China and Utah don’t seem like they have much in common, but like all governments, they have environmental and economic problems to solve.

One of China’s most pervasive problems is pollution. The country’s coal factories power urban expansion, but the climate can’t handle the waste. A Chinese embassy reported in 2006 that more than 70 percent of the country’s lakes and rivers were polluted, and in 2007, The New York Times stated that nearly 500 million Chinese lacked access to clean drinking water.

In Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert struggles with the state’s 7.4 percent unemployment rate. So in a move to provide ecological benefits for China and economic development for Utah, Herbert signed a memorandum of understanding in April with Zhao Fuxi, mayor of the Jinshan District of Shanghai, to authorize technology exchanges for projects with different foci, including health-care products and medical devices. Utah companies will invest money and manpower into China, Herbert said.

“They’re looking for ways to improve their quality of life and environment. We’re looking for ways to improve our economy,” he said.

Hard Work and High Hopes

The Jinshan Clean Energy Project is a good example. Scientists at the University of Utah, Utah State University and Brigham Young University (BYU) created the technology to convert China’s agricultural waste into power or fuel. It’s a potential solution for farms, where animal waste can contaminate water and irrigation supplies.

“If you have that many animals together, it becomes a significant pollution problem,” said Lynn Astle, retired director of technology transfer at BYU and current CEO of Cosmas, a start-up that creates catalysts to facilitate chemical reactions. Cosmas is one of four companies in the Utah Clean Energy Alliance (UCTA) that’s partnering with the Jinshan District on the project. Andigen, AD Technologies and Ceramatec are the other alliance members.

One of the two initial project phases was completed in spring 2011, just before Herbert signed the memorandum. An anaerobic digester — which turns waste into biogas — was installed in the Jinshan Dairy.

But the biogas is a highly corrosive mixture of methane, carbon dioxide, water vapor and hydrogen sulfide, which must be cleaned up before it can be used. “The hydrogen sulfide and water vapor in that gas just destroys equipment that would like to burn that gas to make electricity or if you want to use that gas to make liquid fuel biodiesel,” said Jaron Hansen, a chemistry professor at BYU. Jaron Hansen partnered with Lee Hansen, another chemistry professor of no relation, to invent a system to remove corrosive materials from the biogas. The professors patented and licensed the system to AD Technologies.

Phase two of the project involves installing the clean-up technology. Gas created by the anaerobic digesters will be pumped into heated canisters containing zeolite, an absorbent mineral. Jaron Hansen likened the zeolite to a sponge that sops up most of the hydrogen sulfide and water vapor. Remaining methane and carbon dioxide are then ready to process into renewable energy.

At this stage, biogas can run generators and produce electricity — but Astle and his colleagues see more potential. They plan to deploy technology to turn the biogas into synthetic gas that can be converted into diesel fuel, which could be more rewarding commercially. “As oil prices keep going up, the profit of making diesel keeps going up and electricity stays pretty cheap,” Astle said.

The anaerobic digestion process also leaves behind compost which can be used for fertilizer. Astle said the ratio of methane to carbon dioxide or other gases produced by the process depends on what material is fed into the digester. Adding plant material,for example, can increase gas production. “You have all these different sources. You have human waste, animal waste, plant waste [and] municipal garbage,” he said. “They can all go in the anaerobic digester.”

Andigen provided the anaerobic digester, which includes tanks roughly 13.5 feet in diameter and 32 feet high. Operators dilute the manure with water to create a mix that is 8 to 10 percent solid content — a “sweet spot” for optimum digester operation, said to Andigen President Jacob Dustin.

In January, the UCTA applied for $1 million in funding from Jinshan for phase three of the clean energy project. Ceramatec has equipment that converts biogas into synthesis gas, and a device known as Fischer-Tropsch (FT) reactor that converts synthesis gas into liquid fuel. Cosmas is developing catalysts, which are groups of metallic particles, that go inside the reactor to facilitate conversion.

Astle isn’t sure when the funding will be approved, but anticipates matching funds from the National Science Foundation, which previously financed Cosmas’ catalyst development. Federal aid supported much of the UCTA’s work in early phases of the project. If engineers get the green light, they’ll build an FT reactor in either an Ogden, Utah, dairy or a sewage treatment plant in Provo. After test trials, the reactor and biogas converter will be manufactured on a large scale throughout China.

Astle and colleagues expect a bright future for their companies, and Herbert expects more jobs for local taxpayers. According to UCTA literature, the only FT reactors operating today are large plants that are too big for smaller sites like dairies and farms, and there’s no commercial source for catalysts yet. The opportunity could be ripe for Ceramatec and Cosmas to fill this void with their offerings.

Help Abroad

The UCTA has made great progress already thanks to coordination by the Chinese partners. In 2005, Shawn Hu co-founded Honde Environmental, a China-based company that handles environmental clean-up. Honde employees and contractors oversaw construction of Jinshan’s anaerobic digester and gas conditioner.

The project took five months, a remarkably quick completion. “Normally this kind of project would take two years in China,” he said.

Hu also has ties to Utah. From 1995 to 2005, he worked as a state trade representative to arrange trips for Chinese delegates. He built relationships between the two regions that laid the groundwork for the clean energy project and impressed Zhao Fuxi when he visited Utah last December and saw demonstrations on what local technology could do. “The Utah side successfully sold the idea to the district mayor,” Hu said.

The Jinshan project isn’t the only promising partnership on the horizon between countries. In 2010, Utah and the Qinghai province began an alliance to develop clean energy technologies. The alliance became an official U.S.-China Ecopartnership in May 2011, and Qinghai has invested 2 million Chinese renminbi ($300,000 US) for development. 

“They want to better their economy; we want to better our economy,” Herbert said. “We believe that if we work together, we can have mutually beneficial outcomes.”

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.