Ambitious agenda, new partnership gas up the IGIT

Natural leader: Renewable natural gas may be the key to meeting global clean-gen energy demands, according to Institute for Gas Innovation and Technology Director Devinder Mahajan.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A new cross-continental collaboration is just one of the innovative energy efforts revving things up inside the Institute for Gas Innovation and Technology.

Stony Brook University’s 15-month-old IGIT is firing on all cylinders on its mission to address current and future power needs through increasingly low-carbon means – including a new memorandum of understanding inked this month with the San Diego-based Center for Sustainable Energy, seen as a major play toward the institute’s zero-emission endgame.

The IGIT champions hydrogen and renewable natural gas technologies, which Director Devinder Mahajan – a chemical engineering professor in SBU’s Materials Science & Chemical Engineering Department – considers a “forward-looking and futuristic approach” to energy generation and distribution.

Mahajan would know. Since completing a 14-year joint appointment with Brookhaven National Laboratory in 2015, the professor has maintained close ties with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Upton-based facility, collaborating frequently with scientists in BNL’s chemistry and energy divisions.

Give it some gas: Stakeholders celebrate the February 2018 opening of the IGIT.

That work keeps Mahajan, who also directs SBU’s Chemical and Molecular Engineering Graduate Program, on the front lines of energy research, where he focuses specifically on low-carbon energy technology development and implementation.

That, of course, is the primary mission of the IGIT, which SBU’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center opened in February 2018 in partnership with multinational utility National Grid. The university-industry partnership is focused on decarbonization and sees renewable natural gas – a methane-based biogas also known as sustainable natural gas – as its best bet.

Whereas natural gas is obtained from non-renewable fossil fuels, RNG comes from renewable organic sources. It can be upgraded to a quality similar to natural gas, and best of all can be delivered to commercial and residential customers via existing gas-grid systems – but only if those system are upgraded also, according to Mahajan.

The professor cites a number of challenges – primarily dangerous gas leaks, “the biggest problem in the industry,” Mahajan said.

“We are looking at better sensors for leak detection,” he added. “And we are also looking at better communication, which is important. For that, we are collaborating with researchers in the [Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology].”

The IGIT conducts its cutting-edge research largely inside AERTC laboratories – “No question about it, a great resource,” according to Mahajan – and boasts a heavy-hitting lineup of energy-industry veterans at the helm. Among them: National Grid President John Bruckner, the institute’s founding member, and IGIT advisor Bob Catell, the former KeySpan and National Grid chairman now chairing the AERTC, among other high-profile gigs.

Along with Cornell University, Attica-based startup Sustainable Dairy Technologies Digester LLC and a host of other private companies, the IGIT is also part of a consortium working with Albany to promote RNG alternatives across the state. And the institute dives deep into new energy-storage technologies, particularly storage protocols designed to work with renewable sources such as solar power and offshore wind.

Mahajan is especially excited about a “three-step process” that uses energy from such clean-gen sources to convert water into hydrogen, which can be stored in metal hydride tubes and used to generate electrical power as needed – a “power to gas to power,” or P2G2P, process that could ultimately address energy needs on a global scale.

The IGIT director, who called the P2G2P potential “huge,” said the institute is aiming to build a hydrogen-generation “demonstration plant” on Long Island – capable of juicing two 5-kilowatt fuel cells – by the end of the summer.

It’s also pursuing an innovative, albeit low-scale, clean-gen project incorporating the tree trunks that pile up when utilities clear right-of-ways, and the branches felled when public works crews trim around power lines. Such “waste wood” can be burned to produce steam, Mahajan noted, and that steam can produce electricity.

Such technology might not solve the world’s energy problems, but could come in handy in case of emergency.

“The idea would be that you can have a couple of these units working together,” Mahajan said. “And in case of a power outage after a storm, you could produce a megawatt of power.”

Both the P2G2P and waste-wood projects factor into the new MoU with the Center for Sustainable Energy, which actually lengthens an existing relationship between Stony Brook and the CSE. The San Diego-based nonprofit administration and advisory-services organization, which focuses squarely on decarbonization, has already invested some $50,000 into AERTC and CEWIT research efforts.

Working more closely with the CSE will help the ambitious IGIT hit the gas, according to Mahajan, who trumpeted an “overall goal of 80 percent of all electricity from decarbonized renewable sources by 2050.”

“When you replace natural gas with RNG, you basically decarbonize electricity,” the professor said. “And after just one year of existence, the gas institute is really honing in.”