Cote’s Colorado: Pump it up, harness it, grow your own


Taking a one-hour tour with Bryan Willson at the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory is like taking a crash course on the research under way worldwide to curb global warming and decrease our dependence on foreign fuels.

From energy-efficiency and pollution-reduction initiatives aimed at the developing world (featured in this column last month) to natural gas, smart grid and biofuel applications targeted toward traditional and emerging markets, the professors, students and entrepreneurs working at the Colorado State University lab are developing technologies aimed at the here and now.


Some of the work – such as the algae fuel farm outside the Fort Collins lab now being ramped up for larger scale production on scrub desert near Durango – could see widespread commercial use in just a few years. Other projects, such as engines that propel the U.S. natural gas pipeline system, have already made their impact.

“We began working with the natural gas pipeline industry even before I started the lab,” said Willson, who established the CSU research center in 1992. “At the lab we ramped up that work to establish this lab to facilitate the development of new technologies to reduce emissions and fuel consumption from these engines.”

Standing in front of an engine used to transport natural gas, Willson described the need to compress the gas as it enters the pipeline and recompress it every 50 to 100 miles, a process that can consume as much as 5 percent of the gas – thus the need for greater efficiencies.

“Almost every engine on the pipeline system uses some technology that we developed here at the lab or facilitated the development of,” said Willson, 50. “In the aggregate, that suite of technologies has reduced emissions for the pipeline industry by the same amount as removing somewhere around 120 million automobiles from the highway.”

The vast majority of the lab’s funding comes from commercial sources, thus the Caterpillar logo stamped on a giant 1.8 megawatt engine that Willson says could deliver enough electricity to power about 1,200 U.S. homes. The natural gas engine uses spark plugs, which limit the performance of the engines. Researchers at the lab are developing a laser ignition system that replaces the spark plugs.

“We used focused lasers instead of spark plugs to ignite the mixture. And while we weren’t the first to do this, we’ve come the farthest in terms of developing this to a commercializable technology.”


In the basement of the lab, researchers are putting natural gas engines to another use – to mimic the decentralized production of electricity. InteGrid, a megawatt-scale smart-grid laboratory, is a joint effort by CSU and local company Spirae and funded in part by, a Denmark utility, to determine how to use wind energy more effectively.

“Denmark gets over 25 percent of their power from the wind,” Willson said. “When the wind speed changes, that causes instabilities in the electric grid, and before you can go to higher penetrations of wind, you need to be able to resolve that. Spirae had developed some technology to stabilize that.”

Denmark liked the idea but decided it needed to be applied first at a large scale in a laboratory before it was tested on the grid.
“There was actually no laboratory large enough in Denmark, other parts of Europe or the U.S., so we were asked to set up this facility,” Willson said. “At the time we didn’t know a lot about electric grids, but we do big stuff, so we were asked to build this large-scale facility.”

Willson pointed to a diesel engine that is programmed with the dynamics of wind farms. Based on historical data or through Internet connections, they can behave like wind generation in Denmark, he said.

The smart grid lab is now at the heart of FortZED, a program by the Department of Energy to create a net-zero energy district in the area of Fort Collins that includes downtown and the CSU campus. Participating entities also include Spirae, Woodward Governor and New Belgium Brewing. The lab will be working on hardware, software and control systems for the project.

“As part of that program … we will have the ability to control large loads in the area so we can switch them on and off,” Willson said. That ability will help drive the use of plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles and enable the system to adjust to peak electricity demand – such as when commuters return home after work and plug in their hybrids to recharge the batteries.

“So you may plug in, but the grid may choose not to charge your batteries at that point and charge them a little bit later,” Willson said. “And if we have really high demand, it may buy the power that is in your batteries of your car and put those out on the grid.”


Outside the lab, what looks like a small swimming pool is arranged in rows and covered by plastic panels. Under the panels, researchers are growing algae to harvest for biofuel. It’s a smaller version of a large-scale site they have established on the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Reservation outside Durango that is 30 times as large. Investors in Solix Biofuels – a for-profit company spun off from CSU in 2006 – include Fort Collins-based Bohemian Investments, oil refining giant Valero Energy Corp., Boulder-based Infield Capital, Southern Ute Alternative Energy LLC, and Shanghai Alliance Investment Ltd. These partners aren’t expecting an early exit.

“Our investors understand that this is going to take awhile to develop this technology. And what they’re really interested in is having access to the technology for the long term,” Willson said.
Long-term success means competing with oil on price, something the company expects to achieve within three to five years.

“In the near term, it may be $80 a barrel; beyond that it may be in the $60 range.” To hit such numbers, the company will need to extract value from the byproducts of production, such as a carbohydrate mixture that can be used to make animal feed. The company will not make the finished refined product but rather is developing the systems for harvesting algae and extracting the oil.

“Work done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates production possibilities of 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of oil per acre per year,” Willson said. “To put that in perspective, soy or canola is typically 50 to 100 gallons of oil per acre per year. So there’s a hundred times greater potential production from algae than from standard crops.

“No one’s there yet – we aren’t – but we essentially are producing at a rate equivalent to about 2,000 gallons per acre per year in the photosynthetic area. We’re maybe 40 times soy right now.”

The race is on. And the world will be watching.

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