Rocket developer, EERC begin testing solids pump for gasification

By Luke Geiver | April 11, 2012

The University of North Dakota’s Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne Inc. (PWR), a global space propulsion systems developer, have officially begun the commissioning stage of a commercial-scale dry-solids prototype pump. 

The pump is used to feed a novel gasification system designed to produce syngas from a range of feedstocks, including coal, petcoke and biomass. The system can feed roughly 400 tons per day of feedstock into the gasifier, helping to reduce capital costs of a commercial scale unit by 20 percent compared to conventional systems. The system also reduces carbon emissions by 10 percent, and the gasifier offers a 90 percent reduction in size compared to traditional systems. PWR credits that statistic to its ability to leverage decades of experience in rocket propulsion technology and its skill in controlling large amounts of energy in small spaces. “At this point, EERC is involved in rocket science,” said Gerald Groenewold, EERC director.

The dry-solids pump was designed to continuously feed coal or biomass into a high-pressure environment. The pump operates by using a series of stable, load-bearing arcs created by the biomass that gathers between the side walls of the pump. The high pressure feeding into the biomass pump chamber causes the feedstock to gather into arcs. Those arcs can support very large loads, according to PWR, all while trapping or locking in the pressure in the chamber. Mechanical belts on both sidewalls of the pumps then force the feedstock packed into the chamber into a discharge chamber that feeds into the gasifier.

More than 200 people were on hand April 11 for the dry-solids pump commissioning event at the EERC, including several prominent congressional leaders from North Dakota. Gov. Jack Dalrymple addressed the crowd first, followed by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and then Representative Rick Berg, R-N.D., all of whom spoke about the important role of bringing together the expertise of a public institution like EERC and the private needs of industry. According to Groenewold, 87 percent of the 300 contracts the EERC is currently working on are with private partners. “Don’t advance something no one wants,” Groenewold said, quoting Thomas Edison.

The EERC and PWR were joined on the project by the U.S. DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory and Alberta Innovates—Energy and Environmental Solutions, both of which providing funding for the project, which started in 2005.

Jim Maser, president of PWR, said he hopes the company’s investment is going to pay off, adding that when Rocketdyne first began discussing the possibility of branching out its expertise into other areas, the energy world made the most sense. That expertise includes technology that was used to put men on the moon, he said, and technology used in 32 engines on the Apollo rockets. “At our heart, we are an energy conversion company,” he explained. “But we are a high-density energy conversion company. If you look at a rocket engine you get the sense that that is high energy, so we do a lot of energy in small spaces and we do it under extreme conditions.”

“We want to take this technology through our development phase (at the EERC), learn everything we need to know and then go to an industry scale and commercialize it,” Maser said. The unit at the EERC is already designed to meet the demands of a commercial-scale operation.