On a clear, sunny day, Jeff Barron drives over a copper-colored hill in the Powder River Basin near Sheridan. He parks, hops out of his car and walks to the edge of a large open field. Cows are grazing in the distance.
He says a new coal operation would start right here.
"It will mine out coal some 2,000 feet that way and 2,000 feet that way,” Barron says.
For every other coal company in the Powder River Basin, the mine is where the business starts and ends — selling coal for electricity. But not for the proposed Brook Mine.
“It’s a changing of the guard as far as what happens to Wyoming and it’s coal,” Barron says.
The company behind the proposed Brook Mine, Ramaco, has a plan to use the coal not for electricity, but to turn it into products.
Companies in this region have mined coal for power generation for decades, but recently the demand has gone down. Between 2014 and 2016, production dropped 24 percent in this region. Coal is losing to cheap natural gas and the growing market for renewable energy.
In 2011, Atkins bought the land where the Brook Mine may eventually go, with a plan to sell that coal for electricity. That changed when the market began to turn sour. A few years ago, several companies went into bankruptcy. So, he thought maybe there was a way to mine coal and sell it for something other than electricity.
“So the lightbulb goes off,” he recalls. “Let’s figure out a way to make coal to a product.”
Much like oil, coal can be made into things like shoes, plastic and make-up. Atkins hopes he can find a way to do the same with coal — items like chemicals, different kinds of carbon fibers, graphenes, various electronics, insulations.
When oil became the raw material, or feedstock, for new products in the early 1900s, its value went up. Atkins is hoping new uses for coal will have the same effect.
The problem is that the technology needed to make coal into a feedstock is expensive. Plus, there’s little demand for this exact kind of carbon product. That’s what Ramaco wants to change.
Along with the mine, the company also wants to build a research center and manufacturing facility. That kind of bundling is unique.
“The overall concept is something that hasn’t been done before,” Atkins says.
He thinks that success would mean transforming the demand for coal.
He runs through his equation: “If only 14 percent of the weight of U.S. autos, body and parts, were derived from carbon fiber made from coal, that would be over a 100 million tons of coal translated into making that carbon fiber.”
It’s important to note that Ramaco is not the first or only group to think about coal as feedstock. The University of Utah is planning a $1.6 million research facility to learn about what products could be made with coal-based carbon fiber. In Wyoming, a non-profit is building a research complex devoted to learning about developing coal-based products -- that could be up and running in just two years. The Japanese car company Mitsubishi is also looking to expand its coal-based carbon fiber business.
Mark Northam, director of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources, says Ramaco is actually behind the curve. The company is still in its permitting phase and a long way from breaking ground.
Even if coal feedstock does take off, he says it won’t replace the amount of coal used for power generation.
University of Wyoming energy economist Rob Godby says Ramaco’s plan is far from a guaranteed success.
“What we do know is that if you don’t try to make those investments, take those risks, nothing will change,” he says. “Periodically a long-shot wins, and when they do a whole lot of people wished they made that bet.”
If this long shot does pay off, Godby says more than just Ramaco will see the success. Coal companies across the country could see a boost in demand. Plus, a new kind of carbon material, that isn’t oil, might attract entrepreneurs to set up new businesses in coal-rich states like Wyoming.
“Some people are hoping this is the beginning of maybe a new sector development, a carbon valley,” Godby says.
But it’s still in the early phase. Ramaco’s Brook Mine has yet to obtain its permit to mine from Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality. That could come as soon as August. After that, the company is looking at a three- to five-year timeframe to get it up and running.