Havre Daily News - News you can use

By Alex Ross 

Cutting-edge research on the Hi-Line

Northern's Advanced Fuels Center

 

February 3, 2017

In the last 10 years, Montana State University-Northern's work on fuels has gone from a small program focused on testing petroleum and bio-based fuels to its Advanced Fuels Center, an operation developing cutting-edge renewable fuels.

The center has seven lab facilities, split between the Applied Technology Center and the neighboring Advanced Fuels Center, where five employees and seven student employees create some of the promising energy sources of the future.

"It's my baby, it really is," said Montana State University-Northern Chancellor Greg Kegel. "A big chunk of my career was involved in that."

Now, Northern's fuels center has the capability to produce alternative fuels from seed to pipe, said Randy Maglinao, senior research scientist at the Advanced Fuel Center.

Kegel said that when the center was established in 2006, instability in the Middle East and soaring fuel prices heightened interest in renewable energy sources, such as biofuels and fuel additives that could make existing fuels cleaner and cheaper.

"The availability of fuel coming out of the Middle East was always on everybody's radar," Kegel said. "We've got it today but will we have it tomorrow?"

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality had approached Northern and asked if they would collaborate with them on putting in place a testing facility that would allow them to test and certify different types of fuels and biofuels, he said.

Industry-recognized ASTM standards are used to evaluate the fuel.

The center's first funding came from a WIRED grant from the Department of Labor and Industry that Kegel, then dean of Northern's College of Technical Sciences, had applied for.

The grant was initially meant to expand the existing performance and emissions testing carried out within Northern's automotive and diesel programs.

Money from the grant, along with end-of-the-year funds left over in his budget and funds left over from other grants, allowed Kegel to put bring on personnel needed to carry out the tests without burdening faculty and to purchase updated, more reliable equipment.

Kegel said his first purchase was a portable dynamometer, a piece of equipment used to test engines, along with some hand probes.

The money also enabled Kegel to hire a small staff that included a director, an engineer, a technician and a lead scientist to conduct research.

"The director was key, but the lead scientist was really key because, at that point, we really wanted to go from applied research to full-fledged research," Kegel said.

Applied research is examining the possible uses for an existing technology, while full-fledged research is the creation of new processes, technologies and substances, he said.

"And these guys, all of a sudden, we're looking at revamping molecules and catalysts getting into what we can do at the molecular end to optimize the process," Kegel said.

Soon the small staff in the program was revamping molecules and producing fuel.

Kegel said that though alternative energy sources ranging from nuclear power, geothermal power and wind power had all been considered by researchers in the past, Northern wanted to look at drop-in fuels that could come out of a production center ready to be used in vehicles.

"People have to move around and you can't have nuclear power plants in one of those cars or on a train or in an over-the-road truck," Kegel said.

He said they looked at a multitude of sources from liquified natural gas to the ability to grow crops in agriculture-rich Montana to turn into additives.

Eventually, Kegel said, he became intrigued with the idea of growing and converting camelina into biofuel. He said camelina can thrive in the north-central Montana climate and can outproduce winter wheat.

Kegel said that he began to think that if camelina was grown, the seed was crushed, the fuel was created and burned in north-central Montana, the entire lifecycle of the fuel would remain in the area.

Making camelina into biofuel could also help rejuvenate the economies of farming communities around Havre by encouraging the production of a crop with added value, and it could help draw interest in Northern's other programs, he said.

The researchers in the center eventually found a way to molecularly split the oil in the plant and subsequently convert the oil into clean-burning jet fuel.

"And when we did that, we discovered that the process is patentable and we made the patent," Kegel said.

Larry Strizich, Northern's dean of Technical Sciences, said the jet fuel additive is free of the lead found in traditional gasoline.

He said the U.S. Department of Defense and Boeing have expressed interest in the fuel.

Beyond camelina, Northern's facilities are also utilized to test the performance and cleanliness of a multitude of biofuel additives on behalf of inventors and investors in fuel additives.

Northern, working through Montana State University's flagship campus in Bozeman, can typically draw up a contract.

"So, anyone who produces biodiesel in the state typically will send it here and then we will certify it as being good fuel, so they can burn it in their equipment and not damage anything," Strizich said.

Kegel said that some of those products that have been tested include water-based substances, heavy metals, seeds and even pills that can be dropped into a gas tank.

From roughly 2010-2013, Northern had an agreement with North Central Montana Transit through Opportunity Link Inc., where Northern would give them the surplus biodiesel they had left over after testing.

"So we did that and we fueled them up and we gave them all the fuel and they were just burning our excess fuel," Kegel said.

Kegel said the research had shifted focus from production to optimization, or finding a way to use a cheaper catalyst that can be recycled rather than consumed during the conversion process. That would make the fuel comparable in cost.

The catalyst is expensive, and because of that the center can only produce a limited amount of fuel, he said.

Strizich said the Advanced Fuel Center employs five students who help produce fuel through crushing oilseeds to obtain the oil and carry out a host of other duties in the lab.

Students also have the opportunity to conduct research and operate state-of-the-art equipment alongside professionals, he said.

"They are helping these kids understand what it is to do research. How to define an experiment, to control it and to write it up," Strizich said.

Despite how far it has come, Northern officials see more possibilities for the center.

Maglinao said an Illinois-based company is interested in camelina oil use as a potential ingredient in producing plastics.

The center also is doing research on emissions for Stillwater Mining Co., which operates a mine outside Nye and wants to know what optimum blend it can use to reduce emissions mines,

Stillwater Mining is now the center's biggest contracting partner for testing right now. Maglinao said

Though the Advanced Fuels Center can produce camelina on a small scale, Kegel hopes that one day there can be a facility locally that can produce it on a larger scale.

"And what our dream would be then would be to build a huge crushing facility somewhere near our industrial park and that right beside that have a fuel facility there, too," Kegel said.

Last summer Omega Grains LLC, a Bigfork-based company that grows camelina in Argentina, said the company is studying the economic feasibility of building a facility to produce camelina in north-central Montana.

The center, however, is funded with a mix of federal, state and private dollars and as a result is always looking for money.

Lawmakers at the state and federal level such as Sen. Jon Tester have been advocates for funding the center's work. Tester's office said in an email that as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Tester has secured nearly $7 million for the center.

Strizich said both he and Kegel have been on the phone with state lawmakers during the 2017 legislative session seeking funding for the center.

"I've been on the phone; the chancellor has been on the phone," he said. "The folks at the center have prepared a number of presentations for the Legislature to show what we did with all that money we have."

Kegel said that with the center, Northern has good things to show.

"Trying to sell a blind horse is the hardest thing in the world, but if you have a fast horse you can sell them," he said.

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