State-of-the-art plant heating up

June 23, 2016

Artist's rendition of the new heating plant scheduled to be built at Valley City State Universtity

Artist’s rendition of the new heating plant scheduled to be built at Valley City State Universtity

New combined plant at Valley City State University moving forward


A proposed two-stage plant is moving closer to generating heat, and revenue, at Valley City State University.

After a detailed presentation on the plant to the State Board of Higher Education at its April meeting, VCSU’s combined heat and carbon production system is gaining steam on its way to producing much of the same. On the way it’s also serving as an educational tool.

The proposed activated carbon plant began in 2008 as a concept for integrating carbon production with steam plants. Later, the concept was applied to the VCSU steam plant project, although only the steam plant project has been finalized and approved. According to Wesley Wintch, VCSU’s vice president for business affairs, the reason it began was the need to decrease the cost of production of activated carbon.

“We looked for ways to integrate with other systems to improve the economics of the process to make activated carbon,” Wintch said. “The best opportunity we found was to integrate steam and activated carbon materials production.”

To achieve that end, the plant is fueled be either lignite coal or some form of biomass – both readily available in North Dakota. Once the need for a heating plant came up on campus, Wintch said it was a natural fit to do a joint project. From there, partnership opportunities with the University of North Dakota’s Institute for Energy Studies and Energy and Environmental Research Center seemed like a natural fit. A UND student group was added this year as two UND faculty – Steve Benson and Michael Mann – felt its inclusion would be a great opportunity for engineering students.

“The students have been on campus and done a fabulous job explaining, diagramming and projecting expenses for this activated carbon plant,” Wintch added. He noted that in addition to serving VCSU’s heating needs, the combined facility will also serve as a one-of-a-kind research opportunity that fits well into the university system’s top priority of education.

Mann, the UND distinguished professor of chemical engineering, and executive director of the IES, served as the technical advisor to the student group as it worked through its work on the plant, which also served as the group’s capstone project. He noted that UND had been working with the NDUS on the concept for years.

“It is based upon a technology developed at UND in conjunction with a small business (Envergex) that is a partner in a number of our projects,” he said. “A preliminary study was performed using UND as a case study to determine if the concept was feasible. Since the answer was yes, the next step is to look at the process in more detail.  At the next level of detail more attention was given to the details of the design and obtaining better cost estimations.

“In this particular case, since VCSU was looking to build a new steam plant, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to get involved,” he continued. “Our involvement has been to understand their current situation so we can develop the study at the size and scale that could be implemented in Valley City.”

Those details came from the students’ work. Mann said the group’s scope included a preliminary design of the process including the sizing and selection of potential plant equipment, determinations on plant economics, and plant layout options. The students also looked into alternatives, and economic sensitivity to changing market conditions.

“The main conclusion from their work is that this process has strong potential for the NDUS system and definitely warrants strong consideration,” Mann said. He added that it had been highly beneficial for the students. “This is a great example [of] how students can meet their educational requirements while generating a valuable product for the state. It seems like a great investment of the state’s resources. Also, from a student’s point of view, working on a real project that has the potential to actually be built really gets them excited. They put in much more effort on the project, and are more concerned that they are properly applying what they have learned in their classes. It has been a great learning experience for them.”

The learning experience for the students will give tomorrow’s researchers something to learn, as well.

“The combined carbon/heat plants are unique and will educate the energy and environmental experts of tomorrow, who together with today’s research scientists will develop the gateway technologies that may become the most important energy advancements of this century,” Wintch said.

Currently, the system exists as two plants. One side is dedicated as the heating plant, which will provide steam heat to the campus. The other plant is the activated carbon plant, which will connect to the heat plant and be used to produce activated carbons. Those activated carbons can be used for numerous products ranging from infrastructural to filtration systems. A third plant focused on producing power has been explored, but not formalized.

Wintch noted that the school was actively looking for external funding, including grants and business partners, to help cover those costs.

The “cost savings” of the plant will come in its ability to generate revenue as it generates steam heat. According to Wintch, the operation of the plant is projected to create revenues “above and beyond” its expenses.

He added that two types of carbons could be produced that include activated carbon for gas and water purification and specialty carbons used for energy storage. Steve Benson, professor at the IES and associate vice president for research at the EERC, explained that the process involves heating coal with low levels of oxygen to produce a hydrogen-rich gas and a carbon-rich material called char.

“The gas is combusted to produce steam to heat the campus,” Benson said. “The steam is also used to convert the char to activated carbon. The yield of activated carbon from lignite is about 25 percent, so one pound of lignite produces about one-quarter pound of activated carbon. Activated carbon sells for about $1 to $1.5 per pound. Specialty carbons can sell for much more that activated carbons. The operation of this plant would create revenues above and beyond the expenses. Those revenues can be used to further the interests of the university and our partners.”

Planners have noted that the successful operation of the combined heat and carbon production system could be a boon for other steam plants throughout the university system. As those other systems age, the potential would now exist for them to be replaced or modified into a facility similar to the one planned for VCSU. Wintch stated that doing so could provide a revenue-generating facility with the ability to pay for itself, and in the long term generate revenue that could be used for other institutional needs including maintenance.

Wintch said the much of the timetable is dependent on securing funding for the carbon plant operation.

“We’re excited about the new heating plant on many levels,” said VCSU President Tisa Mason. “First, it will be good to have a stable, reliable source of heat for the campus. Second, combining the steam plant with a carbon plant has the potential to generate revenue. And finally, we hope that the carbon plant will provide a host of unique research opportunities for our students and faculty.”