By Heather Richards
April 1, 2019 - If the cost of producing carbon fiber — a lightweight and durable material that can be used in construction, car parts and airplanes — drops below $5 per pound, the profitability for that burgeoning industry could skyrocket.
That means lighter-weight vehicles and better fuel efficiency. And if Wyoming coal is where that carbon comes from, the price point could represent another avenue for Wyoming’s coal industry to persist despite the declining market for coal-fired power in the U.S.
That’s the hope.
The Western Research Institute announced recently that it was entering its second year as part of a research consortium funded by a $5.2 million Department of Energy grant. Ramaco Carbon, the coal company proposing a coal mine in Sheridan County as well as coal research facilities in the region, is a member of the consortium providing coal samples from the Powder River Basin and its Appalachian mines for the study. Another industry partner is Solvay, while testing is ongoing at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The research is not limited to coal-to-carbon products. Other partners are also involved and exploring oil biomass opportunities. All have the same goal, to reach that $5-per-pound threshold that the energy department will then share with the carbon fiber industry. Currently, the cost is around $12 to $15 per pound, according to the research institute.
Western Research Institute CEO Don Collins said Wyoming coal would be an ideal base product for the carbon fiber industry to source.
“Wyoming coal is just about the lowest-cost coal in the country,” he explained. “That just gives you so much greater opportunity to achieve a commercially competitive price so that the result will make it in the market place.”
Collins said the coal pitch samples, some from Wyoming, had passed strength tests — probing breaking points and flexibility.
Coal’s decline has led to a number of ventures in Wyoming to buoy the industry. The most ambitious of those, like the Wyoming Integrated Test Center, have been aimed at capturing carbon dioxide from burning coal.
Gov. Mark Gordon has made carbon capture one of his early talking points, asking the Legislature to set aside money for a multimillion dollar pilot project for capturing carbon dioxide pre-combustion.
“From my standpoint it is something that we can use to benefit our mineral sector,” Gordon said in a February interview with the Star-Tribune.
The governor has also noted potential for Wyoming coal in products, such as carbon fiber.
Ramaco, one of the partners in the consortium, is a coal mining company from Appalachia that pivoted to carbon fiber and coal research a few years after purchasing coal assets in northern Wyoming. As the sector continued to decline, and Ramaco‘s progress on opening the mine was halted by tension with a neighboring coal firm, Ramaco announced that it would focus on coal-to-products sourced from the proposed Brook Mine near Sheridan.
Ramaco has been criticized by local landowners in the Sheridan region for not working with locals on its mine proposal. The landowners group Powder River Basin Resource Council fought Ramaco in a hearing before the Environmental Quality Council in 2018 over the firm’s mining plan. The mine plan was deemed insufficient and Ramaco was asked to do additional study of the mine’s impact on land and water in the area.
Lawmakers attempted, and failed, to defund the Environmental Quality Council for blocking Ramaco’s permit. The company has continued to seek permitting and zoning authority to build its coal research facilities near Sheridan.
Criticism from members of the resource council persists.
“We don’t really know what they are going to do yet,” said Shannon Anderson, a lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. “It’s just a lot of uncertainty for folks in the Tongue River Valley.”