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UW collaborates with Western Research Institute on new coal-based product

The University of Wyoming announced in a blog post today that its School of Energy Resources and the Western Research Institute are collaborating to develop a new coal-based product: asphalt.

Asphalt (Shutterstock)

GILLETTE, Wyo. — The University of Wyoming announced in a blog post today that its School of Energy Resources and the Western Research Institute are collaborating to develop a new coal-based product: asphalt.

UW’s Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion is working with the Western Research Institute to feature the product at a conference July 18–20 at UW, the post said.

The Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion is a collaborative group of research scientists, faculty members, students and entrepreneurs who investigate new high-volume uses for coal, the conversion of coal into valuable engineered and chemical products and other opportunities in an evolving carbon market. Western Research Insitute is a not-for-profit research organization in Laramie that does work in advanced energy systems, environmental technologies and highway materials research and technologies.

“We have taken Wyoming coal, as a large feedstock, and tried to turn it into a viscoelastic material by chemically reacting it with different bio oils,” said Western Research Institute’s Renewable Upcycling, Materials and Asphalt Technologies Vice President Jeramie Adams, the project’s lead scientist. “Coal or carbon ore can be mined and used like any other raw material not being consumed as a fuel, and it allows us to engineer a product and deliver it to a wide range of markets — as well as make different products for different applications — so it is always consistent and performs well.”

The project is part of the UW Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion’s mission of finding new, alternative uses for Wyoming coal.

“The benefit here is that we are actually engineering asphalt binders, whereas petroleum asphalt is just a waste product from the oil refining process,” Adams said. “That product is different depending on the crude oil source or the way that refinery operates. The coal-based binder could be helpful in supplementing petroleum-based asphalt for consistency and lower emissions, or work as a stand-alone product.”

He said there’s been pressure in the asphalt industry to develop greener alternatives with bio binders.

“If we can use coal, which is an ancient biomass, and react it with another biomass, thereby creating a new binder, we have a low carbon footprint and then make up for things that are lacking with renewable masses,” Adams said. “It is a very green product because there is no need for combustion in any of its outlets, particularly in terms of availability and volumes.”

The accessibility of carbon ore in open-seam Wyoming mines and the lack of combustion in processing allows the coal-based asphalt to emit less carbon dioxide compared with petroleum-based asphalt, the post said.

“Using Powder River Basin coal as a feedstock produces a mere third of emissions of conventional petroleum when taking it from the ground and to a refinery for processing,” Adams said. “Furthermore, combining coal with biogenic CO2 allows the new asphalt products to store CO2 from the atmosphere in the pavement. It has the potential to assist petroleum asphalt production meet some of the current challenges posed by the new regulations or to revolutionize the industry as a whole.”

The project is still in the lab currently, but researchers aim to conduct field tests, the post said. The Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion needs to be able to scale up the corresponding solvent extraction technology to produce enough feedstock for large-scale batches of asphalt.

Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion Director Trina Igelsrud Pfeiffer said the lab is working with Western Research Institute to increase that technology to the field demonstration level in the Powder River Basin. The scale-up is dependent on funding and they’re seeking investment in the projects to commercialize it.

The team will have to show the accompanying techno-economic analysis to bring production costs down, the post said.

“Our ultimate goals are to find a new, valuable use for coal and to help decarbonize the asphalt industry,” Adams said. “We have to meet the same rigorous safety and performance standards, but we also have to compete economically. This may become less of an issue in the future with stricter environmental standards, but, for now, we are trying to balance the economics with the products.”

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