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The Wyoming Innovation Center seeks to explore the different uses of coal

The Wyoming Innovation Center, a facility that aims to research the different uses of coal, hosted its ribbon cutting ceremony on Tuesday, Jun. 14. Located several miles northeast of Gillette, the 5,500 square foot facility sits on reclaimed mine land and cost over $3 million to construct. It was initially slated to open late last year, though the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues postponed its opening until this summer.

A group of local elected and government officials from several federal agencies attended the ribbon cutting ceremony. They later toured the Wyoming Integrated Test Center at Dry Fork Station just a few miles away from the facility.

“We started this project back in 2015,” said Phil Christopherson, CEO of Energy Capital Economic Development (ECED). “And it was just a glimmer of an idea. Dave Spencer, who used to be the Wyoming Business Council regional representative, was getting visits and entertaining people from various research institutions and businesses that were trying to do more with coal, convert coal into carbon fiber, gaseous products, and oil. They saw a future for that.”

Discussions with companies such as TerraPower, LP Amina indicated that there was a need for facilities that could host projects on a larger scale than what they had going on in their research and development labs. ECED then contacted the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources, who also approved of the idea to build a large-scale facility dedicated to these aims. The Gillette City Council and the Campbell County Commission also were receptive. State officials further vetted the idea, and the Wyoming Business Council awarded a $1.5 million grant, which was later supplemented by $1.46 million given by the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA). The City of Gillette and Campbell County each allocated $176,000 for the project.

The facility comprises two buildings, and though there are currently no businesses or research firms that are on site, there are several interested parties.

“Our first tenant’s going to be NETL, [a] National Engineering Technology Laboratory project extracting rare earth elements from fly ash, so it’s kind of a unique thing,” said Christopherson.

NETL focuses on applied research toward coal energy resources. UW is slated to have a presence at the facility for research and development purposes.

“As we move technologies here, we’ll definitely have to have employees that will be running those, or it could actually be students as well, so graduate or undergrad students could be running the tests as well or involved in some way,” said Dr. Holly Krutka, Executive Director of UW’s School of Energy Resources. “It would also be a great way to get University of Wyoming students up to Campbell County and test some of these novel technologies here.”

Christopherson said it is important to have a domestic source of rare earth elements and critical minerals.

Rare earth elements are used in a wide array of products used everyday, including electronics, electric cars, and wind power, Christopherson explained. He also stated that the city and county recently received an EDA grant to hire a marketing firm to attract businesses and other interested parties to come to Carbon Valley.

For Gillette and Campbell County, the hope is that research into other uses of coal besides electricity generation will help support the local economy, which continues to be heavily dependent on the energy industry.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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