The Wyoming Innovation Center (WyIC), a 5,500-square-foot coal commercialization facility, has broken ground in Gillette, Wyo., owner Energy Capital Economic Development (ECED) announced. The 9.5-acre site, located in northeast Wyoming’s coal-rich “Carbon Valley” region, will be home to companies and researchers developing commodities like asphalt, graphene, graphite, agricultural char, carbon fiber, and more – using coal and coal byproducts.
The state-of-the-art WyIC will feature two buildings and seven demonstration sites for pilot plants, for private companies and researchers to advance coal-to-product and rare earth element processes. The region holds 500 billion tons of recoverable coal, making it a desirable testbed for new and proven products made from coal.
WyIC’s first tenant is the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), which focuses on applied research for the production and use of clean energy resources.
“A main goal of the Innovation Center is to promote and advance the diversification of Wyoming’s economy utilizing our wealth of raw materials,” said Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, whose state has been the leading coal producer since the 1980s. “Backed by state and federal resources, we’re confident that the facility will facilitate the industry’s sizable economic growth and Wyoming’s undeniable leadership in coal processes and production.”
Tenants at WyIC will focus on evaluating the commercial viability of high-value nonfuel, low- or zero-emissions products made from coal and extracting pivotal rare earth elements found in the fly ash of coal burned at local power plants. The region’s Powder River Basin coal contains high extractable rare earth element content in portions of the coal seams and also particularly in the coal ash materials produced at power plants – used in nuclear reactors, cell phones, magnets, camera lenses, wind turbines, electric cars and more. (The U.S. currently depends on China for as much as 97% of its rare earth element sources.)
“Our goal at this new facility is to analyze the immense potential of rare earth elements and their commercialization – a process that could reduce U.S. dependence on foreign markets,” said Tom Tarka, engineer at NETL. “Northeast Wyoming is a perfect location to begin these studies – with plenty of feedstock and a knowledgeable workforce.”
Construction of the facility is expected to wrap in the fourth quarter of 2021. The completion of the facility will enable NETL’s pilot test to proceed – slated for completion in the third or fourth quarter of 2023.
The WyIC’s 4,000-square-foot building will provide office, lab and workspace for tenants – while a 1,500-square-foot building will be used to handle raw materials. The main draw, however, includes the seven half-acre demonstration sites that function as an open-access platform for tenants to upscale their lab-proven processes from using a few pounds of coal a day to process up to several hundred pounds of coal or coal byproducts daily.
The new center is part of a broader effort to spur innovation in the Carbon Valley, utilizing its natural resources and mines to grow and sustain jobs and advance beneficial environmental studies. The Wyoming Innovation Center is among several projects that are exploring new options to address the entire life cycle of carbon. WyIC focuses on hosting manufacturers who create value-added products from coal and coal byproducts. Other sites in the region – including the Wyoming Integrated Test Center (ITC), adjacent to one of the nation’s cleanest power plants (Dry Fork Station) – continue to study the carbon capture and reuse industry, which will dramatically reduce carbon emissions. The University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources (UW-SER) is also entering Phase III of its CarbonSAFE program – involving safe storage of CO2 beneath the ground.
On the WyIC facility, Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell added: “Lab-level research that is potentially profitable needs to be scaled up to prove the commercialization potential. The Innovation Center provides a location with facilities in place to conduct the scale-up work for rare earth elements, critical minerals and other high-value, nonfuel coal products. It will prove wholly beneficial for Wyoming’s ‘Carbon Valley.’”
Once projects are operational, the site will be used by the University of Wyoming and Gillette College to train technicians for jobs in advanced carbon processes.
“The Innovation Center will provide requisite training for those working in the field,” said Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King. “Most research to date has occurred on university campuses and as R&D projects in the private sector. This site will provide a base for the extension of projects into larger facilities – with the potential to significantly strengthen the local economy.”
The project, located on a reclaimed mine site, received a $1.5 million grant from the Wyoming Business Council, along with a $1.46 million matching grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA). It also received funding from both the City of Gillette and Campbell County.
Some facilities at WyIC may be developed to commercial scale on site. Additional land is available at the Fort Union Industrial park for larger projects or for commercial expansion for those technologies proving to be commercially profitable.
Phil Christopherson, CEO of ECED, and a dedicated team of community members have been working on this project since 2015. Christopherson added, “The project is a key component of our future ‘Carbon Valley’ and will help provide good jobs, a cleaner environment and a strong economic future for our community.”
Land for the site was purchased in November 2019. The contractor for the WyIC project is Powder River Construction. Project design, from Arete Design Group, was completed in December 2020. Construction is scheduled to be complete in December 2021.