Wyoming Innovation Center meets change in coal industry head-on

GILLETTE, Wyo. — Wyoming Innovation Center, a coal commercialization facility, celebrated its grand opening Tuesday in the Carbon Valley, an area that holds 165 billion tons of recoverable coal.

The facility offers researchers a working space to advance the coal-to-product and rare earth element process.

Wyoming Innovation Center tenants can daily process hundreds of pounds of coal, instead of just a few, according to a news release announcing the grand opening. One building provides office, lab and workspace for tenants. The other will be used to handle raw materials, the release said.

Researchers will explore whether the products they create are commercially viable and can help the U.S. reduce its dependence on China for rare earth element content. The center provides them two buildings and seven demonstration sites to accomplish that mission.

Wyoming Innovation Center has seven demonstration sites for pilot plants, for private companies and researchers to advance coal-to-product and rare earth element processes. (Carbon Valley)

Campbell County Energy and Industry Advisor, Energy Capital Economic Development board member and Integrated Test Center Operations Manager Jim Ford said the Wyoming Innovation Center is a site where Wyoming might prove the utility and commercial viability of coal products while showing a reduction in carbon intensity.

“Coal is not the problem,” he said. “CO2 has been identified as a problem. … We here in Wyoming do not get to make the decision about what happens with coal. That’s being made by policymakers, by regulators, by market makers outside of our sphere.”

He said those people want to see proof that non-fuel uses of coal will thrive commercially.

“When we produce products here, we have to sell them out there,” he said.

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The center’s role is to help sustain local jobs and expand the market sectors coal can serve. Partners can come in from all over the country to work at the facility.

The Wyoming Innovation Center’s first tenant is the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which conducts applied research for producing and using clean energy.

“The region provides ample resources and a knowledgeable workforce,” Tom Tarka, an engineer at NETL, said in the release. “It’s the perfect destination for us to fulfill our mission— to research and develop the commercialization of rare earth elements.”

Energy Capital Economic Development CEO Phil Christopherson said the facility’s purpose is to help bolster the region’s future.

“[Campbell County] is a stellar community,” Christopherson said. “With a decline in coal and the war on minerals, the future can be quite scary. So, proactively, we are doing things to ensure that we have a strong economy with good jobs, far into the future. That is what this facility represents.”

Christopherson said he believes the Gillette community should be very hopeful, like they were with “Stay Strong Gillette,” which proved the community’s mettle.

“This just carries that onward,” he said. “Coal’s going down. It doesn’t have a bright future. If things continue the way they are, we’ve got about 25, 30 years. But now is the time to get ready for that.”

While he said he hopes coal will never go away and that the region always has good thermal coal, it’s important to be prepared.

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The project received a $1.5 million grant from the Wyoming Business Council and a $1.46 million matching grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration.

Angie Martinez, the administration’s regional director, said her bureau seeks to encourage innovation in the use of coal in a clean way that allows people to raise their families in the region and promotes a vibrant economy.

“I think the community here is acknowledging that the industry is changing and that burning coal is not going to continue forever, but the resource is here. … This is not leadership turning their back on coal,” Martinez said.

The facility is an example of how government is committed to supporting coal’s role in the economy through the transition in the industry, she said.

The city of Gillette and Campbell County also contributed financially. Christopherson said ECED business members have shown support as well.

The site was purchased in November 2019, and Arete Design Group completed the project design in December 2020, the release said. Powder River Construction was the project’s contractor.

Fort Union Industrial Park has additional land for larger projects or commercial expansion for technologies that show promise to be commercially profitable, the release said.

Wyoming Innovation Center celebrated its grand opening Tuesday. (Energy Capital Economic Development)