Energy Research Center Expands, Networks, Automates

The University of Utah's Industrial Combustion and Gasification Research Facility (ICGRF) partners with industry to research gasifiers, combustors, pilot-scale reactors, a fluidized bed reactor, process heaters and other systems

By Dr. Andrew Fry

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The Industrial Combustion and Gasification Research Facility (ICGRF) at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City was established in 1995 to perform research on coal, shale oil, natural gas, municipal waste, biomass and other energy resources found in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States. Students use the facility to gain valuable, hands-on experience with automation systems and process units used in the oil, gas, coal and utility industries, while ICGRF's government and corporate research partners use it to test new processes and control techniques and improve existing ones. Much research is funded by U.S. utilities, Praxair and other energy firms, while government entities also provide funding, and some projects are partnerships among the university, government and industry.

The original facility housed a 1.5-MW, pulverized coal research reactor to investigate the formation and control of oxides of nitrogen in utility boilers. Since then, ICGRF grew to 30,000 sq ft in three buildings with eight pilot-scale reactors and many pieces of small research and support equipment (Figure 1). The capacity of its combustion and gasification test facilities range up to 1.5 MW (5.1 MM BTU/hr). The original facilities were monitored and controlled by Opto 22's automation systems, and more were added as ICGRF expanded. Its current project consists of removing all legacy control hardware and updating it with Opto 22's Snap PAC hardware and software to form a modern, integrated automation system.

Research performed at the ICGRF includes:

  • Underground thermal treatment of coal and oil shale to produce gaseous and liquid fuels;
  • Investigating CO2 capture combustion technologies, including oxygen combustion, gasification and chemical looping combustion;
  • Fuel switching and combustion of multiple fuel blends including coal, petroleum coke, fuel oils, natural gas, biomass (hog wood, algae, switch grass, bagasse, pelletized biomass, corn stover, etc.), municipal waste, biohazardous waste and many other fuels.

See Also: Oil and Gas Leads Demand for Automation Pros

Process equipment to perform this research includes entrained and fluidized bed gasifiers, grate-fired and oxy-fuel combustors, a circulating fluidized bed reactor, chemical looping systems, diesel engines, fire test facilities and process heaters. This equipment provides comprehensive capabilities for gas- and liquid-phase analysis and particle characterization. For example, the pressurized fluidized-bed gasifier processes solid fuels, such as biomass and unreactive fuels requiring a long solids-residence time. The gasifier is capable of gasifying up to 32 kg/hr of fuel with steam or air, with or without adding oxygen (Figure 2).

The reactor is built in five sections and consists of a gas distributor, bed section and freeboard. Fuel is fed into the bed where it's converted into a hydrogen-rich synthesis gas. Eighty heaters in the bed allow it to be indirectly heated if desired. A pressurized lock hopper system at the bottom of the bed allows automatic removal of bed solids. The ICGRF uses the gasifier to test conditions favorable for synthesis gas production and to measure pollutant emissions, deposition and conversion efficiency for coal and various biomass fuels. The other combusters, gasifiers and processing equipment at ICGRF perform similar analyses on various fuels.

Research Returns Results

Research performed at ICGRF is funded by industrial and government entities, and the goal of each project depends on the funding institution. During 2008-13, ICGRF had a research grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) for a program entitled "Characterization of Oxycombustion Impacts in Existing Coal-Fired Boilers," and more than 12 organizations from the U.S. and other counties participated. Its purpose was to establish feasibility and identify potential roadblocks for retrofitting the most common coal utility boiler in the U.S. so it could reduce or eliminate emissions with CO2 capture and storage, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change.

This program was a precursor to the FutureGen 2.0 project, which is a full-scale demonstration funded by the DoE. Results from this program were used in decision making for the FutureGen program, and experimental work was conducted on the oxy-fuel combustor and 1.5-MW multi-fuel furnace.

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