Proposed Brook Mine in Wyoming would extract coal for uses other than electricity

Brook Mine
Ramaco Resources is hoping to get it permit to mine for the Brook Mine by August. Inside Energy photo.

Brook Mine in Powder River Basin

A company looking to open a new coal mine in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin says it will not use the coal it mines in coal-fired power plants, but is instead looking to develop value-added products using the much maligned fossil fuel.

Ramaco Resources owns the land the proposed Brook Mine sits on.  Since the company bought the site in 2011, demand for coal has dropped and between 2014 and 2016, and coal production in the area fell by 24 per cent.

Coal is losing out to cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources.

Randall Atkins, Executive Chairman and Director of Ramaco says as a number of companies around him went into bankruptcy due to the downturn, “the lightbulb goes off,” he recallsed. “Let’s figure out a way to make coal to a product.”

Atkins told Inside Energy that he is hoping his company can find ways to make coal into items like chemicals, different kinds of carbon fibres, graphenes, various electronics and insulations.

When oil became the feedstock for new products in the early 1900’s, its value increased and Atkins is hoping to do the same with coal.

Some problems facing Atkins are the high cost of turning coal into a feedstock and the low demand for this exact kind of carbon product.

But Ramaco says it wants to change that narrative and the company is looking to build a research and manufacturing facility.

“The overall concept is something that hasn’t been done before,” Atkins says.  He is optimistic that success for his company would revive coal demand.

According to Atkins “If only 14 per cent of the weight of US autos, body and parts, were derived from carbon fibre made from coal, that would be over a 100 million tons of coal translated into making that carbon fiber.”

Ramaco is not alone in this endeavour.  The University of Utah is planning a $1.6 million research facility to learn about what products could be made with coal-based fibres.

In Wyoming, a non-profit organization is building a research complex devoted to learning about coal-based products.  The facility is likely to be operational in two years.

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As well, the Japanese automaker Mitsubishi is also looking to expand its coal-based carbon fibre business.

Despite Atkins’ optimism, Mark Northam, director of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources says Ramaco is behind the curve as the company has yet to break ground and is still in its permitting phase.

Northam says that even if the coal feedstock industry does succeed, it won’t replace the amount of coal used for power generation.

Rob Godby, University of Wyoming energy economist says the Ramaco plan is far from a guaranteed success, but he says without taking such risks, nothing will change.

“Periodically a long-shot wins, and when they do a whole lot of people wished they made that bet,” says Godby.

If the long-shot does pay off, Godby says coal companies across the country would enjoy the success if demand for coal rises.  As well, coal-producing states like Wyoming could see new entrepreneurs set up new businesses.

“Some people are hoping this is the beginning of maybe a new sector development, a carbon valley,” Godby told Inside Energy.

Ramaco’s Brook Mine is hoping it will obtain its permit to mine from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality as soon as August.  Once the permit is in place, the mine is still three-to-five years away from being fully operational.

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