CHEYENNE — Wyoming’s current economic story is centered around the fact that the coal industry is in an inevitable downward spiral. But one Sheridan company is working to change that narrative by converting one of the state’s most abundant resources into other products with exponential market value.
As of the fall of 2019, Ramaco Carbon has secured millions in federal grants for research aimed at recalibrating coal from a dated, dirty energy source into materials that can revolutionize engineering and medical technology.
“When I’m asked if coal has a future, my response is it does, most assuredly, but not the future you think,” said Ramaco CEO Randall Atkins. “My idea of the future of coal is a higher-tech repurposing of coal for advanced materials and products”
Sheridan-based Ramaco Carbon has been awarded four cost-shared research and development grants from the Department of Energy totaling more than $5 million to find alternative uses for coal. Ramaco’s “Coal to Products” business plan zeroes in on manufacturing coal into carbon fiber, graphene and other manufacturing materials.
Ramaco life science specialist and director of business development Garrett Lindemann explained the potential for turning coal into a variety of goods is not a new concept. Around the turn of the 20th century, coal was a predominant precursor for manufacturing.
“It has been known to contain a bunch of organic molecules,” Lindemann said. “If you look back in history, you will see it was through that process we got the first organic synthesis of chemicals like aspirin, nylon, dyes, perfumes, graphene and graphite.”
In the mid-1900s, technology evolved to enable the conversion of petroleum products into carbon fiber, which is exponentially stronger and lighter than both steel and aluminum. While the uses of carbon fiber are vast, the present procurement process is expensive. Atkins said Ramaco Carbon hopes to find a way to use coal as a manufacturing starting point.
“There is the same percentage of carbon in a ton of coal as there is in a ton of petroleum,” he said. “A ton of coal costs around $12 here. A ton of petroleum is 7 or 8 barrels at $60 each, so it would be 30 or 35 times less expensive to have a precursor of coal.”
While waiting for the process of coal-to-carbon to unfold via research, Ramaco is presently operating as a manufacturing contractor using 3D printing.
“What we want to do is understand the technology of the printing, and then understand how we can reverse-engineer the resins so we can make the resins from coal,” Atkins said. “We want to create a low-cost manufacturing process where you can take coal from the mouth of the mine and put it into a manufacturing facility that would use that as a feed stock.”
Over the past few years, Ramaco Carbon has built a network of research support at universities, research institutes, and government organizations to coordinate and capture the quickly evolving area of carbon synthesis via innovative and environmentally friendly processes.
Ramaco Carbon was awarded more than $1 million in federal funds from the Department of Energy earlier this year to partner with TerraPower, a Washington-based nuclear innovation company backed by Bill Gates. TerraPower has been working since 2015 to develop modular nuclear reactors that can act as power generators without the maintenance and environmental impact of present energy generation techniques.
“We believe we can create carbon fiber precursor using elements of coal instead, extracted by heating it with a non-CO2 emitting form of energy,” TerraPower project manager for Integrated Energy Systems and Innovation Projects Engineer Josh Walter said in a news release. “In the future, that might be nuclear energy. However, we can very likely get started, albeit at smaller scales, with renewable energy, today.”
Ramaco Carbon is presently exploring diverse possibilities for repurposed coal, including marketing coal-derived carbon fibers to the automotive industry. Ramaco is a partner with the Wyoming Western Research Institute in a $5 million DOE project named “Coal to Cars,” which focuses on using coal-based carbon fibers to decrease vehicle manufacturing costs.
While carbon fiber is presently anticipated to be the primary raw product that can be derived from coal, the company is also exploring a plethora of other potential items that can be yielded.
Lindemann said the possibility to produce graphene from coal is another potential significant alternative use, especially in biosciences.
“Graphene has interesting properties as far as thermal and electrical conductivity,” he said. “It’s stronger than steel. One of the nicest properties, because of electrical conductivity and the nature of the compound itself, is you can use it to make biosensors out of them that will be highly accurate and highly precise.”
Lindemann described emerging biomedical devices containing a graphite chip that can immediately confirm the presence of Zika virus, lyme disease or the amount of medication in a blood sample.
The potential to repurpose coal has tremendous implications for the economy not only in Wyoming, but around the world. The cost disruption of a cheaper resin base could upend present-day manufacturing cost structures while injecting life back into the dying coal industry.
“This is basically a way to repurpose coal,” Atkids said, reflecting on the decline of coal as an energy source. “Coal has, in a way, been demonized because of its use in utilities. I have jokingly said, ‘Don’t call it coal. Call it carbon ore because we are not using it in a traditional sense.’
“Many eras are defined by mineral things, like the stone age,” Atkins said. “In this century, we will have a lot of focus on carbon and using carbon in ways that probably weren’t even thinkable 10 years ago.”