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A New Coal Future

January 7, 2019
man comparing liquid samples
In the Energy Innovation Center’s Carbon Engineering Lab, chemical engineering post-doctoral researcher Shuai Tan holds two vials containing coal extraction solvent and resulting coal tars, which will be used for carbon fiber fabrication.

The School of Energy Resources’ Carbon Engineering Initiative seeks to create new products from coal.

By Micaela Myers

Imagine driving in a car made in part of carbon fiber created using coal products. That same car is driving on asphalt made more resilient to winter conditions by incorporating coal products. And beside the road grow crops planted in soil made richer and more water efficient thanks to coal product soil amendments. All of these future possibilities are being explored by faculty and researchers participating in the Carbon Engineering Initiative that is being spearheaded by the School of Energy Resources (SER). This programmatic partnership with the College of Engineering and Applied Science brings together many research groups.

“Today, Wyoming is shipping somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 million tons (annually) of Powder River Basin coal almost exclusively for the purposes of  burning in other states to make electricity. That is a low-margin business for the coal mines,” says SER Executive Director Mark Northam. “We are in no way masters of our own destiny because most of it is used out of state, and the supply of coal is a competitive business.”

Nearly three years ago, the Legislature appropriated funds to establish research in carbon engineering, whereby the focus of activity is to turn Wyoming coal into higher-value coal products. These funds are leveraged with additional money provided by the SER annual budget.

“The faculty have generated results that have led to four patents awarded and 23 applied for, including a patent for a process that we’re calling a coal refinery,” Northam says. The coal refinery is a unique and novel thermochemical process for deliberately decomposing coal into usable intermediate products.

“When we think about entrepreneurship and the future of the Carbon Engineering Initiative, it isn’t thinking small—it’s very much thinking big,” says Richard Horner, SER director of emerging projects and technology. “The focus is to sell more Wyoming coal at the end of the day by taking advantage of the distinctive features of Wyoming coal.”

Thinking big may mean working with venture capitalists and private equity and already includes partnering with existing companies.

“We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time talking to companies that are interested in pieces of the technology to complement things they have invented,” Northam says. This includes more efficient ways to use coal for electricity generation.

For example, UW researchers are working with Clean Coal Technologies Inc. of Tulsa, Okla., on a technology that increases the energy content of coal by removing the water, which saves shipping costs, as the end product is lighter. “We gave them some great ideas on what to do with the volatiles,” Northam says. “On the strength of that partnership, they are building a facility in Gillette to scale up their process, demonstrate it, and are working on some potential export opportunities.”

Another novel aspect of the carbon engineering research is bringing so many researchers together. “Collaboration and sharing results and insights is quite a new revelation in terms of how faculty conduct research at UW,” Horner says of the more than a dozen teams. “This is really quite pioneering, and it stimulates the entrepreneurial spirit.”

two men looking at something in one's hands
SER Director of Research Scott Quillinan and Assistant Research Scientist Thomas Moore examine coal core samples.

Center for Economic Geology Research

Formed in 2009 as part of the School of Energy Resources (SER), the center was originally called the Carbon Management Institute and focused on carbon capture, utilization and storage. Last year, the center’s mission broadened to look at rare earth elements research, becoming the Center for Economic Geology Research.

“Carbon management is an important aspect of the research UW is doing for Wyoming,” says SER Executive Director Mark Northam. “The other side of the coin is looking at revenue opportunities in the state’s geology. I’m very happy that we have a group of young and well-educated researchers who are turning over the rocks to find new opportunities.”

The group is made up of nine researchers—many UW graduates—that include eight geoscientists and one reservoir engineer. They started out studying the Rock Springs Uplift as a potential storage site for carbon dioxide (CO2). That work led to a textbook on geological reservoir characterization, Geological CO2 Storage Characterization, which the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) used to inform its best practices manuals for reservoir characterization.

“The Rock Springs Uplift is a large regional geologic storage site that could be used for storing CO2 emissions from industrial sources in southwest Wyoming,” SER Director of Research Scott Quillinan says. “In the spring, as part of the DOE CarbonSAFE program, we’ll be drilling a 9,800-foot characterization well and collecting a 3D seismic survey to apply those principles to the Gillette area.”

The CarbonSAFE (Carbon Storage, Assurance and Facility Enterprise) program is an initiative funded by the DOE to address key research gaps in the path toward the deployment of carbon capture and storage technologies, including the development of commercial-scale geologic storage sites for CO2 from industrial sources.

Researchers are working with the Dry Fork Station near Gillette—the newest, most efficient coal-fired power plant in the nation. The plant is the host site for the Wyoming Integrated Test Center.

“We’re starting to put together a hub for low-carbon research, centered on Gillette,” Quillinan says. “We have the Integrated Test center, the CarbonSAFE project, the CO2 enhanced oil recovery opportunities that are in the area, and an opportunity to take CO2 to market. We’re working with the other people in this arena to develop an integrated strategy for the economic management of carbon dioxide.”

In addition, the Center for Economic Geology Research is looking at rare earth elements and is in the process of doing an inventory to see what’s out there.

“They’ve been looking at rare earth element concentrations in oil and gas produced water, coal and coal ash,” Quillinan says. “A new initiative is broadening that scope to include additional critical materials, like lithium and other metals that may be of economic value.”

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