After eight years and $84 million ($41 million of which came from Wyoming coffers), the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources is wrapping up one coal technology research program and looking to launch another, with the backing of the Wyoming Legislature and governor’s office.
Wyoming officials are still trying to determine what the next phase might look like, and how it might be funded.
Wyoming’s investment so far — from allocations beginning in 2007, and mostly from the state’s share of Abandoned Mine Lands monies — supported 33 individual research projects. The state’s $41 million attracted about $43 million more in matching money from private industry, according to UW officials.
Of those 33 research projects, maybe seven will proceed toward scale-up, and a few may have a shot at commercial use, said Mark Northam, director of UW’s School of Energy Resources. That may not sound like much, but the work represents significant advancement in improving the cost and efficiency of carbon reduction technologies, he said.
The most promising, and perhaps the one hands-down success, he said, is the cryogenic CO2 removal research, headed by Dr. Larry Baxter of Sustainable Energy Solutions, LLC. The process uses liquid nitrogen to cool the flue stream of a coal-fired unit, converting CO2 to liquid form which can then be collected and stored, or used for some other product.
“That’s one we think will justify the value of the whole program,” Northam told WyoFile. A functioning, miniature model of the process is on display at the 5th International Advanced Coal Technologies Conference in Jackson this week.
Although none of the coal technology research backed by the $84 million in public and private dollars are scheduled for deployment to help Wyoming’s coal industry today, the investment is likely to pay off for Wyoming in the future, according to Northam.
“If I were to be talking about investing $40 million today in this program I think we would still make the decision that it makes sense,” he said. “Powder River Basin coal is not going to go out of the market immediately, it’s just going to wither away as the companies that generate power begin to understand what it takes to meet requirements.”
Much has changed in the world of coal since 2007 when research grants were launched for what became the “Advanced Conversion Technologies Research Program,” said Northam. Back then the focus was almost solely on stripping CO2 from coal-fired power plant emissions, yet there were no CO2 emission targets. Today, the research community and coal industry has targets, thanks to President Obama’s Clean Power Plan — unless pending litigation resets the targets. Although they regard the Clean Power Plan targets as unrealistic in the commercial world, the new rules and regulations do provide incentive for “carbon engineering” — refining coal to create new products, which creates the revenue necessary to help advance CO2 reduction research and development.
The new carbon engineering approach won’t immediately help slow — at least significantly — the sure decline of Wyoming’s coal mining economy, Northam said. But the research may play a role in slowing the decommissioning of some coal-burning power units to some degree. More importantly, it may help build a new coal-based manufacturing industry, and that would generate more revenue on a per ton of coal basis compared to mining.
“We’ll never be able to replace the amount of coal mined [in Wyoming] … But we can replace the value, if done correctly,” Northam said.
Read these related WyoFile stories:
Wyoming, China dream of a coal-chemical bridge to future energy, August 2014
Reasons differ, but Wyoming and China agree on cutting CO2 from coal, August 2014
Guest column; Wyoming-Shanxi coal collaboration has great potential, October 2015