Seeking Coal's Second Act, Wyoming Looks To China As An Ally

Oct 22, 2015

Wyoming is fighting hard to keep its coal on the market in the future, no matter the form. Why? Because, according to Wyoming's Economic Analysis Division, revenue from coal accounts for a whopping 25 percent of the state's budget. That dependence is underscored by announced cuts to the budget, courtesy of lower-than-expected energy revenues.

As global pressure to address climate change mounts and market forces continue to work against the black rock, researchers and policymakers in the state and in coal producing regions all over the world are scrambling to figure out what to do with coal other than burning it.

Crowded around an intricate model energy park at a demonstration plant in the Shanxi province of China, a translator explains to a tour group from Wyoming that the massive complex is a coal to liquids demonstration facility. Owned by the the Shanxi Lu'An Mining Group, the project experiments with new technology to make coal conversion more efficient and less polluting.

"It is quite an incredible demonstration facility. I've not seen anything like this anywhere," said Ben Yamagata, the Executive Director of the Coal Utilization Research Council and a member of the tour group.

Representatives from the Jackson Hole Center For Global Affairs and other members of the group saw this intricate model of an enegy center during a tour of the coal to liquids facility in Shanxi province, China.
Credit Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

Cleaning up coal conversion is no easy task. Gasification is generally the first step in converting coal into diesel and other products like lubricants, wax, and ammonia. But, the process uses tons of water and releases massive amounts of CO2. To clean up gasification, the Lu'an Group claims to be experimenting with recycling wastewater and using the CO2 in-house rather than emit it into the atmosphere.

According to the Department of Energy, China has 189 gasification plants and projects in operation or under construction, while the U.S. has 23. In its database, the DOE emphasizes that it doesn't necessarily represent all projects or contain accurate details of those projects listed. But clearly, China is converting coal to other materials on a large scale.

So Wyoming, as the largest coal producing state in the U.S., is looking to collaborate with China, the world's largest coal producing country, on how to make coal into products from tennis rackets to socks.

"I would bet that nearly every American has got one item of clothing in their closet at least that started out as Chinese coal," Mark Northam, director of the University of Wyoming's School of Energy Resources said.

Northam was also on the China trip and spoke at the fifth annual Low Carbon Summit in Shanxi province, China's main coal producing region. These events are all part of a much broader collaboration on clean coal technology nationwide as well as internationally, including countries like Australia. Joint research projects and university exchanges are all underscored with urgency as global pressure builds to address climate change.

But for Wyoming, this push toward studying coal conversion isn't just about cleaning it up.

Halfway around the world, back in the United States, at the University of Wyoming's Advanced Coal Technology Laboratory, they're working on that. The process is being "re-engineered" to make coal conversion cleaner. The university's labs, part of the Energy Innovation Center, are partially paid for by coal giants Peabody Energy and Arch Coal.

"Instead of combusting the coal, we're refining the coal so we don't go through that CO2 pathway in the first place," Northam explained.

Students and researchers are experimenting with various conditions and catalysts to draw materials out of CO2 without burning it. But is it possible to bring this technology to a commercial scale?

One of Northam's colleagues, Richard Horner believes so.

"So, the ideal solution would be to take all of that carbon, deliberately manage it and to make products so you have zero emissions of CO2. Of course that may be a dream but we certainly want to move towards that dream," Horner said.

It's a dream where that carbon waste could be used to make products like tennis rackets, airplanes, and water filters. As for Northam's own vision of Wyoming's coal future?

"Twenty years from now, I would say fewer mines, more industry, and a lot more manufacturing," he said. "The rail cars full of [coal-related] products rather than coal cars hauling lumps of coal to power plants."

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.