In the wake of a tumultuous summer in Wyoming’s coal country, a bright spot emerged Friday when the U.S. Department of Energy awarded multiple Wyoming-based research initiatives $5 million to advance alternative uses for coal beyond energy generation.
The federal government selected Ramaco Carbon, a coal technology company in Sheridan, for four research and development grants to delve deeper into the material science behind coal. The research grants breathe fresh life into the ailing mineral during a time when depressed demand for coal from the electricity generation sector becomes a new normal.
“This series of grants is a great affirmation of the efforts we’ve been trying to do, and to really focus it in Wyoming, which is a wonderful laboratory,” said Randall Atkins, Ramaco’s chairman and CEO. “I coined the phrase ‘Carbon Valley,’ and that is essentially what we’re trying to do: create Wyoming as a hub of research focused on coal.”
Ramaco will partner with TerraPower, a nuclear research hub in Washington, and Axens North America, an oil and biomass technology company, in New Jersey to recast coal into products like carbon fiber, a hearty material used to build aircraft, cars and more.
Ramaco also received a federal Energy Department grant about a year ago and continues to investigate potential ways to use the carbon packed inside coal beyond just energy generation.
The Energy Department announced 32 winners for coal technology development grants totaling $56.5 million — with nearly $5 million dedicated to Wyoming.
“The Department of Energy is committed to advancing technologies that will allow us to meet our energy needs in an environmentally responsible way,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in a statement. “We will continue our commitment to investing in research, development, and demonstration initiatives to drive these innovative clean coal technologies forward.”
“We are excited about the transformative potential of these projects,” Steven Winberg, assistant secretary for fossil energy at the Department of Energy, said in a statement. “Advancing this coal R&D is paving the way for future technology innovation and integration.”
The dream is for carbon fiber’s demand and price point to hit a sweet spot and catapult coal back into the running. In preparation, Ramaco has plans to construct a research complex, iCAM, and manufacturing hub, iPARK. The company pivoted away from thermal coal generation to carbon materials in light of the downturn in the thermal coal market, according to Atkins.
The company also has big plans for a coal mine near Sheridan, though the facility has hit a series of permitting roadblocks. The Wyoming Environmental Quality Council denied the company’s initial permit application over deficiencies in the proposal in 2017. The Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality is currently considering a revised permit application submitted by the company for the Brook Mine. If considered “technically complete” by the state agency, the permit will enter a public comment period. An April court decision in Ramaco’s favor also cleared the way for the company to mine the land, despite objections from a surface owner.
Though lawmakers have touted the economic benefits of new coal technology for the state, several Tongue River Valley landowners have expressed concerns over the potential environmental impacts and future financial liabilities for the county and state. According to the Powder River Basin Resource Council, 357 domestic or stock groundwater wells fall within a 3-mile radius of the mine. The area also remains prone to subsidence, after decades of mining.
This is not the first time Wyoming innovators have attempted to find alternative sources and customers for coal to keep the industry, and by extension the state, afloat. The Wyoming Integrated Test Center, a business incubator north of Gillette, hopes to develop effective carbon-capture methods. Gov. Mark Gordon has made continued calls to invest in cutting edge research on coal.
“I’ve been very anxious to see how we can use this resource to develop a carbon-negative solution. Wyoming has been in the lead on that,” Gordon told the Star-Tribune in Gillette the day after two of the nation’s largest coal mines shut down in Campbell County. “… Obviously, there are opportunities here to further develop our resource.”