While eyes around the world are on new extraction techniques and jobs in petroleum fuels in areas such as the Bakken formation in northeastern Montana and western North Dakota and the oil sands in Alberta, Havre’s university has been looking to the future, not millions of years in the past, for energy production.
At the first lecture event in a series on energy on the Hi-Line sponsored by Montana State University-Northern, the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce and Bear Paw Development Corp., Northern Dean Greg Kegel gave an update on work his College of Technical Sciences has done on researching alternative energy production.
Northern Chancellor Jim Limbaugh, while introducing Kegel, said he wanted to end the four-lecture presentation with a bang, shifting the focus from the Bakken to Havre and taking a look at Northern’s research.
“And, this stuff is pretty cool, ” he added.
Kegel said the project began when he started looking for ways to strengthen Northern’s programs to offset population reductions in the area. With the construction of the Applied Technology Center, he and then-state Sen. Jon Tester, now a U. S. senator, talked about what Northern’s role could be in applied research.
The College of Technical Sciences started working on alternative energy, using funds from a U. S. Department of Labor WIRED grant to start the process including hiring a program director, mechanical engineer and research scientist.
Kegel said the research looked at ethanol in the early stages, but found too many problems with that fuel, including the fact that its source grains such as corn would be in competition with the food market.
Camelina kept rising to the top, he said, a nonfood oilseed that grows virtually anywhere in north-central Montana, can be grown in marginal land or used as a rotation crop that benefits the soil, and can be crushed and converted to fuel.
“We started to work on it, and we started to make biodiesel out of it, ” he said.
The scientists continued to improve the efficiency of the fuel, but a problem was the cost. Kegel said a test of the locally produced fuel done by BNSF in a local switching engine was successful, but the cost still was too high for the railway company to commit to buying the renewable fuel.
Then another project came through — making jet fuel from camelina.
Kegel said another group had produced jet fuel from camelina, but a key component — called aromatics — had to be added, using petroleum products.
Then the Northern researchers — “and they are geniuses, ” Kegel said — found a way to convert fatty acids left in camelina fuels, a problem at that stage, to benzines and turn them into aromatics in the fuel.
A significant part of the discovery is the byproduct of the process — an oil with the identical features of coconut oil, which is four times as valuable as the biodiesel the process started with.
“All of a sudden, the economics really came together …, ” Kegel said. “This is a huge discovery at Northern. ”
He added that Northern has patented the process and is working with the tech transfer group at Montana State University in Bozeman to license the process out to companies, with multiple companies holding conversations about doing just that.
Part of the requirement for licensing the patent would be to have a pilot plant on the Hi-Line, he said.
“We know we can grow it and crush it and make good fuel, and so it’s inevitable it will happen, ” Kegel said. ‘And I’m pretty confident it will happen in my lifetime, that we will have a production facility right here on the Hi-Line. ”
Another high point is conversations Northern is having with companies, such as Boeing, to do research on future fuel development. That is possible because of improvements to the facilities, such as the recently opened fuel laboratory that is a one-of-a-kind research facility able to crush the seed, produce the fuel and perform the tests, Kegel said.
“So, that’s all great, ” Kegel said. “I’ve been working on this project for 10 years. We finally have all the pieces together now. … Now we’ve got people coming to us. ”