A far-reaching effort to support research and development at the University of Wyoming is trying to find new profitable uses for the state’s most distinctive commodity: coal.
An energy sector bust in 2015 saw state tax revenues plummet, coal companies lay off miners and roughly 25,000 people move out-of-state. In response, many in Wyoming began looking for ways to diversify the state’s economy.
The Carbon Engineering Initiative — a massive economic diversification effort supported by a $2 million appropriation from the State Legislature and dozens of UW researchers — is looking to identify non-energy and non-fuel products that can be derived from coal.
“Burning it is no longer becoming economically feasible,” said Bill Rice, an assistant professor of physics working under the initiative. “People just aren’t buying it anymore in the tonnage that they used to. So, are there high value products we can use the coal for for diversifying the economy into optics, electronics, magnetics, et cetera?”
The initiative, less than two years old, is already generating a significant amount of intellectual property for the state, said Richard Horner, deputy director of emerging projects and technology for UW’s School of Energy Resources.
“About 26 patents have been filed, which hopefully will turn into patent awards over the coming year,” he said. “Patents are a significant measure of our success. They can be sold, they can form new companies based around a patent or the rights to those patents can be sold on the basis of a revenue stream coming back to the state.”
Patents owned by the state of Wyoming would help state government encourage non-energy industries, Horner said.
“It creates new manufacturing capabilities within the economy,” he said. “In other words, we take a feedstock and we make things from it. That’s a feature of the Wyoming economy, which is quite weak, and therefore, there’s growth opportunities.”
UW would own these patents and grant other entities the rights of use on a royalty fee basis, Horner said.
“To encourage investment in technology development, the patents will be held in a portfolio and available to stakeholders to further commercialize,” he said. “In other words, potential users will be able to negotiate exclusivity and capture apparent synergies between patents, notably to augment their own technology.”
Researchers working on the initiative are looking into both processes for converting coal into more useful forms and the products made possible by those converted forms.
Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering Patrick Johnson is working on one such process, “growing” carbon from coal, producing materials such as diamond nanotubes and graphene.
Graphene, first isolated and characterized in 2004, is the strongest material ever tested, as well as being highly conductive, and is the focus of research in universities across the U.S.
“The thing about all these special carbon materials is they have some exceptional qualities for certain applications,” Johnson said.
Rice, alongside other researchers, is looking into applications for these carbon materials. One such application involves rethinking the technology in smartphones.
“We’re close to getting — on a very small scale — coal-based electronics,” he said.
Most touchscreens sense when and where they are touched because something with an electrical charge — such as a human finger — interrupts or alters the flow of electricity perpetually running through the screen’s conductive coating.
If that conductive coating can be manufactured using graphene grown from Wyoming-mined coal, manufacturers might be drawn to the state, bringing with them jobs and economic diversification.
“It’s all coming from amorphous coal,” Rice said. “These touchscreens are typically (made with) indium tin oxide. If we can make something that’s cheaper and more environmentally sound — indium is not very good for the environment — we can actually then use this for a product of coal that is not being burned.”
Indium tin oxide, due to its conductivity and transparency, is used as a coating for touch screens. Amorphous carbon refers to impure forms of carbon such as coal and soot, and is contrasted with more stable forms such as granite and diamond.
The Carbon Engineering Initiative is much wider than coal-based electronics, however, and supports various overlapping research projects in the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Business and the College of Engineering and Applied Science.
“The products of each project ... have synergies with other projects,” Horner said. “All of these different things are interconnected.”
The initiative entails projects with near-term and long-term goals, as well as both lower-volume, high-value projects and high-volume, lower-value projects.
“They invested in some risky stuff and some bound-to-work stuff,” Rice said. “And so, the amount of money they invested — $2 million, which is not a lot — was able to generate a tremendous amount of research activity … It’s probably one of the smartest things I’ve heard of a state government doing.”
Gov. Matt Mead called on the State Legislature to allocate $1 million to the School of Energy Resources for carbon engineering research in the budget proposal released in November.