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Can you make EV batteries and mountain bikes from coal? A Sheridan company sees a way

A Tesla car recharges at the Tesla Supercharger station.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
A Tesla car recharges at the Tesla Supercharger station.

A Wyoming-based company foresees a different use for Powder River Basin coal, one that potentially could be more climate friendly. However, some nearby residents still are concerned about the act of mining coal.

Ramaco Carbon operates out of the Brook Mine near Sheridan. It is a small-scale operation that so far only supplies coal for research on how to use coal for non-power uses.

“We don't end up burning the coal in these types of uses. We really refine it and process it,” Randall Atkins, Ramaco CEO, said. “So funny enough, we've changed the name of coal, and we frankly call it carbon ore.”

They recently partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is based in Tennessee, on a two-year project to use coal to make graphite – a critical ingredient to electric vehicle batteries. Right now, about 80 percent of graphite comes from China.

“And the synthetic graphite that's made here in the US is made from petroleum,” Atkins said. “And it really requires a very high temperature to make it…basically think of baking something for several weeks at a time. So it requires lots of heat and energy.”

He said his company can make graphite out of coal using lower temperatures, which means a lower energy output. Additionally, he said making graphite out of coal is cheaper than petroleum, as the former is consistently cheaper.

Ramaco is also working to use coal to make carbon fiber, which is also typically made from petroleum. Carbon fiber is used in everything from mountain bikes to aircraft.

“What could happen to your mountain bike is you'd have that made at a much lower price point because the carbon fiber which would come from coal would be a lot cheaper than what is on the market today,” Atkins said.

When Ramaco initially secured a mining permit for the Brook Mine, the first new mining permit that Wyoming issued in over 40 years, there was some pushback. In 2021, the Wyoming Business Report reported that the Powder River Basin Resource Council (PRBRC) challenged the permit because they were concerned about mining near residences. The permit was ultimately upheld.

“We’re disappointed the permit has been issued, but we hope that the numerous conditions will protect our health, water, safety and property. We also hope that Ramaco is going to be a good neighbor, that they listen to and respect the neighboring landowners,” Sheridan County resident Anton Bocek told the Wyoming Business Report in 2021.

Atkins said they do not mine coal in the traditional sense with an open mine pit, but rather use a ‘high wall’ approach where an auger digs into a hillside. That coal that is mined is then used directly in Ramaco’s iCAM research facility that is near the mine.

“We don't burn and we are not combusting coal,” he said. “So we're not, in that sense, releasing the CO2 and other chemicals that are somewhat problematic.”

Ramaco will focus on ramping up coal-derived graphite over the next couple years. Right now, they employ 15 people in Wyoming. Atkins said the long term goal is to employ 100 to 200 people and to have an initial commercial graphite product in five years.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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