GILLETTE — As much of the globe is focused on reducing humanity’s carbon footprint on the planet, Wyoming wants to expand its carbon research influence by innovating ways to capture and reuse waste carbon dioxide.
That was part of the message gleaned from a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works at the Integrated Test Center on Wednesday morning.
Chaired by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, the field hearing at the ITC, located next to the Dry Fork Station power plant about 10 miles north of Gillette, heard testimony from a trio of carbon energy experts.
Capturing CO2 and finding ways to turn the harmful greenhouse gas into valuable carbon-based products has been a top priority for the Cowboy State for going on a decade. Now it’s time for the federal government to get behind carbon research in a way that allows for continued use of the Powder River Basin’s cheap and abundant coal resource, Barrasso said.
“Today we will discuss Wyoming’s leadership in using and storing carbon dioxide emissions,” he said to open the hearing.
That’s what the ITC does, along with other carbon capture and research initiatives located near the power plant and in Campbell County, he said.
“Just outside these doors is a world-class facility where research is underway to study how we can create commercial value from carbon dioxide that would otherwise just go up into the air,” Barrasso said. “The Integrated Test Center hosts research that will create new markets and new jobs in Wyoming.”
As attendees at Wednesday’s field hearing filed into the ITC office, they walked past one of five NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize finalist teams. The CO2Concrete team based out of the University of California Los Angeles is attempting to prove its process to create a lighter, stronger concrete from waste CO2. A stash of concrete building material made with the team’s process sat next to its modular research facility that’s tied into flue gas provided by the power plant.
Testifying about the impact of turning a harmful waste product into a valuable asset, Carbon XPrize Executive Director Marcius Extavour said his organization has helped spark interest in private-public partnerships by incentivizing successful research. The XPrize has a prize pool of $20 million that will be distributed to teams that show the most promise in capturing and turning CO2 into valuable products.
It’s a huge undertaking, and one that will require time and rewiring the thinking of many who consider carbon dioxide as only an environmental enemy.
“Carbon Dioxide is usually thought of as a colorless, odorless and relatively inert gas, a pollutant or a greenhouse gas,” Extavour said. “However, it is not usually thought of as a valuable resource. In fact, it is.”
Pointing out that the global economy already is “fundamentally reliant on carbon-based materials,” a logical extension is to find ways of using CO2 as feedstock for making those products, he said.
And the potential is off the chart, he said.
“This can actually create business opportunities out of reducing the carbon intensity of our energy and industrial sectors,” he said. “The challenge is making the technology efficient enough and making materials that are valuable enough to be able to attract capital, drive down costs and support scale-up and deployment.
“Innovation is the key that unlocks this puzzle.”
The first company on the ground at the ITC was TDA Research Inc., which moved its carbon capture test plant to the site last year. In January, TDA began testing its CO2 capture process, but had to shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said David Gribble, the company’s senior scientist.
“Now we’re sort of feeling the waters out and figuring out how to get back (to operation), like most people,” Gribble said after the hearing.
Not part of the XPrize competition, TDA is a Wheat Ridge, Colorado-based company that develops carbon capture and reuse technologies.
“I’m probably in a unique position in that I’ve tested in probably every place mentioned here today,” he said.
While TDA has tested various technologies at research facilities around the globe, the ITC offers something the rest can’t, Gribble said.
“It’s really hard to beat proximity,” he said. “It’s so much easier to get here than to anywhere else. This is great.”
Although not a member of the committee, U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, helped question the witnesses while giving a little testimony of his own in encouraging more federal focus on carbon and Wyoming’s leadership in developing CO2 research.
“I used to be mayor here (Gillette), and the (motto) for the city is The Energy Capital of the Nation,” Enzi said. “And that’s because in this county, we have more Btus of energy than Saudi Arabia has. We can utilize that or pass it over.”
He told a story about how several years ago, General Electric considered doing a project in Wyoming, but canceled.
“We got ahold of them to find out why, and they said, with this emphasis, ‘We’re actualizing criminalizing coal, so who would we sell our technology to?’” Enzi said. “I’m glad we have this team of people across the United States, across Wyoming, to ‘decriminalize’ coal and show that it’s essential in a lot of different ways in our lives.”