With the right support, some real breakthroughs are imminent.
Top minds are currently working on this issue. Researchers from two Department of Energy-affiliated national labs appeared at the conference mentioned earlier, as well as universities such as MIT, University of Chicago and University of Ohio. We are also working with private companies such as construction and engineering firm Fluor and Silicon Valley-based 3D printer manufacturer Carbon, Inc.
These groups and others will hopefully soon be participants in a new coal-to-products research campus we are developing in Wyoming, called the iCAM (Carbon Advanced Materials Center). This will sit next to a one-billion-ton new thermal coal mine called the Brook Mine, and will connect with a new coal-to-products mine-mouth industrial park called the “iPark”. At this facility, coal from the mine will be used to manufacture carbon products, in many cases based on research developed at the iCAM.
Coal is the cheapest source of carbon. Currently, 95 percent of coal is used for power generation. Only 5 percent is used for higher value products like steel. As methods of turning coal into carbon-based products are further developed, that ratio will change.
These products would sell for high margins and in many cases also require large volumes of coal as the basic carbon feedstock. The result would be an innovative, disruptive higher tech future for the coal industry, independent of power trends and related environmental issues.
The United States is blessed with both the largest reserves of coal in the world and the technological prowess to fundamentally reorient the world’s coal industry. Government-backed innovation and research are critical to realizing the scale of the opportunity.
Recently, I was invited to testify before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, in Washington, D.C. The title of the hearing was “Assessing Innovative and Alternative Uses of Coal”. The title seemed intriguing to all the legislators involved. What did that mean, to use coal in new ways?
After I spoke, some policymakers clearly understood the economic potential involved in developing this field of research. However, some were still stuck in the notion that coal was perhaps better kept in the ground. Negative thinking about one of our nation’s abundant resources needs to change among some of our elected leaders. Perhaps finding new uses for coal can help all parties find some rare middle ground.
An affiliate of Ramaco Carbon, Ramaco Resources is mainly known for being the first public coal company IPO in over 10 years. The company has now opened and operates five new mines over the past year, producing metallurgical coal mainly for the steel industry.
Randall Atkins is chief executive and chairman of Ramaco Carbon.