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A coal byproducts faculty that will use coal for non-energy uses breaks ground in Campbell County

Several shovels plunged into the ground at the Fort Union Industrial Park northeast of Gillette for a groundbreaking ceremony for a coal byproduct demonstration facility. The objective is to find new uses for coal, which has increasingly been challenged by greener and renewable energy sources in previous years.

“One thing that's different about Wyoming coal, a lot of people realize it's got a lot of carbon in it, that also has a lot of oxygen, hydrogen,” said David Bell, a retired chemical engineering professor at the University of Wyoming. “And that makes for some interesting chemical properties that we can exploit and turn that interesting chemistry into valuable products.”

When completed, the facility is slated to decompose 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, construction materials, and agricultural soil amendments, commercially viable and not just a theoretical or small-scale endeavor.

Bell has worked on the project since it first launched in 2016. Since then, the Fort Union Industrial Park has established itself as a center for innovation. In June, the Wyoming Innovation Center was dedicated. It’s also involved in finding alternative uses for one Campbell County’s, and the state’s most abundant natural resources.

“A lot of the early work was disappointing because the economics were not favorable,” he explained. “And so, we had to kind of think outside the box and try to find a way that you could use coal without burning and still make money, because a lot of the processing could be very expensive.”

The large-scale profitability for coal-based products has yet to be fully seen. But there’s hope that it can become a reality in both the short and long-term.

“I think we're getting close to commercial by, I mean, within maybe five [to] 10 years of commercial viability, hopefully shorter,” he said. “But these things often take time.”

The to-be constructed facility will showcase the advances in coal products technology.

In addition to construction and building materials, Bell indicated that there’s also an opportunity for the manufacture of electronics components.

Atlas Carbon owns the site where the facility will be constructed. But instead of building something from the ground up, it’s set to come with only some assembly required.

“Atlas Carbon has a plant out in Manti, Utah, and that plan has been leased by the university [of Wyoming],” said Raymond Ang, a Project Engineer with Wood, a UK-based engineering and consulting business. “We'll be dismantling and bringing that unit over here in Gillette to be reconstructed.”

The finished structure will be approximately three stories tall and will be involved with processing the coal so that it can be used in the manufacture of products.

“It's a unit where we will probably making sure that the coal gets dried into the product it needs to,” Ang added. “So, we want to make sure that is one that pretty much will be able to dry call as needed.”

Polaris Asset Corporation, in addition to Wood, Atlas Carbon, and the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources are active stakeholders in the project. The Wyoming Legislature has also shown its desire for the project to succeed. Despite some of the hurdles and naysayers, what’s happening in rural Campbell County is unique.

“There's nobody really doing quite what we're doing,” Bell said. “The most similar work that was done was for synthetic fuels work and the real twist is we started to realize how we could make some of these more valuable non-fuel products. And that's really what sets us apart from everybody else.”

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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