Bringing thermoelectric tech to the Bakken

In October, a new type of flaring solution based on thermoelectric technology and the use of waste heat to generate electricity will make its Bakken debut.
By Patrick C. Miller | September 16, 2016

Alphabet Energy Inc.—based in Hayward, California—has demonstrated its Power Generation Combustor in the Eagle Ford and Marcellus basins, as well as the oilfields of Alberta, Canada. The technology uses the company’s solid-state, thermoelectric PowerModules to convert heat into electricity.

Matt Scullin, Alphabet Energy’s CEO and founder, believes PGC is the solution to gas flaring and the emission of volatile organic compounds (VOC). Although confidentiality agreements with the operator prevent him from disclosing detailed information about the planned demonstration in the Willison Basin, he says, “It is exciting that we’re getting some units up into the Bakken.”

Earlier this year, Alphabet Energy announced a $23.5 million financing deal with Schlumberger and participation from GM Ventures and Osceola Capital Management LLC. The company has been exploring opportunities in the Bakken and has made adjustments to deal with some of the region’s unique challenges.

“One of the main things is that we’ve developed larger systems that can handle higher flows that are much needed in the Bakken where you have so much wellhead gas that’s being burned,” Scullin explains. “For the long term, the adjustment that we’ve made is going to larger systems because the gas flows up in the Bakken are just so high. So that’s really the direction that the Bakken pushed us toward.”

The high initial production rates of Bakken wells caused Alphabet Energy to scale up PGC to meet the needs of producers.

“You have so much gas coming off the wells in the Bakken and a relative lack of infrastructure to take that to market,” Scullin says. “The customers are demanding a larger system there. That’s where we realize we can help because our system is really quite scalable. It’s very much able to take larger numbers of power modules—our core technology—and put them in larger combustion systems.”

Scullin is a board member of the Heat is Power Association, a policy and advocacy trade group. He has won awards for innovation and entrepreneurship, including the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer award. Before founding Alphabet Energy, Scullin held positions at X/Seed Capital, IBM and General Motors.

A materials scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab for four years, Scullin received his Ph.D. in materials science from the University of California Berkeley. He received a bachelor of science degree in materials science engineering from the University of Pennsylvania where he graduated magna cum laude.

In 2009, Alphabet Energy was formed in Berkeley, California, by Scullin and Peidong Yang, professor of chemistry at the University of California Berkeley. Their intent was to commercialize a new breakthrough in nanostructured materials after licensing key patents and developing manufacturing schemes for modern nanomaterials. In 2014, Alphabet Energy introduced the E1, the first-ever thermoelectric generator for industrial waste-heat recovery. According to the company, it’s the most powerful thermoelectric generator ever built.

Scullin has been to the Bakken and is familiar with the challenges of flaring and waste heat.

“When you’re driving through the Bakken, you notice that there are two streams of gas being wasted,” he says. “One is just coming right off the wellhead which is the source of the really dire lack of pipelines and gathering and collection infrastructure for natural gas.

“And then you also have gases being wasted coming off tank batteries,” he continues. “These are VOCs or tank vapors. In total, you have an enormous amount of gas, an enormous amount of energy and an enormous amount of money that’s being wasted.”

Alphabet Energy’s efforts to expand into the Bakken haven’t been deterred by low oil prices.

“It’s an interesting time because there’s so much optimization going on right now in this low-oil-price environment,” Scullin says. “We have had enormous interest, despite the low prices.”

Technology At Work
A PGC cap is attached to the top of an enclosed flare, capturing high-temperature exhaust that passes through Alphabet Energy’s PowerModules. The flare exhaust is converted into about 7.5 kilowatts of continuous electrical power while still meeting on-site combustion requirements.

Scullin describes the PowerModules as solar panels for heat. While thermoelectric technology is reliable and has been used by the oil and gas industry for years in small applications, Alphabet Energy’s breakthroughs enable it to scale up, producing kilowatts of energy rather than watts.

“We’re doing this with technology that we’ve been developing, scaling and commercializing for about seven years,” he notes. “The oil patch is a very difficult environment to operate in, but because we have partnerships and customers in the automotive industry, we have to build it not only to survive in rough weather, but also on the bottom of a car where there’s vibration and thermal cycling.”

Alphabet Energy says its PowerModule is being used by an automotive OEM and tier-one supplier to address the challenges of improving gas mileage and the need for increased automotive computing power. It’s expected to improve fuel efficiency by five percent, reduce the load on the alternator and generate the necessary electrical power to keep up with the electronics for cars of the future.

According to Alphabet Energy, the PGC is an integrated combustor and solid-state power generator that delivers reliable power and complies with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Quad O performance standard for oil and gas production, transmission and distribution.

It uses waste gas at upstream and midstream sites to reduce venting and open flaring by eliminating the need for traditional on-site power generation and electrical grid connections. The PGC is capable of replacing open and enclosed, combustors, vapor destruction units, and other incinerators at existing and new sites.

“The core technology isn’t brand new. We are coming into the market with good data points from the field at a competitive price,” Scullin notes.

Alphabet Energy says PGC delivers a simple and reliable combined combustor and power generator. The PGC can also accept pipe gas as a fuel source or supplement to waste gas in cases where waste gas streams are highly intermittent or unavailable.

Other advantages of the technology include:

• Power output remaining constant through fluctuations or downturn in waste gas.

• The acceptance of make-up gas to maintain rated power and efficient combustion during waste gas downturn.

• The addition of optional equipment to deal with high- and low-pressure excess waste gas streams.

Alphabet Energy describes the PGC as a turnkey package that includes a PowerModule-based thermoelectric power generator; a Quad O compliant flare combustor; a radiator for cooling; power electronics to deliver high-quality AC power; a forced air blower; and a transportable skid.

Scullin says PGC has a number of advantages over other gas capture technologies.

“The technologies that have been out there to try to generate power from these waste streams have really suffered from two main issues,” he explains. “One is that they’re based on cumbersome, high-maintenance pieces of equipment that have high pressures and rotating machinery. You don’t want to operate something that is complex and costly at all of your well pads.”

The second issue is that technologies using turbines or Rankin-type cycles don’t scale downward well, according to Scullin.

“You really need a lot of gas to make them work,” he says. “You may end up having to pipe the gas to a central location to run a power plant, which just doesn’t make sense.”

PGC is modular, which enables it to be scaled up or down to meet the dynamic nature of Bakken wells.

“We’ve been able to develop the system where our power modules can slide in and out of a combustor,” Scullin explains. “If you have a lot of exhaust, a big combustor, we can put in more power modules.”

In addition, because the system is solid state, Scullin says it’s also robust and reliable.

“It’s pretty much maintenance free,” he notes. “We’ve had it in the oil patch for a couple of years now where it’s been tested in a variety of extreme hot and cold conditions in different parts of the world. It’s very well-suited for remote power generation.”

Growing concerns about state and federal regulations aimed at greatly reducing flaring and fugitive gas emissions make Alphabet Energy’s PGC a good fit for the oil and gas industry in the Bakken, Scullin said.

“Our whole goal is to help the industry with their problems around flaring and power generation, and, in so doing, help the state, help the country and help the local communities with this big issue,” he relates.

“Oil companies and regulators at the state level fear that there could be more shut-ins of wells and significant fines with the amount of flaring being done in the Bakken,” he adds. “By generating power with the PGC, it will pay for itself by providing electricity that a customer would otherwise need to buy or use a diesel generator to produce.”

Scullin says the cost of PGC is competitive for the oil and gas industry and payback can fast. 

“The savings it can provide in offsetting potential fines and shut-in wells is absolutely huge,” he says. “The payback there can be extremely rapid.”

Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, The Bakken magazine