The Wyoming Innovation Center (WyIC), a 5,500-square-foot coal commercialization facility, has officially opened in Gillette, Wyo., owner Energy Capital Economic Development (ECED) announced today. The 9.5-acre site, located in northeast Wyoming’s coal-rich “Carbon Valley” region, is home to companies and researchers developing commodities like asphalt, graphene, graphite, agricultural char, carbon fiber and more—using coal and coal byproducts.
The state-of-the-art WyIC features 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 region holds 165 billion tons of recoverable coal, making it a desirable testbed for new and proven products produced from coal.
WyIC’s first tenant is the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), which focuses on applied research for producing and using clean energy resources.
“Wyoming is setting the stage for sustainable utilization of raw materials, which provides numerous benefits including reducing our dependence on foreign markets,” said Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell. “The new facility will significantly contribute to our state’s economic growth and will allow us to continue to lead in coal innovation.”
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—particularly in the coal ash materials produced at power plants— 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.
“The region provides ample resources and a knowledgeable workforce,” said Tom Tarka, an engineer at NETL. “It’s the perfect destination for us to fulfill our mission— to research and develop the commercialization of rare earth elements.”
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 main draw, however, is 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 processing up to several hundred pounds of coal or coal byproducts daily.
The new center is part of a broader effort to spur innovation in Carbon Valley, utilizing its natural resources and mines to grow and sustain jobs using coal and coal byproducts as a feedstock for advanced manufacturing. The Wyoming Innovation Center is among several projects exploring new options to address the entire life cycle of carbon, including the Wyoming Integrated Test Center (ITC) and the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources’ Wyoming CarbonSAFE project.
The project, located on a reclaimed mine site, received a $1.5 million grant from the Wyoming Business Council and a $1.46 million matching grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA). It also received funding from both the City of Gillette and Campbell County.
Some facilities at WyIC may be developed to commercial scale on-site. Additional land is available at the Fort Union Industrial Park for larger projects or commercial expansion for those technologies proving to be commercially profitable.
“The Innovation Center is further solidifying the Carbon Valley as an R&D hub,” said Phil Christopherson, CEO of ECED, who has been working on this project since 2015. “It will connect our workforce, provide a cleaner environment and ultimately strengthen our economy and community.”
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.