By Greg Johnson
July 8, 2021 - Going carb-free may be the diet du jour for people looking to drop a few pounds, but when it comes to re-imagining the Powder River Basin’s coal-dependent economy, many believe in carbon-loading.
Even as PRB thermal coal production has declined by more than 50% over the past decade, more research, innovation and development is being pushed to find ways to make coal clean to use and much more valuable.
A push to develop the PRB and its 25 billion tons of available coal to spark a new carbon economy for northeast Wyoming aims to evolve the region into the Carbon Valley. Like what California’s Silicon Valley has achieved to become the world’s leading hub of computer and technology development, local, state and federal officials are banking on the Carbon Valley to advance new carbon industries that go well beyond just burning coal.
It makes sense that northeast Wyoming could become the nation’s Carbon Valley, and the region is well on its way to earning the nickname, said Rusty Bell, a Campbell County commissioner and supporter of the initiative.
Saying that “it’s time to rethink coal,” Ramaco Carbon’s website explains its Carbon Valley vision.
“We already are that kind of area, and the reason I say that is we’re sitting on the resource already,” Bell said. “We’re sitting on 25 billion tons of recoverable coal. We want to use it.
“Whether we use it for energy production or something else, we should be looking forward because our miners don’t care what they’re going to do with that coal.”
Treating coal as an ore allows producers and manufacturers to take the base carbon from coal and use it to make much more valuable, useful and climate-neutral products, Bell said.
Things like carbon nanofiber and graphine are two examples of things that can be made from coal ore that potentially could be worth thousands of times more than the $11-$12 per ton it’s worth to burn to produce electricity. One company on the leading edge of creating this new Carbon Valley is Ramaco Carbon, a private endeavor near Sheridan that has built a combination research/incubator facilities that can take coal and turn it into valuable carbon products.
One facility, called the iCAM research park, provides space for higher education, national laboratories and private companies to research and prove their coal-to-carbon innovations, said Randall Atkins, Ramaco CEO and chairman of the National Coal Council.
“We started really trying to approach alternative uses for coal about six or seven years ago and have pretty much been at the forefront of that,” Atkins said.
The company also runs its iPARK manufacturing center, which is next to the Brook coal mine. Like locating a power plant at the mouth of a coal mine, Atkins said a Carbon Valley approach could easily see at least one, if not many, manufacturing facilities at the mouth of a mine in the future.
“There’s a real future for using coal in an alternative manner that has been explored going back to the late 1970s and early ’80s when the Department of Energy did a lot of funding for research on coal to liquids,” Atkins said. “At the time, we thought we were going to run out of oil and that oil was going to be $300 a barrel.
“Needless to say, that didn’t go anywhere. But what we’ve done now is borrow some of that technology and done a fast-forward 30-40 years with technology and new materials and have incubated the first coal-to-products vertically integrated platform.”
The iCAM is expected to come online within the next few weeks, Atkins said, adding that he anticipates it will be a model for other Carbon Valley-motivated efforts.
“What I thought about when I originally coined the concept is finding advanced technology ... for a whole new use of coal,” he said.
Economically, the evolution could be as significant as other historical technological breakthroughs, Atkins said.
“Coal is too valuable to burn,” he said. “We believe that wholeheartedly.”
The carbon from the same Powder River Basin coal that now sells for about $12 a ton can potentially be translated into a value of $100 million a ton, he said.
Aktins testified for the U.S. Senate in April about how China already is investing money and manpower into the coal-to-carbon transition.
“Their economy is really coal-based from a chemical standpoint because they really don’t have any petroleum,” he said.
To that end, he said China is now building an average of a new plant a week to create carbon-based chemicals that soon could be going through 1 billion tons of coal a year.
That means the PRB doesn’t necessarily have to see its production continue to shrink, Atkins said. It’s gone from producing 426 million tons in 2011 to about 207 million tons last year.
“If you get the right uses, it will still require large amounts of coal,” he said. “The largest uses of thermal coal will be building products ... as well as things from carbon fiber. Those can use large amounts of coal.”
While words like “innovation,” “advanced” and “breakthrough” are often used in describing what creating a new Carbon Valley could mean for coal, it’s hardly a new concept, Atkins said.
“A hundred years ago, we did use coal to make a number of products,” he said. “Then the catalytic converter came along in the 1920s. They discovered you could use petroleum much easier for this type of conversion.”
With a century of technological advancement, Ramaco has “dusted off the playbook and found some pretty exciting new uses for it and to basically unlock the carbon in the coal.”
One of the major hurdles now is a fundamental prejudice against coal, Atkins said.
“The problem has been the mindset that coal is a four-letter word and there are those who would prefer no new coal would be mined,” Atkins said.
While a problem, getting people and industry to think of coal more as a source of carbon rather than a fossil fuel will happen over time, Bell said.
“The whole concept of the Carbon Valley is we’re going to continue to ship our coal, but we’re also going to find ways to make it carbon neutral, or even carbon negative,” he said.
To that end, the Wyoming Innovation Center recently broke ground on its carbon research incubator in Campbell County. In partnership with the University of Wyoming, the WIC is similar to Ramaco’s iCAM in that it’s geared toward not only researching ways to use PRB carbon, but monetizing it.