Wyoming officials broke ground this week on the Wyoming Innovation Center (WyIC), a 5,500-sq-ft coal commercialization facility, in Gillette, Wyo. Owned by Energy Capital Economic Development (ECED), the 9.5-acre site, located in the state’s northeastern coal-rich “Carbon Valley,” will be home to companies and researchers developing commodities like asphalt, graphene, graphite, agricultural char, carbon fiber and more—all of them using coal and coal byproducts.

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

“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 Gov. Mark Gordon, at the groundbreaking. Wyoming has been a leading coal producer since the 1980s.

“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,” Gordon said.

New Commercial Uses

The WyIC’s 4,000-sq-ft building will provide office, lab and workspace for tenants while a 1,500-sq-ft building will be used to handle raw materials. The main draw, however, includes the seven half-acre demonstration sites that function as an open-access platform for tenants to upscale their lab-proven processes from using a few pounds of coal a day to process up to several hundred pounds of coal or coal byproducts daily.

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.

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—to be used in nuclear reactors, cell phones, magnets, camera lenses, wind turbines, electric cars and more. The U.S. currently depends on China for as much as 97% of its rare-earth element sources.

“Our goal at this new facility is to analyze the immense potential of rare-earth elements and their commercialization—a process that could reduce U.S. dependence on foreign markets,” said Tom Tarka, an 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 wrap in the fourth quarter of 2021, allowing NETL’s pilot test to proceed. The pilot is slated for completion in the third or fourth quarter of 2023.