GILLETTE — What may have seemed more like science fiction less than a decade ago could soon become science fact.
Solving the planet’s carbon dioxide problem has become one of the most pressing global initiatives, if not also one of the most daunting as scientists and governments contemplate what can appear to be a task so herculean it can’t be done.
That’s where places like the Integrated Test Center and people like Gaurav Sant come in.
Sant is a professor at the UCLA Smueli School of Engineering and team lead for CarbonBuilt, one of five finalist research projects chosen to compete at the ITC for a share of $20 million in prize money to turn CO2 emissions into valuable products, and fiction into fact along the way.
Solving enormous, life-changing problems is what inspires scientists like him, Gaurav said. A crucial part of that inspiration was realized at the ITC, attached to the Dry Fork Station gas-fired power plant about 10 miles north of Gillette.
CarbonBuilt finished its on-site testing near the end of last summer and continues to research and refine its technology while waiting for the XPrize winners to be announced. The 10 finalists in two tracks of the competition — five at the ITC and five at a gas-fired plant in Alberta, Canada — may soon learn if they’ve done enough to win. The winner in each track gets $7.5 million for the solution that captures the most CO2 and turns it into the most valuable products.
The teams split another $5 million in prize money when they were named finalists in 2018.
For CarbonBuilt, that solution is infusing waste CO2 into concrete to make cinder blocks and other building materials.
Because the ITC gives research teams access to large amounts of flue gas from the power plant, it offers a unique opportunity to show how technologies can scale to handle a high volume of CO2 emissions, he said.
“Without access to facilities of that sort, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do,” he said. “It’s really a foundational step to be able to demonstrate and move the types of (solutions) we have.”
While at the ITC, CarbonBuilt completed some very successful research, Gaurav said.
“We were happy with the concrete results we ended up with,” he said. “The demonstration was a success for two reasons. It showed us the system actually performed much better than our expectations.
“It showed the technology works, and it also showed the economics of the process. It demonstrated economics of what we suggested all along as it works out at a much larger scale.”
While in Gillette, the team made about 10,000 concrete construction blocks, or about 160 metric tons of product, what Gaurav called “a fairly large quantity.”
While CarbonBuilt and many of the other XPrize teams already have other partnerships and plans to commercialize their technologies, Gaurav said the point isn’t to win.
“I think the XPrize really forced us to take something that was essentially a research project and translate technologies into a larger (scale) and through a commercial lens,” he said. “It’s a change in the scientific mindset that may have come about.”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to win. That would be a $7.5 million bonus, Gaurav said.
“We never enter with the objective to win,” he said. “The success is the journey. While everyone likes to win, what the prize is most successful at is getting people to make the journey who may not have thought out of the box (enough) or their comfort zone.”
Because of COVID-19, only two of the five NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize finalists picked to prove their research at the ITC could make it to Gillette last summer.
Along with CarbonBuilt, Air Co. from New York City set up shop to scale its patented technology to capture CO2 from flue gas and convert it into a pure ethyl alcohol. That alcohol can be used in many ways and to make things like spirits, cleaners and sanitizers, fragrances and even a carbon-neutral fuel.
Teams from India, China and Aberdeen, Scotland, couldn’t do their research at the ITC because of international travel restrictions related to the pandemic. Instead, those teams were allowed to do more research and whatever they could to show how their technologies would scale, said Jason Begger, managing director for the Wyoming Integrated Test Center.
The teams were disappointed that they were denied access to a world-class research facility like the ITC, he said. But he’s also excited for the impending announcement of the winners. While the XPrize Foundation hasn’t officially announced when that will happen, it could come at any time.
“The thing about these tests is a lot of them are years in the making,” Begger said. “It’s not like somebody has test equipment sitting in a warehouse somewhere looking to deploy it. This is where you do it.”
The XPrize was the first tenant at the ITC, which has brought a lot of positive, global attention to the facility and to Wyoming as a leader in CO2 research and innovation, said Holly Krutka, executive director for the School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming.
Along with UW’s involvement in a number of carbon-related research projects in and around Campbell County, Krutka also is an XPrize judge.
While she couldn’t talk about any of the specific projects in the competition, she said the innovation being proven at the Integrated Test Center is exciting. Whether they win or lose, she anticipates many teams capitalizing on viable solutions to capture and repurpose waste CO2.
“There are a lot of positive things regarding the XPrize competition,” she said. Carbon capture and reuse “is a tough arena and it’s early stage work, but these are really exciting technologies. I think the XPrize competition has been good in that it really pushes teams that otherwise might have stayed in a lab.”
The pandemic was a bit of a monkey wrench in the works, “but we did the best we could with what we had,” Krutka said. “The impacts of the technologies are really important and they’re being deployed all over the world.”
And although CO2 emissions is a global problem, Krutka believes the ITC and the research done there also will be a boon for Wyoming and Campbell County.
“I’ve worked in (the energy) space my whole career, and I do expect this to help here at home,” she said. “As we think about CCS (carbon capture and sequestration), it’s much more broad than just poor plant emissions. There are other industrial applications. If we’re serious about reducing carbon emissions, we have to do this.”
That some international teams couldn’t use the research facilities in Gillette or Canada shouldn’t impact the judging, Krutka said.
But research at places like the ITC are becoming more important in moving ideas from theory to practice, she said.
“We have to look at scale,” she said. “We try to find areas where we can use a lot of coal, like for construction equipment and soil amendments. You can’t replace every ton (of coal mined for power generation), but you can replace some tons and keep coal as an economic driver. That’s an area we’re really excited about.”
Wyoming and the Integrated Test Center promise to be front and center for innovation and creating new CO2-based products as the United States government puts more importance on climate control, said U.S. Sen. John Barrasso.
The Wyoming Republican is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He said the Cowboy State is fighting for innovation and against President Joe Biden and an administration that would rather eliminate fossil fuels altogether than find a solution for CO2 emissions.
“Biden has declared war on Wyoming energy,” Barrasso said. “But I’m still very optimistic about what we’re doing in Wyoming. Wyoming is really leading the world in this. You’re not seeing this level of commitment by a state anywhere else.”
Much of that is because of the Integrated Test Center, which was born when the 2014 Legislature allocated $15 million to build the facility.
“That test center, with our ability to capture carbon from flue gas, allows us to do more research, and we’re developing technology for direct air capture,” Barrasso said.
One game-changing breakthrough the senator anticipates happening through research at places like the ITC is to not only pull CO2 from industrial emissions, but from the atmosphere.
“Isn’t that the goal, to capture the carbon and do it efficiently, then convert it into products that can be sold?” he said.
While the U.S. market for coal is severely depressed, that’s not the case around the globe, Barrasso said. Coal is less dominant in producing domestic energy, but countries around the world are building more coal-fired generation. That means there’s an international market for potential innovations made in Wyoming.
“Twenty years from now, the world is going to be using more coal than it is today,” he said. “We’re going to be using more energy than we are today and Wyoming continues to be on the leading edge with the technology that’s going to make a difference worldwide.
“I’m very optimistic and enthusiastic about what we’re doing in Wyoming, and specifically Campbell County. It’s not only important for Wyoming, but also for the planet.”
The culmination of the Carbon XPrize isn’t the end of the ITC’s journey in finding CO2 solutions, it’s the beginning.
As the $20 million competition winds down, billionaire businessman and visionary Elon Musk has teamed with the XPrize Foundation for the largest scientific competition in history. His $100 million Gigaton Scale Carbon Removal contest is scheduled to officially kick off April 22, which is Earth Day.
Five times larger than the NRG COSIA XPrize, the Gigaton project “is aimed at tackling the biggest threat facing humanity — fighting climate change and rebalancing Earth’s carbon cycle,” according to the XPrize Foundation website.
Over four years of the contest, research teams will be tasked with creating and demonstrating technology and processes that can pull CO2 directly from the atmosphere and oceans and scale to huge levels.
It’s possible that some of that research could happen at the Integrated Test Center, Barrasso said.
The $100 million Gigaton competition also comes at a great time for the ITC, Begger said. With the XPrize teams finished and the pandemic travel beginning to ease some, the facility can start searching in earnest for new tenants.
He also said the future success of the XPrize teams will continue to have a positive impact for the ITC, which will be connected to those successes.
“It was really cool to see the projects on the ground at the test center, like the team from UCLA making concrete blocks,” he said. “That makes it real and exciting.
“For me, what will be really interesting is watching to see what sort of private investors step up. At the end of the day, whether it’s carbon capture or carbon utilization, it’s got to turn into a viable business, and that’s going to take the private sector.”
The success of the XPrize and the research proven at the Integrated Test Center will continue to resonate for Wyoming, Barrasso said. That’s needed to help combat a perception outside the state that Wyoming is anti-environment.
“This is a way we can use innovation instead of taxation and regulation,” he said. “We can continue to protect the environment and not punish the economy.”
Now, Biden and others he calls “climate alarmists” have momentum and push a keep-it-in-the-ground agenda “that’s just not being realists,” Barrasso said. “We need it all. We need the renewables, we need fossil fuels.”
The world also needs an important and often overlooked Wyoming natural resource — innovation.