Leveraging Alternative Uses for Coal in Carbon Valley

The State of Wyoming is the largest coal mining U.S. state, with 65% of the economy tied to this sector. Since early 2000s, market forces – including the low price of natural gas and advances in renewable energy extraction – have contributed to the steep drop in coal production as electricity generation has shifted from coal to gas, wind and solar. Increased regulations to limit the release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere has also been a contributing factor of coal decline. What does this mean for states whose economy runs primarily off coal mining?

To reduce the amount of carbon emissions while still utilizing the abundancy of resources available in the state, academic experts, state government officials, business executives and others in Wyoming have joined forces to produce viable alternative commercial and clean applications for coal.

Through various initiatives, active research and development is presently underway in Carbon Valley. The Wyoming Integrated Test Center (ITC), located in Gillette, and the Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion (CCCC) based at the University of Wyoming, Laramie, both develop new high-volume uses for coal and explore new commercial opportunities within the evolving carbon market. The Wyoming Innovation Center, slated to open in June 2022, will provide a pre-commercialization hub where tenants can test and refine new clean products made from the region’s Powder River Basin coal.

So far, news coming out of the ITC and CCCC has been encouraging; alternative commercial applications for coal showing promise include:

Extraction of dysprosium and neodymium-iron-boron (Neo) from coal ash – The first element is used for making, no- reflective glass, LED TV, laser materials and commercial lighting and is increasingly in demand for the manufacturing of magnets used in electric-car motors and wind-turbine generators. The second, is a component in the alloys used to make powerful magnets used in such products as microphones, professional loudspeakers, in-ear headphones and computer hard disks.

Using coal to produce concrete, asphalt, mortar and bricks – The porous aspect of the material not only makes such by-products lighter but also more heat absorbent. To date, 4,000 bricks made out of coal have been created and the next step is to build a prototype house with these bricks as a proof of concept.

Coal gasification – This existing process is versatile and represents a clean method of converting coal into hydrogen and other valuable products as well as electricity. Typically, in modern gasifiers, coal is exposed to steam and carefully controlled amounts of air or oxygen under high temperatures and pressures. The molecules in coal break apart, initiating chemical reactions that produce synthesis gas (syngas), hydrogen, carbon monoxide and other gaseous compounds. Syngas produced worldwide has been used mainly for chemical production and liquid/motor fuels, power generation and gaseous fuels. In Wyoming, we are in the research stages with hope to activate these projects soon.

Soil Amendments – Coal Pyrolysis is the process of heating coal to high temperatures without the presence of oxygen. During the process are used to remove volatiles from the coal and create a coal char. The coal char when used as a soil amendment can reduce the need for fertilizers and while also helping to reduce carbon emissions. The char is porous, has a high pH and carbon content and has a much slower decomposition rate than other amendments. All of these characteristics contribute to improve soil health.

Filtering of water – Activated carbon is the ideal water filter because it removes toxins from the water without stripping the water of salts and important minerals.

Moving out of the lab to identify real world applications

The Wyoming ITC provides space for researchers to test Carbon Capture, Utilization and Sequestration (CCUS) technologies using 20 MW of actual coal derived flue gas. It is one of a handful of such facilities around the world and only the second one in the United States with flue gas available for larger scale testing. While many carbon capture technologies are being developed and studied in laboratory settings, the ITC is one of the only research and testing facilities located at an operating generation facility. Laboratories cannot mimic the real-world conditions of a functioning coal-fired power plant which helps alleviates typical concerns over being able to scale technology from a lab to commercial operation.

The CCCC at the University of Wyoming’s (UW) School of Energy Resources is a collaborative group of research scientists and entrepreneurs focused on supporting the future of Wyoming coal and creating economic development and diversification opportunities. Although the primary function of the CCCC is to identify the marketable properties of higher-value clean byproducts of coal, it also seeks to establish a sustainable demand for coal as an energy fuel by developing and supporting technologies that permit clean, high efficiency combustion with integrated CO2 capture that are technically and economically viable. The Center is working with the Wyoming oil and gas industry to host a pre-commercial demonstration of flameless pressurized (FPO) oxy-fuel combustion, incorporating CO2 utilization.

Once open, the Wyoming Innovation Center will provide a nearly 10-acre site where tenants can utilize test, lab and office spaces as the develop products like asphalt, graphene, graphite, agricultural char, carbon fiber and more – using coal, coal byproducts and rare earth elements.

Learn more about the research happening here in Carbon Valley at www.cvalleywy.com/innovation.