Carbon, Coal, Discover More

Carbon and Lignite: Adding Sustainability to Efficiency

The EERC was officially founded in 1951 as the Robertson Lignite Research Laboratory, a federal facility under the U.S. Bureau of Mines. However, the EERC’s roots date back to the 1890s when Earl Babcock, a chemistry professor at the University of North Dakota (UND), began studying the state’s vast lignite coal resources and investigating potential uses for them.

The work of Babcock and others at UND led to the establishment of the Bureau of Mines laboratory on the university campus in 1951. In 1977, the facility became a federal energy technology center under the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). By 1983, the center was defederalized and became part of UND.

Since its defederalization, the EERC has evolved to conduct research on all fossil fuels, as well as renewable and alternative fuels, and has become a progressive global leader in energy and environmental research.

Aerial photo of EERC circa 1951

In recent years, the EERC has been focusing its efforts towards carbon management. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a by-product of energy production from coal. With the growing concern that the accumulation of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from human activity may affect global climate, we’re working to develop sustainable solutions.

Our extensive work in CO2 capture enables carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) projects to move forward by determining the best capture technology options and system configurations for an existing lignite-fired system. After being captured, the CO2 would be compressed into a super-pressurized liquid, to produce a “supercritical fluid,” where it would then be carried through a pipeline and stored deeper than 3000 feet into the earth.

Not only are we working on eliminating CO2 and reducing global temperatures, but the potential for North Dakota is great. Three North Dakota coal-fired power plants are working on deploying full scale CCUS units. One plant alone will be able to capture 4 million metric tons of CO2 a year while having the potential to produce 705 megawatts (MW) of energy. Combined, the plants will be able to capture 13 million metric tons of CO2 per year. This is the equivalent amount of CO2 produced by 2.8 million cars.

CO2 Capture unit connected to a lignite-fired system, transporting CO2 over 800 meters into the subsurface.

Furthermore, the benefits of CCUS go beyond just environmental benefits. It also includes tax incentives for participating states. In North Dakota alone, CCUS incentives offer no sales tax on capture-related infrastructure, construction of pipeline, Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) infrastructure, CO2 sold for EOR and property tax exemption for 10 years. Many more federal and state tax incentives outside of North Dakota are driving the first wave of CCUS development.

The EERC has come a long way from investigating uses for lignite coal to researching sustainable energy from existing methods. Our core research priorities are the cornerstone for the development of innovative, practical, and cost-effective energy and environmental solutions. By continuing with current energy production methods, the global climate is expected to rise 6.5 °F by 2100. CCUS provides a proven option for energy and industrial companies seeking to combine greenhouse gas mitigation with operations, creating market advantages and opportunities for the sale or use of captured CO2. To see how other energy variables can influence global temperature and emission levels, click the “Emissions Simulator” link.

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