History of the CAER


The Kentucky energy research program began over twenty years ago as farsighted leaders in government, industry, and academia aggressively responded to the immense opportunities offered by unprecedented national commitment to development of technologies to produce fuels, especially transportation fuels, from coal. The Center's programs have evolved as federal energy policy has changed. Today, while the Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER) continues to focus on research relating to coal-derived synfuels in recognition of the certainty that the U.S. will turn to synfuels to ensure the nation's energy security, it is increasingly focused on challenges and opportunities in an era of utility industry deregulation and escalating environmental demands. Over the last twenty years, energy research at the CAER has brought many benefits to the Commonwealth. Some of these are as concrete as increased productivity, new uses for coal, decreased costs of using coal, and disposing of or utilizing coal combustion wastes. Some, such as leadership in research and in national coal policy both now and in the future, are somewhat intangible but are nonetheless very important.

A major synfuels development movement came with the oil shocks of the 1970's. The federal government continued conceptual and design work on synfuels in response to natural gas shortages and the appearance of some oil in parts of the country resulting from market dislocations caused by the oil import quotas. The surge of imports following the ending of the oil import quota program in 1973 was followed by the impacts in late 1973 and early 1974 of the Arab Oil Embargo. The concern that the nation might become too dependent upon foreign oil was proved valid by the embargo, and the question became not whether the government should subsidize the production of synfuels but rather how fast and in what manner. In 1977, the U.S Department of Energy was created as a reaction to these concerns.

Kentucky's Place in Historical Perspective
Having immense resources of both high- and low-sulfur coal and being home to a large petroleum refining company which relied heavily on imported oil, Kentucky quickly became a focal point of synfuels development. In 1972, about a year prior to the Arab oil embargo, the Kentucky General Assembly appropriated $400,000 to establish the Kentucky Coal Utilization Research Program in the University of Kentucky Institute for Mining and Minerals Research (IMMR). The Coal Research Program was focused on improvement of mining techniques and characterization of Kentucky's coal resources.

State government took several steps to ensure Kentucky's unequaled ability to attract additional federal government and industry participation in synfuels development. In 1974 the General Assembly approved the request of Governor Wendell Ford to create the Energy Development and Demonstration Trust Fund and authorized up to $50 million for projects to be approved by the Fund's governing board. The General Assembly also appropriated $3.7 million for coal research to support the demonstration projects and $4 million for construction of a state-of-the-art coal research laboratory.

A Laboratory Begins
By Executive Order in August, 1975, Governor Julian Carroll further strengthened the synfuels-focused energy research program in Kentucky by establishing the Kentucky Center for Energy Research to administer the demonstration program and related laboratory research and also to conduct non-laboratory research relating to markets, policies, environmental concerns, etc. The Center was also given responsibility for technology transfer and manpower training programs. A separate Executive Order created the Kentucky Department of Energy to administer joint federal and state programs for emergency energy allocation and energy conservation.

Construction of the Kentucky Center for Energy Research Laboratory was completed and operation begun in July, 1976. In the same year, the General Assembly in special session, appropriated additional funds of $1.25 million to complete the initial equipping of the laboratory. The IMMR, which had directed and carried out the laboratory research program now implemented the program under contract with the Center for Energy Research.

Thus, in about four years, from mid-1972 to June, 1976, Kentucky had established the nation's leading program in energy research and demonstration. The rather modest beginnings of the $400,000 appropriated in 1972 for the IMMR Coal Utilization Research Program expanded into a $ 55 million demonstration trust fund, the beginning of partnerships with industry and the federal government for several major coal conversion projects, and the construction and equipping of a $5.25 million energy research laboratory.

Early Research Projects
In May, 1980, the Catlettsburg H-Coal liquefaction facility, the largest ever built in the U.S., began operating. Also in 1980, the Commonwealth, USDOE, Ashland Oil, and Airco initiated engineering planning for a commercial scale H-Coal plant in Breckenridge County. The Commonwealth contributed funds for part of the costs of design and ultimate construction of the plant; purchased options for the plant site; and conducted research at the Center for Applied Energy Research on conversion of various Kentucky coals. In 1980 engineering design and site acquisition for a commercial plant to employ indirect liquefaction technology utilized in South Africa to produce motor fuels was begun.

A program was begun in the laboratory in FY 1981 to develop a fluidized bed technology for retorting Kentucky oil shale. This technology was selected because of its potential for extracting greater amounts of oil from Kentucky shale than possible with typical retorting due to certain physical and chemical characteristics of the Kentucky shale. A bench-scale retort was constructed and experimentation got underway that year.

FY 1982 was a very important year for research at the laboratory. Two major pilot-scale units for development of synfuels processes and catalysts and for development of Atmospheric Fluidized Bed Combustion were begun. The Center's capability in synfuels research was increased greatly by installation of the Prototype Integrated Process Unit (PIPU), a 10 pound per hour continuous-flow coal liquefaction mini-plant to provide support for the H-Coal plant and to test data on a variety of other liquefaction processes. The unit became operational in FY 1984.

Because Kentucky coals, unlike those from other states, had not been tested to determine their liquefaction suitability, they were in danger of not being considered for use in synfuels production by industrial synfuels development as the nation's synfuels program of the 1980's got underway. A large program of testing Kentucky coals in the PIPU established Kentucky coals as having positive liquefaction characteristics. The industrial-scale testing of various processes and analysis of performance of various catalysts made possible by the PIPU were major factors in Kentucky's assuming a continuing national leadership role in liquefaction and development of more effective catalysts necessary for coal conversion.

In the area of coal combustion, the laboratory made a major commitment with the construction of a 1.2 Megawatt Atmospheric Fluidized BW Combustion (AFBC) pilot unit. The unit was funded by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. From 1982 until 1992, the pilot AFBC unit tested the combustion behavior of all Kentucky coals and the sorbency of dozens of limestones. The unit provided direct and continuing research support for the 20 MW pilot AFBC unit constructed by TVA at Shawnee Power Plant and for the world's first utility scale AFBC unit - a 160 MW unit which was constructed at Shawnee by a consortium consisting of TVA, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, U.S. Department of Energy, CSX Railroad, Duke Power, and Peabody Coal. The unit is now operating as part of the TVA power system and is proving the economic and technical feasibility of AFBC. The research at the laboratory in support of the 20 MW and 160 MW units consisted of coal and limestone testing and characterization, and development of metal and other materials used in the bed and other parts of the units, development of pneumatic coal feed systems and troubleshooting.

Closely related to the work in AFBC, the CAER initiated research concerning utilization of coal combustion by-products in FY 1982-83. The research began with investigations of the use of combinations of fly ash and AFBC spent-bed material to produce a concrete for use in filling augur holes and as underground structural pillars and ultimately having commercial construction and road building applications. In FY 1984, the work was expanded to agricultural use of AFBC spent-bed material as a lime substitute and soil amendment and environmental consequences associated with landfill disposal of AFBC solid wastes.

Restructuring and Progression
By Executive Order in 1982, Governor John Y. Brown, Jr., restructured the Kentucky Department of Energy and changed its name to Kentucky Energy Cabinet. The research program of the laboratory continued to be conducted by the University of Kentucky Institute of Mining and Minerals Research under contract to the Energy Cabinet. In 1986, the contract for conducting the research program at the Center for Energy Research Laboratory was moved by the Kentucky Energy Cabinet from IMMR to the University of Louisville. In the same year, the Center for Energy Research Laboratory was renamed the Kentucky Energy Cabinet Laboratory. The 1988 General Assembly made the Commonwealth's energy research program the responsibility of the University of Kentucky.

In May, 1983, CAER initiated the Hope Creek Project to determine the most environmentally sound way to dispose of oil shale from which the oil has been extracted and to find economical ways to utilize the spent shale. About 1,l00 tons of retorted Kentucky shale has been disposed of at the Hope Creek site in various ways to test for compaction, slope stability, and leaching. Agricultural tests have shown that some spent shales are very useful as a soil substitute.

In January, 1986, the U.S synfuels demonstration program ended with the abolishment of the Synthetic Fuels Corporation. Continuing low prices for oil and lack of support for government investment in synfuels combined to undermine the large demonstration program, but concern over the nation's increasing reliance on foreign oil maintained support for research with the goal of reducing the price of synfuels. Kentucky's clear leadership in research in liquefaction and gasification processes and in coal conversion ensured that synfuels research at the Kentucky Energy Cabinet Laboratory would continue and even increase. On July 1, 1988, the energy laboratory was renamed the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research.

In the '90s
After 1990, the Center for Applied Energy Research assumed total responsibility for conducting the Commonwealth's energy research program. In 1990, Governor Wallace G. Wilkinson by Executive Order abolished the Energy Cabinet and alternate energy duties were placed in the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet Coal policy and market development duties were placed in the Governor's Office for Coal and Energy Policy.

In the 1990's, conversion of coal to liquid fuels and chemicals has continued to be very important. Because of rapidly declining U.S. reserves of petroleum and natural gas and the nation's increasing dependence on imported oil, the US Department of Energy has established the goal of reducing the costs of liquefaction from the mid-$30 range to be cost competitive with the mid-$20 world cost of petroleum. The leadership established by CAER in the 1970's and 1980s is bringing to the Center new and expanded research projects in conversion of coal to transportation fuels and chemicals to help meet the national goal. By the early 1990's, CAER had developed a leading array of liquefaction reactor types, ranging from the large 1/8 tpd PIPU to sets of reactors to test catalysis. Also, CAER had established a leading research and laboratory equipment capability for producing and testing catalysts. Carbon materials research has also become a growing effort.

Starting in FY 1991, a three-year project was begun which by FY 1994 had successfully developed and tested catalysts and operating methods to the output of the Fischer Tropsch slurry phase liquefaction process which is the indirect liquefaction process developed by Germany prior to World War II and utilized by South Africa to produce nearly all of the country's transportation fuels. This project attracted more than $2.7 million in outside funding. In FY 1994-95, the successful work was extended into a new three-year $4.7 million contract to develop, test, and scale-up iron-based Fischer-Tropsch catalysts at a LaPorte, Texas, pilot plant.

Concern over the potential costs and environmental liabilities of coal combustion byproduct disposal led to the Coolside Project in FY 1991. The project explored alternative uses of the naturally cement-forming desulfurization byproducts and fly ash and will also determine the long-term stability of Coolside materials both in the laboratory and under natural weathering conditions at the CAER field test site in Montgomery County.

Beginning in May, 1992, CAER undertook the first three-year-phase of the Advanced Concepts for Coal Liquefaction program, sponsored by the DOE for $2.1 million. The first phase goal was to evaluate process concepts that effect a reduction in the cost of producing coal liquids in a two-stage direct liquefaction process. In FY 1994-95, a second-phase contract, valued at $4.45 million, was obtained from DOE. This work is to evaluate the concepts defined in phase I on a larger scale in a continuous bench scale testing program involving a collaboration among Hydrocarbon Technologies, Inc.; LDP Associates; CONSOL, Inc.; and Sandia National Laboratories.

By FY 1991, the emphasis in CAER combustion research shifted from AFBC, which had become a mature technology in use at utility scale, to dry-coal cleaning and control of flue-gas emissions. In FY 1993 major work was done with a laboratory circulating-bed absorption system to help in development with TVA of Gas Suspension Absorption, one of 45 Clean Coal Technologies being developed in the $7.2 billion (federal state, and industry) USDOE Clean Coal Technology program. The GSA demonstration at Shawnee Power Plant has shown S02 emission reductions of over 90 percent and very good removal of elements and compounds identified by the Environmental Protection Administration as air toxics. One of the first of the 45 CCTs being demonstrated in the USDOE Clean Coal Technology Program, a full-scale GSA unit is being installed at the 50 MWe municipal power station in Hamilton, Ohio. The unit is scheduled for operation soon and is considered the least cost alternative to meet the 1997 Clean Air Act standards.

To comply with the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions reduction requirements of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, a number of utilities are installing low NOx burners on coalfired generating units. Recognizing that the market for fly ash as a cement substitute in concrete is being hindered by the increased carbon that remains in fly ash in units that utilize low-NOx burners, the CAER in FY 1994 began assessing the impact of low NOx burner conversion on fly ash quality and development of methods for removal of the carbon. The Center's work concentrates on both dry and wet methods for separating and recovering carbon from ash, and reusing the materials in other useful applications. The CAER successfully licensed a wet ash beneficiation technology to Advanced Pozzolon Technologies, Inc. Of Atlanta, GA. The Center's work related to dry separation technologies for beneficiating ash employing triboelectrostatic processing techniques has attracted the interest of the electric utility industry as well.

In FY 1995, the catalysis expertise of the CAER was extended to the increasingly important problem of low-cost production of reformulated gasoline (RFG), in which aromatics associated with ozone formation have been reduced. The use of RFG is required by the Environmental Protection Agency in a number of urban areas. Supported by grants from USDOE, CAER is making significant progress in preparation, activation, and utilization of sulfated zirconia catalysts in production of the high octane paraffins needed for RFG production. Also, research was begun to convert the product from the pyrolysis of biomass to oxygenates for use in RFG. In FY 1994, the catalysis program also developed a more effective catalyst for producing naphtha from coal.

The scope of the coal cleaning endeavors has broadened considerably, using a base of expertise in separations and surface chemistry to develop novel technologies and to improve existing ones for the recovery, handling and dewatering of fine particles. Concerted efforts are being made to diversify and develop technologies for the resolution of problems in wastewater treatment, as well as more traditional research in trying to resolve immediate or near-term problems faced by the coal, utility, and related industries.

Materials research projects are principally concerned with carbons, carbon-containing materials, and nanophase materials. One area of focus includes the synthesis of catalysts and materials, and novel carbon materials (e.g, fullerenes, nanotubes and intercalation compounds) by laser pyrolysis. Activated carbon from wood precursers is another growing field of interest.

Today, the CAER conducts a multifaceted energy research program which evolved over a twenty year period as Kentucky first adopted a leadership position in synfuels research. Kentucky remains a national leader in synfuels research.

The Center's broad mission statement continues to be: to conduct basic and applied research designed to generate information on the character and use of Kentucky energy resources; to ascertain associated environmental impacts; and to produce, test, and evaluate new technologies in the Kentucky regional setting. The University of Kentucky provides the environment for the pursuit of these goals, which further defines the aim of instruction and service in all of the Center's endeavors. In addition the technology needs of the Commonwealth of Kentucky are shared by other states and other nations, and the fulfillment of the Center's mission is best served by extending its interests and activities into the national and international arenas. The translation of these objectives into research projects presents a constantly changing scene, as technologies advance and are supplanted, and as needs and priorities change. As a consequence, the Center's forward planning, strategy, and organizational structure are constantly under review to assume our ability to respond to prevailing and future situations. For the future, our challenge is to continue to excel. The key to success is to recognize and adapt to change as technologies advance and priorities alter.


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