Carbon research aims to increase coal industry's viability
For decades, Gillette has occupied its rightful place as the leader of the nation’s coal industry. Dubbed the “Energy Capital of the Nation,” the Powder River Basin is responsible for about a third of the country’s energy. But with clean-air regulations and investments in renewable energy sources threatening the sustainability of an economy built on coal, the region’s leaders are working to diversify by turning once again to its top resource — coal.
Led by the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources, researchers and business leaders are looking for ways to turn carbon dioxide, the gas emitted during coal combustion, into commercial products.
“Anyone from Gillette or from the state of Wyoming realizes how big a piece of the economy coal is — all those jobs, all those taxes. What we’re trying to do is find a pathway to ensure the viability of the industry long into the future,” says Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority. “We can debate climate change and global warming, but that’s fruitless undertaking. Instead, we’re looking at ways to address those carbon emissions yet maintain the viability of the industry moving forward to ensure those jobs and that tax base stay in the region for a long time.”
From Liability to Asset
The Wyoming Infrastructure Authority is managing construction of the private/public-funded Wyoming Integrated Test Center (ITC) at Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s Dry Fork Station near Gillette. The facility will provide a space for researchers and companies to test carbon capture technology as well as study the ability to turn emissions into marketable products. One confirmed tenant is the XPrize Foundation, which sponsors research competitions around the world.
“They are going to conduct their Carbon XPrize competition at the facility. The goal of the competition is to find a technology that can successfully capture carbon dioxide from a power plant and then convert it into some other marketable product, such as carbon fiber, toothpaste or building materials,” Begger says.
The ITC will also serve as a pipeline for the groundbreaking research and development efforts of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources.
“We are taking approaches to protect existing markets — primarily power generation — and to create new markets, such as advanced materials and chemicals. We are developing technologies to reduce and manage carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that burn coal. We are also developing technologies to produce important materials like carbon fiber of various types and chemicals from coal using low-intensity conversion processes that result in very low carbon dioxide footprint,” says Mark Northam, executive director of the School of Energy Resources.
A Jump-start for Jobs
If the proposal for an Advanced Carbon Products Innovation Center is approved, researchers will have yet another ally in the quest to bring new carbon technologies and products to market. Energy Capital Economic Development applied for a grant from the Wyoming Business Council to build a pilot plant for companies looking to commercialize its research.
“What we found is that the University of Wyoming, in partnering with other organizations, has conducted a lot of research around advanced carbon products. That research has been very successful in the lab, but none of it has been commercialized,” says Phil Christopherson, CEO of Energy Capital Economic Development. “What [researchers] need is a pilot plant to take research from the lab to plant production, and that’s what the innovation center will do.”
Christopherson says Campbell County is ripe for such endeavors because of another important resource: its workforce.
“Gillette has such a skilled workforce. We have a lot of engineering and design and manufacturing capabilities that exist already,” he says. “We’re also talking with Gillette College and the University of Wyoming about how we can prepare students for future jobs these technologies will bring.”