September 12, 2023 - A consortium that includes representation from Southwest Virginia is seeking federal investment in an economic sector based around turning coal waste, fly ash and other carbon byproducts of the coal industry into new products such as batteries and building materials.
The group is applying to the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s new Tech Hubs program, which offers the potential of tens of millions of dollars in grant money to regions that could be globally competitive within the next decade in critical technology areas such as advanced manufacturing.
While based out of Bluefield, West Virginia — a city of just under 10,000 people on the state’s border with Virginia — the application’s geographic area also encompasses a number of localities in West Virginia around the city; the Bristol, Virginia, and Blacksburg/Christiansburg areas; as well as part of eastern Kentucky. The Bluefield group’s application is one of more than 370 applications for the Tech Hubs program nationwide, including at least six from Virginia.
“We’re a border community, so why wouldn’t we want to work regionally?” said Jim Spencer, executive director of the Bluefield, West Virginia Economic Development Authority.
The authority is the co-lead organization on the application along with the Center for Applied Research and Technology, a nonprofit located at the Bluefield Commercialization Station business incubator that supports scientific research to assist entrepreneurs and businesses.
One example of a company looking to create new composite materials from old carbon is Omnis Building Technologies. It plans to open a 140,000-square-foot facility next year in Bluefield, ultimately employing about 200 people building panels for the company’s energy-efficient homes.
“We are using a type of fly ash for our — for lack of a better word — our ingredients of our panels,” said Michelle Christian, director of government and community affairs for OBT Bluefield.
Fly ash is a residue left over from the operation of coal-fired power plants. It’s one component of Omnis Building Technologies’ patented processes used to build the homes, which the company says will be sustainable and affordable.
“It makes perfect sense for anyone, any business, that is looking to use those types of materials to be in this region,” Christian said.
The West Virginia/Southwest Virginia region has historically been among the top producers of coal nationwide, but coal jobs have been declining in recent years.
Growing the economy around reusing carbon byproducts to manufacture new materials is one way Bluefield can adapt to changing technologies and economic trends, Spencer said.
“When I first came to Bluefield eight years ago, first meeting I spoke at, I brought my letterman’s jacket from high school,” he said. “And I got it out and, long story short, went through that it’s been in a tote for 40 years, it smells musty, the patches were coming off, it’s in disrepair. I was a decent athlete many years ago, but I’ll never be that athlete again. It doesn’t mean I’m not an asset to society; I just can’t do what I used to do 40-some years ago.
“And I said, neither is Bluefield. Bluefield’s not going to be what it used to be in its heyday, when it was called ‘Little New York’ and things like that. We’ve got to start working today to create a new economy.”
Spencer said that other organizations backing the application include Bluefield State University, the Marshall University Advanced Manufacturing Center, Virginia Tech’s engineering school, the Industrial Extension at West Virginia University, and X-MAT CCC, a Bluefield-based maker of coal-derived building materials.
Each applicant to the federal program can apply for a strategy development grant of about $500,000, designation as a tech hub, or both. The Bluefield group is seeking both a strategy grant and tech hub designation.
The application deadline was Aug. 15. Sometime this fall, the EDA is expected to name at least 20 tech hubs as well as the recipients of strategy development grants.
Regions named as tech hubs can then apply for implementation grants of $50 million to $75 million each.
Regions that just get strategy development grants cannot apply for the larger implementation grants but might be able to apply for other Tech Hub program funding down the road.
Half of the consortia that have applied are seeking both a grant and a designation, while the rest are seeking one or the other, according to the U.S. EDA.
While Tech Hubs is a nationwide program, among its requirements is that the 20-plus hubs must be distributed across the EDA’s six regions, with at least three hubs per region. Virginia and West Virginia are in the southern end of a region that runs up to Maine.
Other applications involving parts of Virginia include two applications focusing on the nuclear industry in Lynchburg and Southwest Virginia; an application from the New River Valley and Danville areas highlighting additive manufacturing and advanced materials; Richmond-area proposals focusing on artificial intelligence and pharmaceuticals; and a Hampton Roads-area bid is based around autonomous systems for air, land, sea and space.