Environmental Protection

EERC Demos Clean Energy from Used Railroad Ties

The Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota (Grand Forks) has begun a groundbreaking demonstration of a clean energy system that converts used railroad ties into heat and power.

The demonstration unit is located inside the EERC's National Center for Hydrogen Technology (NCHT) demonstration facility.

EERC is working with Aboriginal Cogeneration Corporation (ACC), based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to convert biomass to energy in environmentally friendly ways. The company is working to install two 1-megawatt commercial clean power systems at its demonstration site northeast of Vancouver at Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. "This is a real breakthrough in technology," said Nikhil Patel, project manager and research scientist at the EERC. "Railroad ties treated with creosote are some of the most difficult biomass feedstocks to process safely because they contain significant amounts of coal tar. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has placed severe restrictions on the disposal of the railroad ties because the tar can be harmful to humans," he said.

EERC, in conjunction with ACC, has reached a major milestone in generating power from waste ties via a proprietary EERC process that meets the stringent environmental regulations of British Columbia. The EERC process also reduces emissions to well below U.S. federal regulations.

"With 25 million used railway ties a year being disposed of in North America, an environmentally challenged material can now be converted into clean green energy," commented Maurice Hladik, chief executive officer of ACC. "Another priority opportunity exists for the 100-plus native communities on diesel-powered generators. Sustainable quantities of locally harvested wood can be utilized to replace the very costly diesel at a substantial savings in energy costs, plus provide meaningful employment opportunities. In addition, the heat generated could be used in a variety of value-added commercial applications."

"The potential applications for this technology are endless," said EERC Director Gerald Groenewold. "This is going to open a lot of doors for the clean utilization of many other renewable fuels and waste products for the production of heat and power throughout the world."

EERC's power system, which has been under construction for about two months, can process about 35–40 pounds of fuel an hour. The railroad ties are chipped before being fed into the system. The system operates at a much lower pressure and flow rate compared to other systems of this type, making it much easier to operate and integrate with other commercially available technologies for generating heat and power.

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