Ambitious array of projects could extend lifespan of state’s legacy industries
By Zak Sonntag
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — The Wyoming Energy Authority is pulling out the stops for an ambitious array of projects that could extend the life of the state’s fossil fuel sectors and simultaneously bring new energy products into the fold. Though technologically diverse, the projects are uniformly big, bold, and cutting-edge, underscoring Wyoming’s vanguard position in the global energy transition — and its conviction that no fossil energy is left behind.
Gov. Mark Gordon and the Wyoming Energy Authority (WEA) this week confirmed six projects to receive Energy Matching Funds, a coveted multi-million dollar pot of state money leveraged to spur $157 million in Wyoming-based investment in energy innovation.
Here’s a look at what’s ahead in Wyoming’s energy future.
Back on the hydrogen horse
A major winner goes to Black Hills Energy and Babcock & Wilcox (B&W), who in partnership will construct a first-of-its-kind chemical loop reactor plant capable of converting Campbell county coal into hydrogen — a gaseous element considered in some industries the holy grail of clean energy — a storable, dispatchable source whose only emission is, literally, water.
The announcement marks a proud comeback from the state’s failed bid to host a federally sponsored multi-billion-dollar hydrogen hub, a loss that deflated morale and sent WEA back to the drawing board in 2023.
With the B&W partnership-project, Wyoming’s hydrogen agenda is back on the horse.
Considered vital in decarbonizing certain sectors, particularly maritime and trucking transportation, which account for an inordinate share of global carbon dioxide emissions, hydrogen can be used either for internal combustion or in concert with fuel cell technology, which generates an electrical current by stripping and redirecting the gas’s electrons, much like a battery.
The challenge, however, is that creating hydrogen is an expensive and notoriously energy intensive process, which has steered investors and policymakers toward other technologies.
What Babcock & Wilcox hope to show is that hydrogen can be produced using less energy while simultaneously capturing carbon inherent to the production process.
Different from traditional hydrogen production — namely electrolysis and methane-reform — B&W’s patented BrightLoop technology makes hydrogen by deploying fabricated iron oxide particles across a three-step reactor system. The pebble-sized particles first react with pulverized coal, which strips the particles of oxygen; the oxygen-deficient particles are then sent to a steam reactor, where they “steal” oxygen from water vapor and leave behind hydrogen.
“We actually use the same reactions that electrolysis does, but we don’t need all the electricity off the grid, or to have our own wind or solar farms next to us. We can just steady-state run…to make a lower cost hydrogen,” said Brandy Johnson, chief technology officer at Babcock & Wilcox.
BrightLoop is also set apart because it uses solid fuel sources, different from the commonly found methane reform hydrogen that relies on deconstructed natural gas. The MTB project will use coal for its primary fuel — which bodes well for Wyoming’s flagging coal economy. And in addition to creating an unadulterated stream of commodity-grade hydrogen, the process simultaneously dispenses a pure byproduct stream of carbon dioxide, which can be easily captured and compressed for other uses or permanent storage.
Johnson emphasized that with hydrogen what matters most is the process by which it is created.
The BrightLoop method “is important for the future of our Earth because when it’s burned there’s no CO2 [collateral impacts]. It will be sequestered,” she said.
“Hydrogen is important for the future of our Earth, because when hydrogen is burned, there’s no CO2,” said Johnson. “And this project is extremely important in supporting that because we’re going to sequester the CO2 that we make so that when the hydrogen is burned, we can say there was no CO2.”
The company now begins design and construction of what will be a 200 foot-tall reactor facility, which they believe by 2026 can churn out as much as 15 metric tons of hydrogen a day.
Another winner is Cowboy Clean Fuels, whose economic potential is as large as its processes are small — micro, in fact. The Triangle Unit pilot project aims to produce renewable natural gas by strategically “feeding” microorganisms native to underground coal seams. Not unlike what takes place in a cow’s stomach, these native bacteria will digest a feedstock —in this case molasses sourced from Worland sugar beets — and leave behind two byproducts: methane-natural-gas, and carbon dioxide.
The company believes it can move the methane to market while simultaneously sequestering the carbon underground. The technique is seamlessly suited for the Powder River Basin, where billions of dollars worth of natural gas infrastructure is already in place; if the process proves viable it could extend the lifespan of those legacy operations indefinitely.
“There’s been a fairly prolific [natural gas] energy play in the Powder River Basin for the last 20 or so years, but it’s at the tail end of its economic life,” said Ryan Waddington, CEO of Cowboy Clean Fuels. “Now we have the ability to revitalize it.”
Beyond natural gas, the company may also draw on another revenue stream from a growing carbon credit market. In places like California and much of Europe, for instance, polluters are required to purchase carbon allowances to offset their emissions.
Private entities are also piling into voluntary carbon markets to minimize pollution footprints at the behest of shareholders.
Even pop stars like Taylor Swift are purchasing offsets to reconcile lavish lifestyles with climate consciousness. Because the carbon dioxide produced by native coal-seam bacteria intrinsically binds to the surrounding coal walls, the natural processes used by Cowboy Clean Fuels (CCF) can sequester the atmospheric carbon initially absorbed by beet plants.
This could translate to sellable carbon credits, and with the offset market expected to grow, CCF is positioned to benefit. CCF cannot patent the underlying microbiological process. Instead, its interests are protected by a process patent that was developed by the University of Wyoming, which has licensed the patent to CCF.
The Triangle Unit project area encompasses 139 wells on 5,000 acres, but the company believes its system will be viable for thousands of wells on millions of acres throughout the PRB.
“This is a starting point and we’re just scratching the surface with this first project. The opportunities are massive,” Waddington said.
Legacy resources are being bolstered on other fronts, too, with an award to Membrane Technology & Research Inc. (MTR) who will construct a membrane-based carbon capture pilot plant at Basin Electric’s Dry Fork Station in Gillette.
The project brings a long-sought technology to the cusp of commercial application–and its success has existential implications for Wyoming’s coal industry as environmental pressure mounts for coal-power generators to clean up or close down. The project aims to prove that carbon capture can be both modular and scalable, while hitting an unprecedented 90% arrest rate able to produce pipeline grade carbon dioxide.
The MTR design works using paper-like sheets of membrane materials that are stacked between mesh-screen separators and laid flat, like a book. Flue gas is driven by vacuum pressure through membrane stacks, which separate carbon from other gasses, including water vapor, resulting in a pure output stream carbon dioxide that can then be compressed and reused or stored.
The design stands out in the field of carbon capture because it allows for modular flexibility, and also requires less thermal input as well as less water than rival technologies– key features with major import for the drought beset West.
“In some parts of the country water is readily available and that’s not a problem. In other parts, including the site in Gillette, it’s not, and that’s true for most of the western states and a good portion of the plants in Europe,” said Brice Freeman, director of carbon capture at MTR.
Carbon capture typically depends on heating-cooling processes and requires sizable amounts of water, which can complicate integration and diminish energy generating steam cycles at production plants.
The MTR process, on the other hand, needs little water and relies primarily on electric blowers and compressors. Furthermore, membranes will collect and recycle process vapor, and can even return water to the host plant during colder times of year.
Also unique is the project’s modular quality. The membrane stacks are designed to fit in standardized shipping containers, making it easy to scale up or down and meet site specific needs at existing plants.
“When we’re talking about carbon capture at a high level, we’re usually talking about retrofits to decarbonize the plants that are already built, where there’s never enough room. It’s always trying to fit it down here, trying to squeeze it in there,” said Freeman, referring to the challenges of less adaptive systems. “But we can make things a little taller, or put them in an L shape because modular components are a bit more flexible with design.”
The project comes amongst a gusher of investment in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, with majors like Exxon Mobil and Chevron spending billions to “neutralize“ their climate footprint, and businesses cashing in on federal tax credits.
Yet skeptics point out these technologies come with a steep price tag, and with the falling cost of renewables some say subsidies for CCS is money poorly spent. But advocates note CCS is critical for other reasons, like addressing hard to decarbonize industries, including steel and cement manufacturing, whose unavoidable “process emissions,” high energy requirements, and growing demand make a completely renewable equivalent impractical, experts say.
“If you look at what we’re trying to achieve collectively as far as decarbonizing industry globally, the scale of the problem is absolutely immense. And that necessarily means that the scales of the solutions are also large and also extensive.”
The technology is also important for grid reliability.
As utility operators will need a diversity of generation sources, like Dry Fork Station and other fossil plants, to maintain electricity stability. Artificial Intelligence Extending legacy operations is top of mind for another fund recipient–Casper-based Flowstate Solutions, who bring machine learning AI to the task of improving pipeline performance.
Using historic and real-time data gathered from existing pipeline sensors, which measure variables like pressure and temperature and flow rate, the machine learning programs will help operators discern deviations and rapidly identify —even predict and prevent — pipeline leaks.
“The goal is that if you have an anomaly, a leak, we want to find it way faster, and we want to find way smaller leaks than you could by just looking at the sensors or using traditional methods,” said Jerad Stack, Flowstate co-founder and CEO, explaining that the AI-driven program fills in information gaps left by traditional sensor-technology. “Those sensors aren’t perfect. So the machine learning system is overcoming the instrumentation issues by learning complicated physical relationships so that we can make predictions about what should be happening.”
The technology comes in response to growing concerns over pipeline safety. Environmental hazards have spurred new state and federal monitoring requirements, while major failures have resulted in big economic losses and community devastation.
One example comes from Satartia, Mississippi, where in 2020 a pipeline carrying carbon dioxide exploded, and led to a mass carbon dioxide poisoning that hospitalized 45. Disasters like this can be avoided with AI-driven solutions, according to Flowstate. Much of the industry’s monitoring practices are geared toward liquid flows, like crude oil.
Machine learning programs will help the industry stay on top of the transition to more gaseous and unconventional pipeline products, like hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The company’s pilot project will operate on carbon dioxide pipelines, specifically working with a handful of Wyoming operators focused on enhanced oil recovery, in which carbon dioxide is injected into underground wells to pressure up resting fossil reserves.
Flowstate’s leak detection pilot arrives as the demand for carbon dioxide pipelines is mounting, with both private and public investments being made in network expansion. The Biden Administration in 2023 advanced $251 million in carbon transport and storage projects, including a $40.5 million award to Wyoming’s Sweetwater carbon storage hub.
If Flowstate’s pilot succeeds and pipeline expansion continues, this Wyoming-based technology company appears poised to take off.
But the company says the benefits will be industry-wide if machine learning methods are broadly adopted.
“Every time there’s a leak, it costs an enormous amount of money to a company. Whether it’s in cleanup, whether it’s fines, or it just slows down their operation and they have to shut down for however many days to deal with it. That all impacts revenue streams and profitability, so there’s just huge legal and financial implications,” explained Flowstate VP of Technology Braden Fits-Gerald.
The final two grants were awarded to The University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources (SER) for a pilot project that will test solutions for cleaning and reusing water produced by oil and gas to reapply in generating hydrogen by steam methane reformer methods.
In that project, “SER will design, build, demonstrate and field-test a supercritical water desalination and oxidation unit, integrated with steam methane reforming functionality, to ultimately produce one ton of hydrogen a day using produced water at a cost of around 15% below existing methods,” according to a statement from the WEA.
The other SER project is a feasibility study that will ascertain the ability to safely sequester carbon dioxide in geologic formations near Echo Springs gas plant.
“The caliber of these six projects shows how Wyoming is truly positioned to be a trailblazer for the future of the energy industry,” said Rob Creager, executive director of the Wyoming Energy Authority, in a statement. “Not only do these companies want to work with our state’s incredible natural resources, but they want to work with our communities and experienced workforce. Each of these projects uses a valuable Wyoming resource and, through ingenuity and effort, works to create a future where Wyoming-made energy is very much still front and center of the market.”