Coal-based electricity generation in the United States is cleaner than ever, thanks to billions of dollars invested in emissions-control technology. Now, research underway at an electric cooperative power plant in Wyoming could pave the way for turning carbon dioxide (CO2) waste into raw materials.

“In a matter of four years, we went from an idea, a concept, to actually having iron and steel in the ground [and] a real project,” says Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority.

The state-funded agency is working with NRECA and two generation and transmission cooperatives on a project designed to produce new materials and feedstocks containing CO2 in commercial-scale quantities.

The testing to be done at the new Wyoming Integrated Test Center (ITC), located at Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s Dry Fork Station, may lead to commercial applications that could reduce or eliminate CO2 from the atmosphere. The materials, expected to be produced within months, include new additives for concrete and other building products, better plastics, and composite compounds.

Basin Electric, based in Bismarck, North Dakota, is majority owner and operator of the Dry Fork plant, which is co-owned by the Wyoming Municipal Power Agency. The test center at the plant, dedicated in May, was built with $15 million in funding from the state, $5 million from Westminster, Colorado-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, and $1 million from NRECA. In less than a year, five international research teams and a Japanese company are expected to be turning out marketable products.

“This is not a lab. It’s a facility where testing will take place in real-world conditions,” says Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, adding that converting carbon waste to usable products could be one of the greatest achievements of the century. “Gillette, Wyoming, can become the energy Silicon Valley of the world.”

Cooperative Innovation

The idea first took shape a decade ago, when electric co-ops nationwide met 79 percent of their demand from coal-based generation, and an uncertain regulatory environment drove Tri-State to look at alternative approaches to managing carbon emissions.

“Rather than treat carbon dioxide as a waste to be disposed of, we thought an area ripe for advancement was the potential to recycle these emissions,” says Rick Gordon, chairman of Tri-State’s board.

The G&T was among dozens serving the nation’s distribution cooperatives primarily with a coal fleet, along with natural gas peaking plants for when demand was highest. “If there is a carbon constraint in the future, it’s going to hit natural gas as well,” says Jim Spiers, NRECA senior vice president for business and technology strategies.

Spiers, formerly Tri-State’s senior vice president of business strategies and chief technology officer, worked to identify institutions, companies, and individuals committed to the carbon waste issue.

“There are more than 135 entities working on innovative uses for CO2,” he says. “This is industry and our partners working together to solve a problem.”

The effort, supported by NRECA members, leading corporations, and academic institutions, led to an international competition known as the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE.

Launched in 2015, teams across the globe are vying for $20 million in cash awards for developing and producing sustainable and economically viable uses for CO2 to reduce emissions and provide alternatives to long-term storage or mitigation.

Semifinalists announced in 2016 spent a year working to refine their processes. Ten finalists selected in 2017 shared $5 million to continue their work. They are equally divided between the coal-based test site in Wyoming and Canada’s Shepard Energy Centre in Calgary, Alberta, where the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre is fueled by natural gas.

Top finishers from each of the two tracks will divide a $20 million prize. The final selection will be based on factors including production, sales, economic value, and the amount of CO2 used or eliminated in the manufacturing processes.

Dry Fork Station

Commissioned in 2011, Dry Fork Station is one of the most modern coal-based generation facilities in the electric cooperative fleet, with 385 MW of power production capacity. As some G&Ts mothballed or dismantled older, less efficient coal-based plants, Basin Electric built Dry Fork with scrubbers and other improvements to reduce overall emissions.

Sulphur dioxide emissions have been reduced to 1 percent, and mercury and nitrous oxide emissions are within federal and state limits. The plant now has equipment to divert flue gases produced from 20 MW of power production directly to six test bays, where the research teams and the Japanese company will produce new products.

“This is about saving coal and making coal viable for America,” says Basin Electric CEO Paul Sukut, adding that even as renewable energy and natural gas use expands, coal remains an abundant and reliable resource. “We need in America an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy solution.”

Facilities related to the ITC project occupy 226,000 square feet at the site. While the five test bays used by the Carbon XPRIZE finalists will share access to flue gas produced by 1.5 MW of generation capacity, a separate large test center can use up to 18.5 MW of flue gas flow.

The five teams conducting research at ITC include:

  • Breathe: Based in Bangalore, India, they will combine hydrogen compounds, extracted from water, with CO2 to produce methanol. Researchers will use a variety of catalysts, including copper, nitrogen and iron to gauge the economic viability of commercial scale production.

  • C4X: The Suzhou, China-based team will use CO2 extracted from flue gas to develop new foam-based bio composite plastics for potential use as insulating and building materials.

  • Carbon Capture Machine: The team, headquartered in Aberdeen, Scotland, will dissolve CO2 in a mixture of brine, calcium and magnesium to produce carbonate solids as an additive for building materials, replacing other carbon-based feedstocks in the manufacture of concrete.

  • CarbonCure: The team, led by researchers from Dartmouth, Canada, will use CO2 to produce materials described as “greener concrete” using current manufacturing processes and modified chemistry to reduce water and CO2use in concrete fabrication.

  • Carbon Upcycling UCLA: The Los Angeles-based team will attempt to scale up production of a concrete material that absorbs CO2 during the production process, bonding with limestone for use in construction.