CHPC's New Cluster "Updraft" Supports Research on Clean Energy

The University of Utah's Institute for Clean and Secure Energy (ICSE) will expand our understanding of energy development through experimentation, analysis, and simulations and thereby help us produce the energy we need in an environmentally safe way.  CHPC's new cluster, Updraft, will be a significant research asset for ICSE.  Dr. Phil Smith, professor of chemical engineering, directs the Institute, which houses several programs that include chemists, engineers and computer scientists who are using a multidisciplinary approach to pursue "cradle-to-grave" research and development of energy for electric generation and for liquid transportation of fuels from our abundant natural resources.  In addition, the Institute includes attorneys and economists from The University of Utah's College of Law and The Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment who study environmental law and policy.  Their work will aid in the implementation of ICSE research.

The Institute's Clean Coal Program is pursuing research and development of electrical power through the clean and efficient use of coal, an abundant national resource with an estimated 250-year reserve at current consumption levels.  Coal is responsible for approximately 50% of the energy generated in the United States and 90% of Utah's energy production.  Learning how to burn coal cleanly is an important step toward achieving our national independence from foreign fuel sources in a way the does not contribute further to global warming.  The Clean Coal Program recognizes the solution will be found in many approaches, "including increased efficiency, co-firing with biomass, retrofitting of existing power plants and CO2 capture and sequestration."  Rather than emitting CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere, power plants can capture the CO2 and force it into under-ground caverns such as deep saline aquifers and sites from which oil and coal have been extracted.  The Clean Coal Program, in partnership with the University's Energy and Geoscience Institute, is studying the fate of this sequestered CO2 by creating simulations based on experiments that determine the reactive effects of CO2, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ammonia on materials they may encounter when forced underground.  These reactions can be modeled to predict if sequestering in a particular area over time may result in fractures that allow the gases to leak back into the atmosphere.  The studies will also guide the development of the technology necessary to successfully sequester the gases.

The Oil Sands and Shale Program, also housed at ICSE, brings together an interdisciplinary group of faculty whose research focuses on unconventional oils, including heavy oil, which is much thicker than the crude oil most commonly refined for our use, and oil found in oil shale and oil sands.  Utah has more oil sands resources than any other state, giving us a particular interest in this resource.  However, extracting these oils in a way that is cost efficient and environmentally sound is a huge challenge.  Given the national commitment to energy independence accessing these sources may one day be necessary.  The Program is committed to acquiring the knowledge necessary to develop these unconventional oils in a manner that minimizes the carbon footprint of extraction, refinement and use.  By involving graduate students in the Program's interdisciplinary research, we will have a new generation of experts who will be well trained in both the science and environmental policy.  Last year the Program published the report "A Technical, Economic, and Legal Assessment of North American Heavy Oil, Oil Sands, and Oil Share Resources" for the US Department of Energy.

The Institute's simulations and modeling are based on experiments conducted at an off-site industrial combustion and gasification research facility.  The 30,000 square foot site includes two research buildings that house seven combustion and gasification reactors.  An integrated distributed control system (DCS) enables engineers to monitor the high-temperatures processes and log research data.  In addition to characterizing the combustion process, engineers are able to experiment with the possible technological innovations that will quickly transform research findings into practical applications for the energy industry.  The reactors already have an immediate practicality.  Companies can bring their biomass waste, such as sugarcane residue and black liquor from the pulp and paper process, and have the Institute determine the most useful way to convert the waste into a usable fuel.

More information about the Institute for Clean and Secure Energy can be found at their website