National Energy Problems, Policy Bring Colorado State Engineering Lab $1.7 Million to Improve U.S. Gas Pipeline System

During a period of rolling blackouts in the West and a renewed emphasis by the Bush administration on natural gas as a fuel, Colorado State University has received a $1.7 million industry-government award to improve transport in the nation’s natural gas pipeline system.

"By 2020, natural gas usage in the United States will expand by 50 percent from its current annual consumption level of 22 trillion cubic feet," said Bryan Willson, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. Construction of new pipelines is difficult for a number of reasons, "so we need to increase throughput (volume) and improve efficiency with the existing system while reducing the environmental impact of pipeline operation"

The Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, part of the University’s mechanical engineering department, will develop a highly reliable, environmentally friendly and energy-efficient ignition system that can be retrofitted to the natural gas engines that drive compressors powering the nation’s natural gas delivery grid, said Willson, the lab’s research director. He and his colleagues will develop this "micro-pilot ignition system" over the next three years.

Estimates by Willson and Ted Bestor, the engines lab director, suggest about 8,000 of these huge engines are currently fueled by natural gas and fired by spark plugs.

One problem is that these engines are so large (with cylinders up to 22 inches in diameter) that the time it takes for the igniting flame to travel across the engine’s cylinders can limit performance. A second problem is that the spark plugs in these engines wear out every few months. This results in costly shutdowns and increased maintenance costs. With micro-pilot ignition the engines can operate up to 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

A micro-pilot ignition system breaks a few drops of diesel fuel into thousands of tiny droplets that spontaneously ignite due to heat in the engine, effectively creating thousands of tiny spark plugs dispersed through the cylinder.

Although the micro-pilot concept is not new, researchers at Colorado State – the only university to receive a grant for pipeline-related work — will apply it for the first time to the huge two-stroke engines providing pressure for the natural gas pipeline grid nationwide.

Willson, Bestor, and a team of Colorado State students have teamed up with the Woodward Governor Co. in Fort Collins to develop the micro-pilot ignition system. Woodward is the world’s largest manufacturer of controls for large engines and also produces conventional spark ignition systems for large natural gas engines. The company is teamed with the EECL in part to commercialize and to implement rapidly the new technology.

The EECL and Woodward Governor have collaborated in the past, commercializing technology and producing spinoff industries in northern Colorado, in part because of the lab’s excellence in engines and related technology. Willson also noted that Colorado State is one of few U.S. universities conducting research into natural gas pipeline transport.

DOE is funding $600,000 of the project, with the remaining $1.1 million being provided by the natural gas pipeline industry through the Pipeline Research Council and the Gas Technology Institute.

"Prof. Willson and his colleagues have established an outstanding reputation for developing environmental technologies which have been widely adopted," said Neal Gallagher, dean of Colorado State’s College of Engineering. "Projects like this enhance our research reputation, promote economic development in Colorado and provide invaluable experience for the graduate and undergraduate students on the research team."

Kelly Benson, Woodward Governor’s liaison to Colorado State on the project, noted that the project reflects Woodward’s new product development focus.

"Woodward’s excellent economic performance this past year is due to our renewed emphasis on products which improve the combustion process in large engines and gas turbines," Benson said. "This project illustrates that effort and complements recent Woodward acquisitions that established a new ignition products group last fall. This project also reflects the reputation of the EECL for producing solutions to real-world problems."