ND research center demos methanol from wood for off-grid power

By The Energy & Environmental Research Center | April 17, 2012

The Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks has successfully developed and demonstrated a mobile, trailer-mounted biomass gasification technology that converts wood waste into methanol and can be transported to remote, off-grid sites. The methanol can then be reformed into hydrogen to power fuel cells to produce electricity.

“Using power generation in off-grid sites eliminates the need to build transmission lines in remote areas, which ultimately saves utility ratepayers money,” said EERC Senior Research Advisor John Hurley. “The wood-to-fuel technology provides a renewable, nearly carbon dioxide neutral method to fuel distributed power generators.”

The largely automated system uses a unique gasifier to convert the wood waste into a blended gas, which is cleaned and compressed and then passed through a gas-to-liquids reactor to convert the gas to a liquid fuel—methanol. Methanol is one of the simplest alcohol types, which even preceded ethanol for vehicle use, and is easily converted to clean hydrogen.

In Minnesota alone, forestry operations produce 300,000 tons a year of wood waste that is not used in any existing facility and could potentially be converted into 30 million gallons of methanol using this technology. At that rate, the methanol could be used to create as much as 150,000 megawatt hours of electricity using fuel cells in remote locations.

“Demonstrating this technology and using it to validate our engineering models have been important steps toward making use of neglected biomass residues to ultimately provide renewable distributed power generation,” Hurley said. “We specifically designed this system to handle wet wood waste with up to 40 percent moisture, saving the need to separately dry the wood before gasification, as most commercial gasifiers require.”

EERC Director Gerald Groenewold said, “The ability to provide energy to remote sites, separate from where the actual biomass resource is gathered, is exactly the type of distributed energy solution the EERC is committed to providing our clients. The key to successful commercialization of this type of technology is ease of operation and maintenance without adding additional transportation or energy costs.”

Funding for the project is provided by Xcel Energy customers through a grant from the Renewable Development Fund and the U.S. DOE through the EERC’s Centers for Renewable Energy and Biomass Utilization.