Several shovels plunged into the ground at Fort Union Industrial Park northeast of Gillette for a inauguration ceremony for a coal by-product demonstration facility. The objective is to find new uses for coal, which has been increasingly challenged by greener and renewable energies in recent years.
“One thing that’s different about Wyoming coal, a lot of people realize it has a lot of carbon in it, which also has a lot of oxygen, hydrogen in it,” said retired chemical engineering professor David Bell. at the University of Wyoming. “And it gives interesting chemical properties that we can exploit and turn that interesting chemistry into valuable products.”
Once complete, the facility should break down the coal and separate beneficial liquids and solids that can be used to create non-energy products.
The challenge has been how to make these non-energy products, such as asphalt, bricks, building materials and agricultural amendments, commercially viable and not just a theoretical or small-scale enterprise.
Bell has been working on the project since its launch in 2016. Since then, the Fort Union Industrial Park has established itself as a hub of innovation. In June, the Wyoming Innovation Center was dedicated. He is also involved in finding alternative uses for a Campbell County and the state’s most abundant natural resource.
“Much of the early work was disappointing because the economic conditions were not favourable,” he explained. “And so, we had to think outside the box and try to find a way to use coal without burning it and still make money, because a lot of the processing could be very expensive.”
The large-scale profitability of coal-based products is not yet fully realized. But there is hope that it can become a reality in the short and long term.
“I think we’re getting closer to commercialization, I mean, in maybe five [to] 10 years of commercial viability, hopefully shorter,” he said. “But these things often take time.”
The facility to be constructed will showcase advances in coal product technology.
In addition to construction and construction materials, Bell indicated that there is also an opportunity for the manufacture of electronic components.
“Atlas Carbon owns the site where the facility will be built. But instead of building something from scratch, it’s expected to only require some assembly.
“Atlas Carbon has a factory in Manti, Utah, and this plan was leased by the university [of Wyoming]said Raymond Ang, project engineer at Wood, a UK-based engineering and consultancy company. “We will disassemble and bring this unit here to Gillette to be rebuilt.”
The finished structure will be approximately three stories high and will be involved in processing coal so that it can be used in the manufacture of products.
“It’s a unit where we’ll probably make sure the coal is dried into the product it needs,” Ang added. “So we want to make sure that’s the one that’s pretty much going to be able to call dry when needed.”
Polaris Asset Corporationin addition to wood, Atlas Carbonand the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources are active stakeholders in the project. The Wyoming legislature has also shown its desire to see the project succeed. Despite some obstacles and naysayers, what is happening in rural Campbell County is unique.
“There’s nobody really doing what we do,” Bell said. “The most similar work that’s been done was in synthetic fuels and the real turning point is that we started to realize how we could make some of these more valuable non-combustible products. And that’s really what sets us apart from all the others.