, ethanol, and hydrogen. The 4x4s are running on hydrogen produced from electrolysis, using the current generated from wind turbines to extract hydrogen from water. The project, located in Minot, N.D., is being led by Basin Electric Cooperative, the EERC, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Road Ahead

The research and technology demonstration capabilities in the EERC’s NCHT facility have only just begun. Currently, several technologies are under construction inside the high-bay demonstration area, including a reactor for hydrogen gas cleanup and a gasifier for the production of hydrogen from either coal or biomass. These technologies will be operational within the next six months.

Because of the overwhelming corporate response to the EERC’s hydrogen program and capabilities, plans to expand the facility to the south are already under way. The EERC is working on strategies to secure funding for a 7,500-square-foot, 70-foot-high addition to the facility. Groenewold is hoping to have that expansion completed within the next two years.

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