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Wed June 23 2021

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Wyoming breaks ground on ‘coal-to-product’ innovation centre

8 Jun Officials in the US state of Wyoming have broken ground on an innovation centre intended to accelerate production of coal-based products including graphene and rare earth elements.

The Wyoming Innovation Center (WyIC), a 5,500-square-foot coal commercialisation facility, is being developed by Energy Capital Economic Development (ECED) announced today.

The 9.5-acre site, located in northeast Wyoming's coal-rich ‘Carbon Valley’ region, will be home to companies and researchers developing commodities such as asphalt, graphene, graphite, carbon fibre and more using coal and coal by-products.

The WyIC will feature two buildings and seven demonstration sites for pilot plants, for private companies and researchers to advance coal-to-product and rare earth element processes.

The WyIC's 4,000-square-foot building will provide office, lab and workspace for tenants – while a 1,500-square-foot building will be used to handle raw materials. The developer said that the main draw, however, is the provision of the seven half-acre demonstration sites that function as an open-access platform for tenants to scale up their lab-proven processes from using a few pounds of coal a day to process up to several hundred pounds of coal or coal by-products daily.

Land for the site was purchased in November 2019. The contractor for the WyIC project is Powder River Construction. Project design, from Arete Design Group, was completed in December 2020. Construction is scheduled to be complete in December 2021.

The developer said that the region holds 500 billion tons of recoverable coal, making it a desirable testbed for new and proven products made from coal.

WyIC's first tenant is the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), which focuses on applied research for the production and use of clean energy resources.

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"A main goal of the Innovation Center is to promote and advance the diversification of Wyoming's economy utilizing our wealth of raw materials," said Wyoming governor Mark Gordon. "Backed by state and federal resources, we're confident that the facility will facilitate the industry's sizable economic growth and Wyoming's undeniable leadership in coal processes and production."

Tenants at WyIC will focus on evaluating the commercial viability of high-value nonfuel, low- or zero-emissions products made from coal and extracting pivotal rare earth elements found in the fly ash of coal burned at local power plants.

EDEC said that the region's Powder River Basin coal contains high extractable rare earth element content in portions of the coal seams and also particularly in the coal ash materials produced at power plants. Such elements are used in products including nuclear reactors, mobile phones, magnets, camera lenses, wind turbines and electric cars but the US currently depends on China for as much as 97% of its rare earth element sources.

"Our goal at this new facility is to analyse the immense potential of rare earth elements and their commercialization – a process that could reduce US dependence on foreign markets," said Tom Tarka, engineer at NETL. “Northeast Wyoming is a perfect location to begin these studies – with plenty of feedstock and a knowledgeable workforce.”

Construction of the facility is expected to be completed in the fourth quarter of 2021. The completion of the facility will enable NETL's pilot test to proceed, slated for completion in the third or fourth quarter of 2023.

The Wyoming Innovation Center is among several projects that are exploring new options to address the entire life cycle of carbon. WyIC focuses on hosting manufacturers who create value-added products from coal and coal byproducts. Other sites in the region – including the Wyoming Integrated Test Center (ITC) continue to study the carbon capture and reuse industry, which will dramatically reduce carbon emissions. The University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources (UW-SER) is also entering Phase III of its CarbonSAFE program – involving safe storage of CO2 beneath the ground.

Phil Christopherson, CEO of ECED, and a dedicated team of community members have been working on this project since 2015. Christopherson added: "The project is a key component of our future 'Carbon Valley' and will help provide good jobs, a cleaner environment and a strong economic future for our community."

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