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Fueling fairbanks: the University of Alaska Fairbanks has received research money to help explore energy alternatives.

A dozen energy-related research projects have received more than 2 million in federal funding under a cooperative agreement between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory.

The DOE money helps fund research in a variety of areas, ranging from determining the best use of a conventional energy source--coal--to continued laboratory development of cutting-edge technology involved in tapping an unconventional energy resource--gas hydrates.

Projects fall under one of two categories: remote power research or fossil energy research. Funds are allocated through the recently formed Arctic Energy Technology Development Laboratory (AETDL), part of DOE's Office of Fossil Energy, through a competitive proposal process.

All of the projects involve some sort of local match or cost share funds, whether it comes in the form of cash or in-kind contributions such as personnel, equipment or use of existing facilities, said Brent Sheets, the Arctic Energy office representative for the National Energy Technology Lab, part of DOE's Office of Fossil Energy.

While the immediate economic impact to the local community and to the state is negligible, the long-term spin-off could be great, said Sheets.

"Two to three years down the road, we hope to see lower electric costs and encourage more oil exploration, which obviously would be a benefit to the community," he said. "Those are the two areas we are emphasizing--affordable and reliable power, and oil and gas development."

Two fuel cell projects received the bulk of 2002 funding from DOE. Other remote power projects funded in 2002 include development and testing of a tilt-up guyed tower and foundation system for a wind turbine in Kotzebue; development of software and hardware for remote monitoring of a village power system; and design of a remote-operated hybrid power system that uses solar, wind and a back-up gasoline generator.

Fossil energy projects funded in 2002 include a tundra pond field study, a performance test of low-rank coal mined from Usibelli Coal Mine and lab oratory research using carbon dioxide in the recovery of methane gas.

Roughly two-thirds of the project funding stays in Alaska. said Dennis Witmer, UAF coordinator for AETDL. Most of that is spent on salaries for researchers.

The remaining one-third goes to purchase specialized equipment used in the energy research projects, such as specialized fuel cells, which are built Outside.

"Those companies look toward Alaska as the first potential niche market for their products," Witmer said.

INDUSTRY PANEL INVOLVED IN FUNDING ALLOCATION

Rather than term the federal assistance as a grant, the DOE funding is considered a cooperative agreement, awarded by contract with the research team.

"That gives the government more flexibility in directing the work that is done," Sheets said. "With cooperative agreements, researchers produce quarterly reports and then we can make adjustments to the research."

The competitive funding process for the $1.1 million awarded in 2002 started more than a year ago, with a UAF-issued solicitation for one-page project proposals in one of two categories: remote energy and fossil fuels.

Sheets said 66 project ideas were put forward, and of those, the top 12 for each of the two categories were requested to develop a two-page proposal. Those project researchers also made a 15-minute presentation before a panel made up of industry representatives. That advisory panel then evaluated and ranked those projects into a final listing.

The top projects received full funding, Sheets said. "We go down the list until we run out of money," he said.

Projects that involve a multiyear program will be required to compete again for funding, Sheets said.

Federal funds went to every project recommended by the industry board, Sheets added, for a total of eight research programs that received DOE money in 2002. Four projects were allocated DOE money in 2001.

The same selection process has started for DOE in 2003. AETDL received 47 unique proposals for funding, and the industry panels considered recently 10 finalists in each of the two categories, Witmer said.

"Projects that receive the high rankings might have to wait for the 2004 (DOE funding) earmark," he said.

That's because funding for the energy research program is essentially flat in 2003, Sheets said. With some projects requesting multi-year funding, AETDL might add three or four new projects, he said.

FUEL CELL PROJECTS RECEIVE BULK OF FUNDS

Almost half of DOE's 2002 funding was allocated to two fuel cell projects proposed by UAF researchers. A solid oxide fuel cell and a methanol-fired fuel cell, each on the cutting edge of this emerging energy technology, will be tested in UAF laboratory settings this year. Both units are early in the research and development stage, and are currently not available for commercial use.

Each of those projects received more than $240,000 from DOE, for a total of nearly $500,000. Including the cost-share portion provided by the research teams, the total value of those two research programs is $686,000 for the first fiscal year of the projects.

"The level of funding reflects enthusiasm of some of the panel members for fuel cells," Witmer said. "The university does have a good reputation of working in fuel cells in the past."

Previously, university researchers have been involved with a total of five separate fuel cell tests, Witmer said. That includes one three-year project involving a hydrogen fuel cell. Also funded by DOE, that project involved $2.3 million in spending from 1998 to 2001.

"The most important experiment I do is the procurement experiment," Witmer said. "When you have a contract to purchase on the table, you learn all sorts of interesting things about where the industry is with this experimental technology."

For example, both fuel cells were scheduled to be delivered to UAF by early 2003. As of mid-March, neither had arrived, Witmer said.

UAF did receive and test in January a methanol reformer, which converts methanol into hydrogen, which is then used in the fuel cell's electric generation process.

That unit tested higher than the manufacturer's expected performance range of 70 percent to 75 percent efficiency, Witmer said. "We got 78 percent efficiency, so that's very encouraging," he said.

That reformer unit has been sent to IdaTech Corp., headquartered in Bend, Ore., where the reformer will be integrated into the methanol-fired, proton exchange membrane fuel cell power system, scheduled to be delivered in May.

The 1-kilowatt fuel cell being designed and built will burn approximately one liter of methanol per hour of operation, or about 6 gallons for every 24-hour period, Witmer said. That's a dramatic fuel savings compared to typical internal combustion engines of the same size, he said.

In addition, methanol is readily accessible and is a relatively benign fuel, easy to handle even in frigid Arctic temperatures.

Methanol also reforms into hydrogen at a much lower temperature than natural gas, about 350 degrees Celsius. Therefore, conventional materials can be used in the burner, and heat losses go down, Witmer said.

UAF researchers will also test a 5-kilowatt solid oxide fuel cell, powered by natural gas. Siemens Westinghouse Power Corp. is scheduled to deliver the unit sometime in May, Witmer said. It will be one of the first of its scaledback size.

The unit will heat natural gas to 800 degrees Celsius, where it reforms into hydrogen, creating the source for the fuel cell's power. A ceramic type of material that can withstand that high heat will be used to contain the chemical reaction.

Siemens has previously produced 25- and 250-kilowatt solid oxide fuel cells for cooperative demonstration projects, Witmer said.

In addition to producing electricity, the unit is designed to produce up to 6 kilowatts of heat. How efficiently the unit produces heat as a byproduct will be one facet of the research.

TUNDRA POND PUMPING STUDY STARTS

A research project with potential for immediate impact on Alaska's oil industry, a group of researchers will study the physical, biological and chemical effects of pumping water from North Slope ponds for use in ice road construction during winter months.

The three-year study started during this winter's construction season on the Slope, according to Larry Hinzman, a professor in the Water and Environmental Research Center of the Institute of Northern Engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Hinzman is one of the principal investigators in the research project, which carries a $1.5 million price tag. Industry representatives suggested such a hydrologic study on tundra ponds, he said.

DOE is contributing more than half of the cost of the three-year program-$800,000, with $200,000 allocated for the first year. BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. and ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc. will contribute the remaining amount through in-kind donations such as transportation and housing in the Arctic.

Other organizations and agencies involved in the research include GW Scientific, which is providing assistance with specialized instrumentation; the Bureau of Land Management; the state Department of Natural Resources; the state Department of Fish and Game; and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

The group will monitor up to three ponds that are being tapped to supply water for ice road construction, and up to three ponds that are not used, as a control group.

Electronic monitoring equipment was set up just prior to the start of water pumping during this winters s ice road construction season. Throughout the study, researchers and the oil producers can access information from the study locations, which will be updated and posted on the Web, Hinzman said.

Current DNR regulations require that no more than 15 percent of the volume of unfrozen water under the top layer of ice maybe removed from North Slope ponds. One of the study's objectives is to determine to what extent pumping may be permitted-which percent of water volume under ice-before physical and biological impacts are detectable and quantifiable.

That will help producers safely locate and use ponds near areas where they are working, Hinzman said.

The study also is designed to determine what physical changes occur in tundra ponds as pumping occurs and characterize how those changes in physical environment will impact biological processes. The study also will document through modeling studies which ponds are suitable for water extraction and what those pumping limits are under a range of environmental scenarios.

This information could help future exploration programs, as oil companies move farther west and farther east from existing infrastructure at Prudhoe Bay, Hinzman said.

RESEARCHERS LOOK AT CARBON DIOXIDE IN METHANE RECOVERY

A three-year, $1.4 million research project will investigate, in a laboratory environment, different methods of exchanging carbon dioxide for methane gas in underground gas hydrate structures. DOE's funding for the first year is $150,000.

Researchers hope their project will provide some answers to developing an economical and environmentally benign method for recovering methane gas, an extraction process that could possibly be used in commercial development of North Slope gas hydrate structures.

In theory, researchers will inject [CO.sup.2] into the ice-like solid gas hydrate structure, where it will swap places with. methane, enabling recovery of the freed methane gas. The [CO.sup.2] would remain sequestered in the hydrate structure.

The lab-scale methane recovery research is being conducted at UAF and at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in Richland, Wash.

In addition to investigating the basic chemical reaction of injecting [CO.sup.2] into a gas hydrate structure, the researchers will be experimenting with some secret methods for speeding up the reaction process.

BP is also participating in the research project, in hopes that the laboratorysized recovery research could be applied to a separate, BP-led gas hydrates research project that involves resource characterization and quantification of this unconventional energy resource on the North Slope.

"The use of [CO.sup.2] as a potential recovery mechanism was never considered at the time of the original BP proposal," said Robert Hunter, BP's Alaska gas hydrate project manager.

DOE is also partially funding the $18 million BP-led gas hydrate project, which will attempt to determine the technical and economic feasibility of recovering usable methane gas from the underground gas hydrate structures at Prudhoe Bay, Kuparuk and Milne Point.
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Author:Jones, Patricia
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:May 1, 2003
Words:2004
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