Development to Deployment

For 68 years, the Gas Technology Institute has been advancing new technologies to ensure the world has access to an abundant, affordable energy supply.
By Rona Johnson
The Gas Technology Institute was created to address the needs of the natural gas industry, but its work has evolved as the world's energy requirements have changed. The nonprofit conducts research and development for the purpose of developing technologies that can be applied in the marketplace.

"Our mission is to turn raw technology into practical solutions for the market's energy needs," says Vann Bush, managing director for the gasification and gas processing group at GTI. "We have created solutions that include our own gasification technologies but we're also a technology development partner for industry." To do this, GTI contracts with private companies, works with state and federal government agencies and regulators, and provides investment opportunities within the energy sector and other industries.

GTI is involved in gasification of fossil and renewable fuels, natural gas exploration-mostly from unconventional sources including shale, tight gas sands and coal beds-distribution and pipeline technology, and new technology development, deployment and commercialization. Although the institute's headquarters are in Des Plaines, Ill., it also has a group working on biomass gasification and other areas of biomass conversion in Birmingham, Ala., a research and development facility in Oklahoma and offices in Washington, D.C., and on the East and West Coast, Bush says.

"My business unit is one of the four R&D sectors here at GTI," says Bush, who works at the GTI campus in Des Plaines, where there are 28 specialized laboratories and facilities. "My focus is on the conversion of hydrocarbon materials into products whether they be fuels-liquid or gaseous fuels-chemicals or power. In my area, our business revolves around thermochemical processes and we have a group that's devoted to gas conditioning and treatment technologies as well as a generation of gases and liquids from solid feedstocks. About half of our business is biomass related at present and about half is coal and natural gas related."

The number of biomass and coal projects fluctuates from year to year but historically there is a good balance between the two, Bush says. "There is a lot of interest right now in the renewables area, of course, because of the carbon management issues, and we're seeing changes in the kind of products that people are looking for from biomass," he says. "The past couple of years, the focus has been on liquid fuels/transportation fuels so there is a lot of activity in our shop and around the world dealing with the conversion of biomass material into replacement transportation fuels." Prior to that there was more interest in power and combined-heat-and-power applications from renewable resources, he adds.

GTI in Action
GTI's participation in projects can take on several forms, depending on the client's needs.

"Industry often comes to us with a technology that they need to pass through the development cycle and we partner with them to carry their technology through the stages of development and work alongside them," Bush says. "Some of the technologies that have sort of a GTI imprint on them are developed by our own staff and some of the technologies with which we are associated are the development of our industrial partners and we assist, doing testing or developmental work in cooperation with them."

GTI developed a fluidized bed gasification solution for coal applications and a fluidized bed solution for biomass applications and both have been licensed. "Those technologies are now commercial offerings," Bush says. "We continue to provide technology support for those partners and at the same time we will work with other folks' technologies from the venture-funded type organizations like Great Point Energy, who brought their technology to GTI for development, or Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, who brought their technology to GTI for pilot development."

GTI worked with Finnish companies UPM-Kymmene Corp. and Carbona/Andritz to help them develop technology to make biodiesel from wood waste.

UPM, a global forestry company, and Andritz Carbona, a gasification technology provider, are cooperating on a biomass-to-liquid plant that would convert wood waste to biodiesel. The process involves gasifying biomass, purifying the gas and processing it in a Fischer-Tropsch liquefaction plant. The plant would combine carbon monoxide and hydrogen in a catalytic reaction and convert them into liquid hydrocarbons.

"We were looking for a gasifier with significant size, capable of gasifying biomass with oxygen under pressure, and there are not that many pilot plants available," says Petri Kukkonen, director of biofuel at UMP. Andritz/Carbona secured access to GTI's pilot gasification facility for the project, which saved the companies $7 million to $10 million and about two years time, says Jim Patel, president of Carbona Corp., which is a majority owned subsidiary of Andritz Oy. "GTI saved us a lot of money and time because they have existing equipment that we could use and add on to," Patel says. "We used GTI's equipment and modified it and then we added a gas cleaning system of our own design."
Andritz/Carbona uses the fluidized bed gasification technology that it licensed from GTI about 30 years ago as the basis for its own technology. "We built a plant in Finland and developed the technology on our own, to the level where it could be commercialized and built into an actual plant," Patel says.

For the current project, Andritz/Carbona and UPM are using GTI's test plant to do the testing of the technology for the new project. UPM has a demonstration plant in Chicago and plans to build a commercial plant in Europe near one of its pulp and paper mills. "We have an environmental impact assessment complete for two plants in Finland, but we are looking at our mills in central Europe as well," Kukkonen says "We have 16 plants in Europe."

GTI also obtained the permits to build the demonstration plant in Chicago, Kukkonen says. "In the beginning we had some problems getting permits to build the plant because it's located close to the Chicago O'Hare Airport and building that kind of facility near an airport after Sept. 11 has been a struggle." The permit issue delayed the project, but once the permits were in place the project went smoothly. "GTI got the construction permit and upgrading we needed for the downstream syngas cleaning equipment and also for some modifications for the existing gasifier."

Preparing for the Future
To keep up with changing energy demands and the needs of its clients, GTI is constantly looking to the future. "We put together what are we going to look like, what are we going to be in three years, what sort of business mix we foresee and then what are some of the things beyond that that we want to keep our eyes on," Bush says. That three-year forecast is updated every year during an off-site strategic planning workshop with the institute's board of directors and the management team.

Although GTI's business units have distinct areas of expertise, lately carbon management has been the common thread that materializes in the annual planning sessions.

While research and development are the main focus, the institute also has to be aware of and prepare for outside influences that impact their work. "We also want to look at what are the factors that are institutional or that are regulatory or policy factors that are going to overlay the technology issues that we are working on, and it's important that we have our board here to go through that," Bush says. "It's a way to keep ourselves in tune with what we perceive to be the real needs out there in the market. Of course, industry is going to give us a good idea about that in what they are willing to support. We want to offer the technology solutions that are going to be relevant to them so we have to really be apprised of it."
Because it is a nonprofit, GTI shares results of its studies with the industries it works with through technical reports, presentations at conferences, peer review journals and other means, and works closely with organizations such as the American Gas Association and pipeline networks. "We do have to be circumspect and careful if we are working for a specific industrial partner where there are proprietary or intellectual property issues, but general findings and work that we do collaboratively in the delivery sector those kinds of results get populated to the user market pretty quickly," Bush says.

In September 2009, the institute organized the tcbiomass2009 conference in Chicago with 250 participants from 22 countries and 130 organizations. The conference focused on new research in thermochemical biomass conversion including gasification, pyrolysis and upgrading of pyrolysis oil.

GTI also holds workshops for industry groups and conducts twice yearly meetings of its public interest advisory committee, which is comprised of members of the regulatory community and consumer advocacy groups. "We share things that are relevant and current things, that are our distillation of what the market pressures are and where technology might be going," Bush says.

GTI is typically funded through three different revenue streams: federal and state funds, the gas industry and industry partners. "The particular business unit that I have in gasification, we've been more about private sector work for the past four or five years than government work; we've been over 80 percent funded by the private sector," Bush says. "But there is a swell of funding from the federal government as they re-adjust their priorities, so our distribution of funding from private to government might shift a little bit in the coming year."

To receive money from these groups, the researchers at GTI write proposals that address specific technical issues, and compete against other institutions and companies for projects.

Bush says he's encouraged that the federal government is putting a lot of emphasis on technology development to solve the nation's energy needs. "Whether it's to supply fuels, power from sustainable sources or for the mitigation of environmental issues, it's good to see that there's recognition that technology is going to provide us valuable ways of addressing those needs and hopefully the resources will back that up."

Rona Johnson is the editor of Biomass Magazine. Reach her at or (701) 738-4940.