UND chemists look at using feedstock for oil industry

EERC Principal Research Scientist Ramesh Sharma works in his lab at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. (Photo courtesy of EERC).

GRAND FORKS -Chemists at the University of North Dakota's Energy & Environmental Research Center are working to further develop a process that uses crop feedstock from North Dakota to make products that will benefit the state's oil industry.

The North Dakota Department of Commerce's Research North Dakota program awarded EERC $250,000 for the project, which was matched by Accelergy Corp., a Texas-based producer of transportation fuels and synthetic distillate liquids, and its industrial partners. The catalytic process will convert crop oils-both edible and nonedible-into renewable, low-toxicity, biodegradable biolubricants, solvents and drilling and fracking fluids.

Accelergy discovered the process and EERC will improve it, says Ramesh Sharma, principal research scientist at EERC.

"We are trying to perfect the process so we can stop wherever we want," he says, adding that molecular structure changes in chemicals, greases and waxes happen in stages. "So our goal is to develop a process and optimize it so we can stop wherever we want to produce a particular product."

Ed Steadman, EERC vice president for research, says, "These organic chemicals, it's all about the length of the change and Ramesh and his partners here have figured out ways to manipulate that in a very special and useful way, such that they can develop very improved and useful products. And there are a number of different opportunities for uses for those products based on what they've developed."

Sharma says his team is looking particularly at producing fluids used to lubricate bits in oil drilling. "And they put various additives in these fluids to do various things-to change the density or the weight of the fluid, to lubricate," Steadman says. "It just depends on the situation and there are many different types and techniques of fluids that are used."

The most common fluid used at the reservoir level is diesel-based, he adds, and the new, biodegradable products Sharma's team is developing would replace or augment the diesel component of those fluids. "That's part of the excitement of this whole process," Steadman says.

Steadman is careful to point out that diesel fluids in drilling do not have detrimental environmental effects, as they are used only at the reservoir level, which is already filled with diesel fluids and is not near groundwater. Freshwater fluids are used near groundwater, so diesel contamination would not typically occur when the drilling is done properly, Steadman says. "But that doesn't mean it wouldn't be nice to have this environmentally friendly, renewable alternative to diesel."

A perfect location

North Dakota represents an ideal location for the demonstration plant, expected to be operational in 2016, as it can provide the crop oil feedstock and the market for the products' use.

"We've got a great opportunity here because not only can North Dakota produce the feedstock, we have the use right there, versus trucking from someplace else," Steadman says.

Sharma acknowledges the cost could be higher than some fluids being used today. "It will be somewhat expensive, but the whole goal is to make the technology much more competitive to lower the cost so it is almost equivalent to the present day analogs," he says.

Steadman agrees, adding, "Chemists like Ramesh, they can do magical things and I know they're going to make a good feedstock. It always comes down to the economics-how competitive can it be with current feedstocks?"

Longer-term plans for commercialization are being developed confidentially, Sharma says, but any commercial operations would be sited in North Dakota. "Once we demonstrate it, then basically commercialization will be not too far away," he says.