Aqueous Phase Reformation: New Pathway for Renewable Biomass to Offset Fossil Fuels

I’ve been leading a new area of research aimed at offsetting natural gas consumption with hydrogen produced from biomass-derived sugars or waste glycerol from biodiesel production. The process utilizes waste heat in the exhaust from internal-combustion-engine power plants to drive chemical reactions that produce hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be blended with the primary natural gas fuel in order to enhance combustion. Hydrogen-enriched combustion can increase efficiency by up to 20% and reduce emissions of NOx by more than 95%.

The current project is focused on understanding the use of catalysts in aqueous phase reformation (APR) processes to speed up chemical reactions so that medium-temperature waste heat can be used to reform a wide range of plant based feedstocks.

Mark Severy recently graduated with a M.S. in Environmental Resources Engineering from HSU.  His thesis modeled the waste heat resources available from large internal-combustion-engine power plants like the one at the Humboldt Bay Generating Station. His work demonstrates that, depending on engine type and operating conditions, there is sufficient waste heat to replace a significant portion of the natural gas with hydrogen produced from waste glycerol left over from biodiesel production.  His work also shows that water vaporization in APR can consume a significant portion of the recovered waste heat.  By raising the APR pressure, this water vaporization could be reduced. We are currently applying for grants to experimentally investigate high-pressure APR.

Waste heat from engine exhaust is used to convert the feedstock into hydrogen rich gas. The hydrogen produced in the reformer will be mixed with natural gas and air in the combustion engine to increase efficiency and reduce emissions.

Waste heat from engine exhaust is used to convert the feedstock into hydrogen rich gas. The hydrogen produced in the reformer will be mixed with natural gas and air in the combustion engine to increase efficiency and reduce emissions.

Speaker Series: Nathan Hultman on US Climate Policy

HSU’s Sustainable Futures Speaker Series presents Nathan Hultman, Associate Professor and Director of the Environmental Policy Program at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is also a Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Associate Director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Dr. Hultman will give a free, public lecture at 5:30pm Thursday, October 10 in Gist Hall 218 on the Humboldt State University campus. The title of his talk is, “US Climate Policy and Prospects for a 2015 International Climate Agreement.”

Dr. Hultman’s research focuses on energy technology transitions in diverse development contexts; clean technology innovation; international climate policy; and private sector decisions to undertake low-carbon investments. He has participated in the UN climate process since the Kyoto meeting and is a contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Before joining the University of Maryland, Dr. Hultman held a faculty appointment at Georgetown University and was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Institute for Science, Innovation, & Society. He holds a Ph.D. in Energy & Resources from the University of California, Berkeley.

SERC Receives Funding for Bio-Energy Research

A $95,000 California Energy Commission (CEC) grant enables SERC, in partnership with Renewable Fuel Technologies (RFT) of San Mateo, to continue experiments aimed at converting slash from logging and fuel reduction efforts into energy dense bio-coal. RFT has developed a pilot-scale, one ton per day torrefier which produces bio-coal from timber waste by heating biomass to 300°C in the absence of air. Bio-coal can be co-fired in a power plant with standard fuels such as coal or wood chips to generate renewable electricity.

This new project involves measuring the energy and mass balances in RFT’s pilot-scale unit. These measurements will aid in designing the torrefier for mobile, stand-alone operation and optimizing the technology for commercial use. Mobility is considered crucial if torrefier technology is to become commercially viable. A good deal of forest debris lies in remote, difficult to reach locations, generating high logistics overhead. By making biomass three times as energy dense, the mobile torrefier would provide a far more economical approach as well as a major incentive to commercial conversion of timber waste into very low carbon renewable energy.

The CEC also awarded SERC Faculty Research Associate Dr. David Vernon $94,993 to examine the use of sugars from biomass to offset fossil fuel use, increase efficiency and reduce emissions in combustion processes. This work uses plant-derived sugars in chemical reactions that consume waste heat to produce a hydrogen-rich gas that can be mixed with traditional fuels to promote more complete combustion. This process has the potential to replace up to 50% of the fossil fuel and to increase efficiency by as much as 25%. It could also reduce emissions of NOx by over 95% while maintaining or reducing emission levels of other pollutants. If successful, the technology developed from this work could be retrofit onto existing gas turbines and engines in power plants and gas pipeline compressor stations without requiring costly modifications to the existing systems.

Graduate Student Assistants Mark Severy and Billy Karis (left) and Faculty Research Associate David Vernon test aqueous phase reformation reactions.

Graduate Student Assistants Mark Severy and Billy Karis (left) and Faculty Research Associate David Vernon test aqueous phase reformation reactions.

Specifically, this project explores the use of aqueous phase reformation reactions that directly process sugars and operate at lower temperatures than the gas phase reformation reactions that are being investigated for waste heat recovery elsewhere. Sugars can be produced from virtually any cellulosic biomass, including waste resources such as forestry slash, lumber mill waste, crop residues, portions of municipal solid waste, yard waste, etc. By operating at lower temperatures, aqueous phase reformation has the potential to recover significantly more waste heat compared to gas phase reformation reactions.

SERC Advisory Board

This spring we brought to fruition our long-discussed plan to convene a SERC advisory board. The inaugural meeting was held at SERC on April 5. The board is made up of the following leaders in the energy field:

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SERC directors and advisory board members listen to faculty research associate Dave Vernon discuss the newly funded aqueous phase reformation project.

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SERC directors and advisory board members gather for dinner after a productive day.

  • Rick Duke, Associate Director of Energy and Climate Change, White House Council on Environmental Quality
  • Shannon Graham, Associate Director for Energy Consulting, Navigant Consulting
  • Dan Kammen, Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy, Energy and Resources Group & Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley
  • David Katz, founder of Alternative Energy Engineering, a leading renewable energy supply firm
  • David Rubin, Director of Service Analysis, Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
  • Jeff Serfass, President of Technology Transition Corp., Washington, D.C., Managing Director, California Hydrogen Business Council
  • Andrea Tuttle, former director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and consultant for forest and climate policy

The advisory board’s purpose is to help SERC with strategic planning and fundraising. We appreciate the time all of these SERC allies are taking out of their very busy schedules to gather and help us plan a long and successful future for the center.

HSU Hydrogen Fueling Station Upgrade

SERC Engineers Greg Chapman (left) and Mark Rocheleau with the new 700 bar compressor.

SERC Engineers Greg Chapman (left) and Mark Rocheleau with the new 700 bar compressor. (Photo credit Andrea Alstone.)

SERC is now beginning the construction phase of our hydrogen station upgrade project.  When it’s complete, the upgrade will allow us to completely fill our Toyota fuel cell car with 6 kg of hydrogen.  That will give us a 400-mile range, enough to travel to the Bay Area or Sacramento and back.

The new 700 bar compressor has arrived and the on-site work for the fueling station upgrade is in progress. The extension to the east block wall is complete and our design has been reviewed and approved by an independent engineer with experience in hydrogen systems. In the coming weeks the compressor will be moved to its final location (no small task) and plumbing and electrical work can begin. We’re excited to see the upgrade taking shape; stay tuned for more updates.

Clean Water Access for the Developing World

Electrochlorinator Kiosk Kit

Electrochlorinator Kiosk Kit

Here in Arcata, as in most places across the United States, we take our utility services for granted. Our homes and businesses are served with reliable (most of the time) electricity, natural gas, and clean water, but many people in the developing world are not so fortunate. Since 2007, SERC has helped expand electricity access with our work supporting the Lighting Africa and Lumina programs, which are focused on markets for affordable off-grid lighting devices. This past summer, we worked with Cascade Designs to provide clean water access for the developing world.

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HSU Hydrogen Fueling Station Upgrade

Humboldt State University Hydrogen Fueling Station

Humboldt State University Hydrogen Fueling Station (Photo credit Kellie Brown).

The HSU Hydrogen Fueling Station high-pressure upgrade is underway. The principal design work is complete and all major equipment has been ordered. The new high-pressure compressor should arrive at HSU any day now. HSU Plant Operations will begin work to expand the east block wall and run new electrical service to accommodate the new compressor. Once Plant Operations is finished, SERC engineers will begin plumbing the high-pressure hydrogen lines that make up the new dispensing system. Testing and commissioning of the upgrade is targeted to begin in early spring.

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Hydrogen Energy in Engineering Education

This article was written by Brett Selvig and Ryan Dunne

H2E3 Ryan and Brett

Brett Selvig and Ryan Dunne assemble a test setup around a PEM fuel cell. (Photo credit Protonex Technology Corporation.)

As part of the Hydrogen Energy in Engineering Education project, SERC facilitated internships at Protonex Technology Corporation for the summer of 2011 for two students. After submitting resumes and being interviewed over the phone, we were selected for the ten week positions. Our initial hesitation about leaving our friends and familiar nook in Arcata for Massachusetts was soon outweighed by excitement about getting to work with cutting edge fuel cell technology.

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Torrefaction Continues at SERC

Wood chips before and after torrefaction.

Unprocessed wood chips (front) and the same feedstock after torrefaction. Photo credit Kellie Brown, HSU Photographer.

SERC is continuing its work with Renewable Fuel Technologies (RFT) on torrefaction. Torrefaction is the process of heating biomass to 250 – 300 degrees Celcius in the absence of oxygen.

The resulting product, referred to by RFT as “BioCoal,” has a higher energy density and is easier to pelletize than raw biomass. It is also hydrophobic, meaning it does not absorb water. These properties make BioCoal easier and less costly to store and transport compared to raw biomass. BioCoal can be used as a feedstock for liquid biofuels or co-fired in a coal power plant, thus replacing fossil fuels with a renewable energy source.

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Hydrogen Fueling Station to Receive Upgrade

Humboldt State University Hydrogen Fueling Station

Humboldt State University Hydrogen Fueling Station (Photo credit Kellie Jo Brown).

SERC has recently received a Caltrans grant to increase the delivery pressure capacity of the HSU hydrogen fueling station. Currently the station stores hydrogen gas at 420 bar (6,000 pounds per square inch), and can fill a vehicle’s tank to 350 bar (5,000 psi). The upgrade will allow for fueling up to 700 bar (10,000 psi). Newer fuel cell vehicles, such as the Toyota FCHV-adv currently on loan at HSU from UC Berkeley, have storage tanks rated for 700 bar storage, which almost doubles the amount of hydrogen that can be stored onboard.

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