The Industrial Revolution picked up steam (literally), and by the mid-19th century, society got a turbo boost from more reliable energy sources such as coal, oil and natural gas. Nuclear energy entered the fray in the 1960s and modern renewables, namely solar and wind, emerged two decades later.
Despite this perceived evolution of energy over the last few hundred years, fossil fuels remain the dominant source in the United States.
At West Virginia University, researchers across varying disciplines including geology, forestry and engineering are exploring alternative and sustainable pathways to power the nation.
And as Erienne Olesh, executive director of student and faculty innovation at the WVU Research Office, says, “We’re not going to be turning off one power source and turning on another the next day.”
In fall 2022, Olesh helped organize the Evolving Energy Conference at WVU, bringing together government, academic and business leaders to focus on the next steps to the future of energy in Appalachia.
Traditional energy sources will persist, Olesh acknowledged, but using them in a more sustainable, carbon-friendly fashion is the new name of the game, on top of spurring other energy transitions and innovations.
The goal is not so much a revolution, but an evolution.
Renewable fuel, resurrected land
Researchers at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design are looking beyond fossil fuels for renewable sources.
Jingxin Wang, associate director for research in the Division of Forestry and Natural Resources and director of the WVU Center for Sustainable Biomaterials and Bioenergy, is leading a regional group of universities, national laboratories, government agencies and industry partners known as the Mid-Atlantic Sustainable Biomass for Value-Added Products Consortium. With the aid of a $10 million competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the team is in the third year of a five-year study on biomass as a sustainable and renewable source of energy.
Half of the total renewable energy generation in the United States consists of bioenergy, which includes the use of biomass — organic materials like wood, agricultural residues and fast-growing energy crops.
“We have a lot of biomass resources in the region,” Wang said. Logging residue — the leftover from harvesting, woody material unfit for commercial use — is abundant in West Virginia; however, Wang and his teammates are also looking at sources like switchgrass, sorghum and shrub willow.
One of bioenergy’s challenges is finding a suitable location for growing these kinds of crops. Wang said that reclaimed surface mine land, which is prevalent in West Virginia, can be a good option.
“People talk about using these lands for solar energy,” he said. “Well, we can use these lands for energy crops and at the same time reclaim them to promote environmental protection.”
Shrub willow grows at 10 times the rate of a forest, and one acre can produce a year’s worth of energy for the average home.
Willow chips are also used to produce biochar, a charcoal-like byproduct of burning organic matter in a low-oxygen environment. Biochar’s many benefits include improving soil quality, water filtration and imparting a resistance to decomposition. It also supports a healthy microorganism community and reduces nutrient runoff.
Biochar naturally stores carbon from the atmosphere in a process called carbon sequestration. It’s an effective way to trap the greenhouse gas, which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere during logging.
To study the biomass potential of switchgrass and shrub willow, Wang and the MASBio team are monitoring sample plots of each at the WVU Agronomy Farm. Plots are randomly assigned a soil amendment, like biochar, to determine the most effective way to support growth. Once the crops have reached maturity, they’ll be harvested and chipped. In addition to use as biofuel or being reduced back to biochar, the harvested materials might also become renewable engineered products.
“They have a lot of potential uses,” Wang said. “Even higher value-added products; we can use it for a bioadhesive and in nanomaterials.”
Biomass trials are being conducted in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. And while the study at the WVU Agronomy Farm follows biomass crops and treatments, the team is also focused on bioenergy as a tool for business development and community engagement. Shawn Grushecky, program coordinator and an assistant professor of energy land management, heads up the outreach.
“This project is a collaborative effort for our region,” he said. “We’re trying to develop more bio-based economies and more business and infrastructure around bioproducts. We want to get this out into communities to engage businesses and organizations and show them the entrepreneurial side.”
The key to expanding the use of bioenergy, Grushecky said, is partnership. WVU has teamed up with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Penn State University, State University of New York, West Virginia State University and University of Wisconsin–Madison on research and development. The USDA Forest Service and Forest Products Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy Oak Ridge and Idaho National Laboratories, and industry partners of all sizes are also collaborating.
Other partnerships have included a biochar amended planting for native pollinators at WVU Jackson’s Mill and with private businesses.
“We have a great example project underway with Snowshoe Mountain Resort right now,” Grushecky said. “They've done a big reclamation job using char. We got the char from Parsons, West Virginia, at the Kingsford manufacturing plant. Kingsford worked with us to get that char. They were great, and it was an in-state project that turned out really well.”
Kingsford’s feedstock comes from wood chips left after hardwood is harvested in the region. The chips, which would otherwise be left to rot, are converted to charcoal briquettes and, in the process, capture carbon.
Through such partnerships as well as in the field, the MASBio team keeps an open mind about biomass’ potential. The possibilities are vast, and many uses have yet to be explored.
“Biomass could be an energy source,” Grushecky said, “It could be used to control sediment runoff, for mulch or even poultry bedding.”
When converted into biochar, biomass may be used in carbon offset projects or for carbon credits.
“A lot of the major companies are doing voluntary carbon markets, which is what we're after,” he said. “Companies like Amazon are making large contributions to conserve forests in the eastern U.S., mainly for carbon-storage projects. People here, right in our state, are doing the same thing, mostly for offsetting their manufacturing and production emissions.”
The sustainability seeker
Shikha Sharma is on the hunt for sustainable energy sources in West Virginia. The geology professor in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences has focused much of her research on hydraulic fracturing of shale, geological carbon storage, geothermal energy and mining of critical and rare earth minerals. She and her students have been monitoring shale drilling and CO2 injection sites to study the interactions between rocks, gas and chemicals, as well as potential problems like methane/CO2 leaks and water supply contamination.
“My research has always revolved around producing energy more sustainably with minimal impact on the environment,” she said, adding that while oil and gas drilling can be controversial, her job is to gather scientific data. “We need to find answers based on data and make science-based decisions.”
The knowledge and skills used to tap into oil and gas reserves can be transferred to develop sustainable resources like geothermal energy. Most geothermal sites live in the western United States, where intense underground heat is easier to access. But possibilities exist for geothermal wells in the Appalachian Basin.
One of Sharma’s next projects will explore the development of a deep direct-use geothermal and underground thermal energy storage system in West Virginia for large-scale residential, commercial and manufacturing heating and cooling.
Sharma is also studying options for carbon sequestration. West Virginia produces some of the highest carbon dioxide levels in the country, but the empty pore spaces left in the old oil and gas reservoirs may have the capacity to permanently store large amounts of CO2 underground.
“If we could identify good sites to put back CO2 underground, it would be a great demonstration to show that, while the power plants in West Virginia generate CO2, we can negate some of these emissions by capturing and storing large quantities of CO2 below ground,” she said.
The technology used to store carbon dioxide might also apply to storing hydrogen, a cleaner energy source than fossil fuels. Sharma recently received funding from the DOE-EPSCoR program to better understand potential environmental impacts of storing hydrogen underground.
“If we move towards a hydrogen economy, we’ll need large-scale hydrogen storage facilities too,” Sharma said. “The Appalachian Basin has lots of large, depleted oil and gas formations and natural gas storage fields that could be used for storing hydrogen in the future.”
Though her research covers a variety of energy sources, Sharma sees common ground.
“In the end, I think all of it is connected because our prime focus is how we can produce energy more sustainably,” she said, and added that students are often surprised that subsurface geology is more than just exploring for coal, oil and gas.
“Geologists are a jack-of-all trades because we use a little bit of math, a little bit of physics, chemistry and biology. But I think that's our strength, as it helps us develop a holistic perspective to address a wide variety of issues related to the sustainable development of earth resources.
“For West Virginia, it's a great time. We think, ‘Oh no, coal mining is going away.’ But we need to look at all the opportunities coming from the development of new sustainable energy technologies, critical and rare earth minerals, CO2 and hydrogen storage.”
It’s a materials world
An absolute unit of a team, the Advanced Energy Materials Research Group brings together more than 20 researchers: faculty, postdocs, graduate students, undergrads.
Right now, the group’s work ranges from exploring ammonia's potential for enabling hydrogen-powered cars to creating a novel 3D metal-printing process to address welding challenges across various high-temperature applications.
Several AEM projects help lay the groundwork for transitioning to a hydrogen-fueled energy economy, with studies that span the hydrogen life cycle to tackle the production, storage and use of hydrogen fuel.
Headed by Xingbo Liu, associate dean for research and Statler Endowed Chair professor of mechanical and aerospace ngineering, AEM designs new technologies, like "reversible" stacks of solid oxide cells that can switch between functioning as solid oxide electrolysis cells that use power to generate hydrogen and solid oxide fuel cells that use hydrogen to generate power.
But the group also adapts the components of existing energy infrastructure and equipment to a hydrogen-powered world. For example, AEM is developing coatings to protect the blades of turbines in existing fossil-fuel power generation plants from the hot, corrosive environment that would be produced by burning hydrogen.
Liu believes a hydrogen future has room for both carbon fuels and renewable energy. While his team currently supports partners including the research group of John Hu, Statler chair of engineering for natural gas utilization, in looking at microwave technology that can generate hydrogen from natural gas, they’re equally intrigued by a different approach: huge thermochemical mirrors that simply use solar heat to create hydrogen from steam.
"Because West Virginia is sitting here in the Marcellus Shale," Liu said, "people often think that when we do hydrogen, it has to be through natural gas conversion. Don't get me wrong – natural gas will be important to a hydrogen economy here. Every day we're helping develop new hydrogen generation technologies that use natural gas.
“But if you go out of Morgantown, on top of the ridges you’ll see so many wind turbines generating power that can be a perfect source for electrolysis. Just because we have natural gas in West Virginia doesn't mean we have to rely on natural gas only. Here, we can do anything that makes sense for us, for the country and for the world."
Last fall, AEM, housed in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, ran 14 concurrent R&D studies into energy technologies, backed by more than $15 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and other external funders, in partnership with organizations like Egypt’s Mansoura University, the National Energy Technology Lab, GE and the University of California, San Diego.
“Universities do fundamental work and early-stage development,” Liu said. “But without industry partners, we end up with some good publications, maybe some patents sitting on a shelf. With early industry involvement, we get real-world input and practical expertise, and our partners can immediately adopt and apply technologies that are successful.
“We pick our projects because they interest us – our research is always fun – but we want what we do to get to people.”
No one knows better than Samuel Taylor, assistant director of strategic partnerships and technology for the WVU Energy Institute, that energy is about more than technology.
Since 2014, the Energy Institute has been “a convener and a coordinator and an idea synthesizer,” Taylor said. “We facilitate collaboration and create teams from across WVU’s academic units to strengthen the University’s research initiatives.”
With Director James Wood and staff, Taylor helps drive collaboration between energy-related disciplines as diverse as land-use law and public health, connecting academia, government and industry.
“We align the engineering piece with policy, innovation and entrepreneurship,” Taylor explained.
One example of the Institute’s focus on synthesizing sustainability and economic opportunity is the rare earth element research pioneered by Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, an Energy Institute member. Ziemkiewicz’s team developed a novel, patented process producing rare earth elements from acid mine drainage while treating the drainage to clean water standards.
In another initiative, part of the Appalachian Climate Technology Now project, the Institute and WVU researchers are working to accelerate mine land reclamation and create sustainable futures for communities previously reliant on coal.
And, with ARC POWER, the Institute is planning grant funding to develop an energy transitions job roadmap, spearheaded by Trina Wafle, one of the Institute’s assistant directors and interim director of the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium. Experts from partners including the West Virginia Community and Technical College System and the West Virginia Department of Economic Development will evaluate development priorities and the workforce required to achieve them.
The Institute is also active in the legislative arena. After Taylor testified on regulatory ambiguities impeding geothermal energy development before the West Virginia Senate in 2022 – “because geothermal heat isn’t a mineral, mineral rights law doesn’t apply here” – the Mountain State’s first geothermal regulatory program was signed into law.
On the federal level, the Institute advocates for research that can produce valuable carbon commodities rather than harmful carbon dioxide during hydrogen generation, with input from WVU faculty.
“This research addresses the big weakness in hydrogen production, which is that we make nine kilos of CO2 for every kilo of hydrogen, and someone’s got to find a home for massive amounts of CO2,” Taylor said, “If we pivot that into a solid carbons problem, WVU researchers can create options for converting the carbon into something useful.”
In addition to awarding seed money to startups, the Institute maintains campus labs available to WVU researchers and outside customers for environmental and engineering projects.
“We’re not affiliated with any college, and that was intentional when WVU created the Energy Institute,” Taylor said. “We engage the incredible strengths across the University, promoting them to everyone we meet. We pull together big ideas and build teams to solve complicated problems, putting WVU’s horsepower to work in the real world.”
The high value placed on partnerships is shared with Olesh, the executive director of student and faculty innovation who hosted the Evolving Energy Conference.
WVU, in fact, is working closely with institutions outside of the state, including Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh on energy-related projects. Teaming up with researchers outside of WVU and the state is crucial to the future of energy production and sustainability, Olesh said.
“Looking at the history of energy production, the Appalachian region has been a primary energy producer for the United States,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity to transition some of our legacy systems and to explore new opportunities. But we must do that in a way that does not discount fossil fuels because those will continue to play a big part in the country’s energy portfolio for at least our lifetime.
Because of West Virginia's and central Appalachia's position in the energy conversation, we'll play a large role in the future of energy for the country. And we need to capitalize on that now."