Many know us as the EERC, specializing in developing energy and environmental solutions with an “all-of-the-above” approach. However, we didn’t always conduct research this way. From early settlers who saw potential in North Dakota coal mines, to researchers who saw a need to expand the uses of our vast resources, we recognize the pioneers that laid the groundwork for what we are today.
The Foundation to Success
Even before North Dakota was formally admitted as a state in 1889, early settlement in the Dakota Territory grew rapidly when territory officials and developers realized the state’s immense lignite resources and advertised lignite coal as a cheap, easily extracted source of energy with the potential to create jobs. Coal mining quickly became the largest source of American energy by the late 1800s, and thus the coal boom began in North Dakota. The lignite industry was so successful in the state that in 1891, the North Dakota Legislative Assembly passed a bill that allowed the use of lignite in state institutions as a main source of fuel and prohibited sources of lignite not native to North Dakota.
Through the early 1900s, people were starting to realize the massive potential lignite brought to the state beyond its use as a fuel source for heating. A chemistry professor at UND and North Dakota’s first State Geologist, Earle J. Babcock, investigated the potential uses and properties of North Dakota lignite that eventually led to its briquetting and gasification. He discovered that briquetting coal, the process of dehydrating and shaping it into uniform pieces, resulted in more easily transportable lignite with double the heating value and the ability to be stored without being affected by atmospheric conditions. He also discovered that gasifying coal, the process of using heat and pressure to produce synthetic natural gas (syngas), produced products that could be used in gas engines, fertilizer, and tar. By the late 1920s, UND researchers raised lignite studies from practical use to fundamental considerations of properties and composition. In 1947, Representative Charles Robertson introduced a bill to establish a national Lignite Research Laboratory in Grand Forks with an appropriation of $750,000 for construction, and by 1951, a Bureau of Mines laboratory opened on campus.
The First 50 Years of Innovation
The first decade of research conducted at the Robertson Lignite Research Laboratory focused primarily on unlocking the energy secrets of lignite. This research included comprehensive pilot plant studies on improving lignite pulverization prior to burning, long-term storage techniques, and several gasification projects. Around the same time, oil was discovered in the Bakken Formation, a large rock formation within the Williston Basin. The Clarence Iverson Well, which was established in 1951, sparked North Dakota’s first oil boom. This would set the scene for oil and gas research at the Grand Forks laboratory in the coming decades.
Meanwhile, the 1960s and ’70s ushered in a new generation of power plants built in North Dakota, and significant attention in research shifted to ash-related issues as we began to realize that burning coal was negatively impacting the environment and human health. The first federal law aimed at reducing air pollution was the Clean Air Act of 1963. It authorized research into methods for observing and reducing air pollution and established a federal program within the U.S. Public Health Service. The Grand Forks Coal Research Laboratory, formerly the Robertson Lignite Research Laboratory, began investigating lignite ash that same year under the direction of the Bureau of Mines Lignite Advisory Committee. By 1970, numerous utilities in the Midwest and South had switched to low-sulfur western coals as a result of the research (and mining) stimulus provided by the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970.
The experimental slagging fixed-bed gasifier that had been operating at the Grand Forks facility since the late 1950s and early 1960s was restarted in 1976 to collect additional data on lignite gasification. This research program, which lasted until 1982, aimed to address environmental issues. The Grand Forks Energy Research Center (GFERC), formerly the Grand Forks Coal Research Laboratory, analyzed wastewater and solid wastes from the gasifier to aid in the development of better pollution prevention and control methods as well as to assess health risks that workers in a future coal gasification industry might face. Synthetic oil was created from lignite and other low-rank coals in laboratory experiments by combining the coal with carbon monoxide and steam. A year after the program started, GFERC became a federal energy technology center with the creation of the Department of Energy by U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
In 1983, the center was defederalized, became a part of UND, and eventually renamed the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC). By the late 1980s, the EERC was world-renowned for understanding the organic and inorganic content of low-rank coals not only in North Dakota but worldwide and also having extensive knowledge on all types of coal worldwide and systems to convert coal to energy. The EERC started investigating water management and coal liquefaction, the process of turning coal into liquid fuels and petrochemicals, and began to provide combustion test services and advanced integrated gasification services to clients.
While much of the research conducted in the previous decades focused primarily on coal, the 1990s ushered in a new focus on energy research. During the turn of the century, the EERC was heavily involved in mercury and air toxic emission control. In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the Center for Air Toxic Metals (CATM) at the EERC. In addition, the EERC focused its attention on oil and gas. This work would later develop into projects like the Bakken Production Optimization Program (BPOP), the intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program (iPIPE), and the Brine Extraction and Storage Test (BEST).
A New Era of Energy Research
With a new century came a new era of research. The EERC set out to capture and sequester carbon dioxide. In 2003, following a competitive evaluation, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham named seven teams, called Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships (RCSP), to evaluate and promote the carbon sequestration technologies and infrastructure best suited to their unique regions. The Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership Program, created as one of the seven RCSPs, was designated to the upper Great Plains and northwestern regions of North America and was headed by the EERC. From this program sprouted countless carbon storage projects. The program also helped North Dakota become the first state to gain Class VI Primacy, authority granted by EPA to permanently store CO2 underground. Further research into carbon management led to the mobilization of an amine-based postcombustion capture system to conduct long-term capture studies at two lignite-fired power plants in North Dakota. These studies provided critical validation of commercial solvent performance on actual flue gas to support the engineering design of full-scale capture plants.
In addition to carbon capture, sequestration, and utilization (CCUS), the EERC concentrated on enhanced oil recovery from unconventional reservoirs, biomass utilization, renewable fuels, hydrogen production, wind energy, and water management. The approach to research since the 2000s has been “all of the above” to creating energy and environmental solutions. Acknowledging this in 2019, North Dakota legislators designated the EERC the State Energy Research Center (SERC) for North Dakota. This legislation provides $7.5 million per biennium and is a program for exploratory research and development of impactful technologies for North Dakota as well as allows the EERC to respond to requests for information as developed in legislation and from state officials. It is driven by the state’s current and future needs, challenges, and opportunities. SERC projects ensure the state’s energy resources and products remain accessible, affordable, and environmentally responsible. Completed projects thus far include research on energy storage, recovery of rare-earth elements from North Dakota coal, the development of advanced materials from carbon products, and electrical grid protection.
Today, the EERC is recognized as one of the world’s leading developers of cleaner, more efficient energy to power the world and environmental technologies to protect and clean our air, water, and soil. Our team of more than 270 scientists; engineers; and finance, operations, and other support professionals work together to develop practical solutions to critical global issues. We also acknowledge the countless individuals who have not only contributed to our successes but contributed to over a century of innovation in North Dakota. To learn more about our current research efforts, visit undeerc.org.