Prairie Research Institute (PRI) leads applied research in biofuels, carbon capture and storage, critical minerals, geothermal energy and hydrogen storage, helping to advance Illinois, and the world, toward a more sustainable future.
PRI scientists investigate innovative ways to transform waste into biofuel.
Algae, for example, can be grown to produce fuel, but current methods are costly. In a project funded by DOE, PRI scientists are working to improve algal growth rates by re-using two types of waste: municipal wastewater and CO2 captured from power plants. Using these waste products to grow algae could make the cost of algal biofuels competitive with fossil fuels.
Municipal wastewater can be used to feed algae because it contains high nutrient concentrations that must be removed before the water is sanitized and released. Traditional nutrient removal processes involve a series of biological and chemical methods. If the nutrients are used to grow algae, then the costs of removing those nutrients go down, while algae growers do not need to purchase nutrient products.
Algae grow and can uptake CO2 faster than any other photosynthetic crop. Feeding captured CO2 from power plants into algal growth tanks can boost growth rates and enable power plants to reduce their carbon emissions.
PRI scientists also are designing and synthesizing innovative catalysts for efficient conversion of biocrude oil and demonstrating their effectiveness for converting biocrude oils into various useful hydrocarbons and transportation fuels.
PRI collaborates with Illinois power plants to implement advanced technologies that remove carbon from emissions so it can be stored underground or re-used in processes that meet environmental and safety compliance at large scales.
With a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, PRI and industry partners are working on a front-end engineering design (FEED) study to retrofit the Prairie State Generating Company in Marissa (St. Clair County) with a system capable of capturing more than 90 percent of the facility’s carbon emissions. The plan is to incorporate additional carbon offset strategies to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions.
At City, Water, Light, and Power (CWLP) in Springfield (Sangamon County), PRI is overseeing a large pilot test of the performance, safety, and environmental compliance of a carbon capture technology developed by Linde Gas North America and BASF. Backed by an additional $25 million DOE grant, PRI also leads a project to design an innovative, next-generation power plant at CWLP that uses multiple techniques to both reduce emissions and capture and re-use carbon dioxide.
Two DOE-supported carbon-capture research projects are ongoing at U of I’s Abbott Power Plant. PRI is working with industry partner LInde to test three technologies for reducing aerosol particle concentrations in flue gas. This work could help make solvent-based carbon capture technology more economical at commercial scales. The second project is advancing the development of a CO2 absorption technology that could dramatically improve energy efficiency, lower the equipment cost and footprint, and maintain operational simplicity.
For almost 20 years, PRI geologists and engineers have been developing methods for the safe capture, storage, and re-use of CO2 from power plants and industrial operations, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The geology of Illinois is ideal for safe CO2 storage, and multiple federally funded projects have generated nearly $225 million in investment.
From 2011–2014, the Illinois Basin- Decatur project (IBDP), a collaboration between PRI, the Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM), Schlumberger Carbon Services, and other subcontractors, stored approximately 1 million metric tons of CO2—all the carbon emissions from ADM’s biofuel plant operations—into the Mt. Simon Sandstone, in Decatur, paving the way for commercial use of the sandstone for CO2 storage. This world-class project gained one of the first EPA Underground Injection Control Class VI permits (for wells used for geologic sequestration of CO2) and has garnered international interest, with over 700 visitors from 29 countries.
The Illinois Storage Corridor project aims to accelerate commercial deployment of carbon capture, utilization, and storage within the Illinois Storage Corridor, a region with proven geologic storage performance and numerous industrial carbon sources. Supported by a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the project involves characterizing and constructing two carbon storage sites: one near the One Earth Energy ethanol facility in Gibson City, Illinois, and a second at the Prairie State Generating Company in Marissa, Illinois. Combined the sites will have the capacity to store 6.5 million metric tons of CO2 annually.
With industry and research partners and an $11 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, PRI is conducting a Phase 2 commercial-scale initial characterization of a potential CO2 storage site in Macon County.
Mineral resources are essential to many advanced technologies that we rely on for national defense, transportation, and the expansion of renewable energy infrastructure. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has designated more than 50 elements and compounds as “critical minerals” and launched the Earth Mapping Resources Initiative to increase knowledge of the domestic distribution and concentration of these commodities.
Areas of Illinois show potential for containing multiple critical mineral resources. Geochemical reconnaissance, subsurface mapping, and geophysical surveys are being conducted to locate these resources, including rare earth elements (REEs) that are primary targets of multiple projects co-led by the Illinois State Geological Survey, part of PRI.
PRI leads efforts to leverage Illinois’ favorable groundwater conditions to develop reliable, sustainable, cost-effective geothermal power.
This includes investigating the feasibility of tapping the geothermal energy resources in the Illinois Basin for heating and cooling of large facilities, such as universities and military bases. PRI scientists played a key role in implementing a geothermal exchange system for the University of Illinois’ newly constructed Campus Instructional Facility, which will reduce the facility’s energy use by 58%.
Long-duration, low-emission energy storage at the utility scale is one of the major challenges to address during the clean energy transition. Hydrogen is a high-energy content fuel that is produced with low or zero emissions from a variety of feedstocks. Underground hydrogen storage is an option for long-duration energy storage that could be used to increase output from low-carbon power generators and balance energy supply and demand variations. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that by 2050 over 100 million metric tons (MMT) per year of hydrogen will be required to fuel power generation, transportation, refining, and ammonia/biofuels sectors of the United States’ sustainable economy. This can only be met by the subsurface storage of hydrogen. The USGS, national laboratories, state surveys including the Illinois State Geological Survey, and industry partners are accelerating research, demonstration projects, and screening evaluations (particularly in the Midwest, and specifically within the Illinois Basin) regarding subsurface storage.