Facility to Make Coal Cleaner, More Efficient, Taking Shape in Wyoming

Clean Coal Technologies Inc. (CCTI) has begun reassembling a test facility designed to produce a cleaner-burning and more-efficient coal. The coal beneficiation and byproducts extraction plant, first built in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for an initial test of the technology, and then moved to Gillette, Wyoming, is expected to be completely rebuilt in the next few months, a company official told POWER on Oct. 9.

CCTI in 2017 touted its process, saying it had developed “the world’s first commercially viable and scalable coal dehydration technology” designed to upgrade the Btu content of lower-ranking coal “through the extraction of volatile material in liquid form,” ultimately producing a “cleaner burning, dry coal.” The process of improving coal quality is known as beneficiation, a technique in which the quality of raw coal is improved, either by reducing the extraneous matter that is extracted with mined coal, or reducing the associated ash, or both.

Aiden Neary, CFO/COO of CCTI, in an interview Wednesday with POWER, said global mining and power generating companies are interested in the technology and keenly aware of what it could mean for their industries.

“We’re very confident about what we have, and we’re excited about the next steps,” Neary said. “We’re excited about the sustainability aspect for the coal industry.”

CCTI, headquartered in New York City, is backed by private equity. “We have shareholders, we have investors, and we need to get this done as quickly as possible, but we need to ensure it’s done right,” Neary said. “Our objective is to get this plant reassembled as quickly as possible and start testing coal, both U.S. and international, and start extracting the byproducts.”

The company has not publicly disclosed the cost of its project, though CCTI in June 2017 said a group of investors was seeking $80 million to build a testing facility in the Powder River Basin.

Make Coal More Marketable

The financial viability of the project involves producing a cleaner-burning, higher-quality coal, with greater heat content, that is more marketable to power generators worldwide. It also is dependent on the sale of coal byproducts such as fly ash. Those byproducts have a variety of uses, many in the construction industry.

Neary said that reducing the amount of ash in the coal also could appease those who have opposed coal exports from the U.S. due to environmental concerns. Some U.S. ports, particularly along the Pacific Coast, have said they will not allow exports of coal from their facilities. The Trump administration last year proposed using naval or other federally operated ports along the West Coast as export sites.

“The reluctance of the Western ports to export the coal has a lot to do with the dust,” Neary said. “When you process the coal through our technology, what you have is dust-free coal. We’ve looked at the challenges facing coal, and we’ve asked ourselves, ‘What challenges can we address with our technology?’ Our technology makes the coal dust-free, and we believe we can address that problem. We’re not naïve enough to think they won’t come up with a second problem or third problem or fourth problem, but we’re addressing the dust problem.”

CCTI’s project has the support of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources, which is a partner in the project and is doing “a deep dive into our technology,” Neary said. He said the university has “completely validated our research. They’ve said of our technology, ‘It does what it says on the package.’ The university committed up to $1 million, $500,000 this year, and $500,000 next year, for the [facility] reassembly.

“This can open up a brand-new market for Powder River Basin coal,” Neary said. “It provides a cheaper, more-efficient feedstock for coal power utilities.”

Higher Heat Rate Attractive to Power Generators

“Utilizing Powder River Basin coal, or any coal if you like, is something that would have an appeal to power generators who want a higher Btu [heat content] and a dust-free coal,” Neary said. “When we decided to move to Wyoming, we asked ourselves, ‘Could we incorporate into the facility the ability to automatically extract the byproducts from the coal?’ We’ve mitigated engineering risks through our simulated models. There have been countless, and I mean countless, hours of simulations to prove that this works.”

The use of coal for power generation is waning in the U.S., forcing coal companies into bankruptcy and resulting in the closure of dozens of coal-fired power plants. Globally, though, coal use is on the rise, and Neary said “there’s a very obvious shift in the type of coal” wanted by power generators.

“I’ve spent time in India, talked with the Ministry of Coal, and we have a good understanding of energy use in India,” said Neary. “There’s a move by [India] Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi for generators to use higher-quality and higher-Btu coal. Powder River Basin coal is about 8,000 to 8,800 Btu. In our process we’ve increased that to about 11,000 to 11,600 Btu. That’s a highly valuable commodity for the international market, and it also has lower ash [content], so lower emissions.”

The test facility originally was scheduled to begin operation in Wyoming in early 2018, and had obtained necessary permitting. But when University of Wyoming researchers signed onto the project, Neary said CCTI saw that as an opportunity to “make the process better, to optimize it.

“There’s a legitimate reason for it,” Neary said of the decision to push back the project’s timeline. “It’s important for people to understand, we moved most of the facility to Wyoming in early 2018, obtained our air permits, and partnered with the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources when we committed to moving it to Wyoming. And at that time we said, ‘Is there a way to make it better?’ ”

Neary said his group’s technology is “first of its kind … that we built in Oklahoma, and it proved to be valid.” The additional year of research means the technology employed in Wyoming will have “additional enhancements incorporated into it.” Neary said he expects the project will be reassembled at the Gillette site within six months.

“This additional piece is complex,” Neary said of the enhancements being added at the Wyoming location. “It ensures the full stabilization of the coal, and enables us to extract byproducts from the coal itself. Powder River Basin coal has been used exclusively as an energy feedstock. If we can extract these byproducts from the coal, what we will have done is opened up a new market for Powder River Basin coal.”

CCTI has not publicly disclosed details of its coal-cleaning process, though Neary said that will likely happen soon after the Wyoming plant begins commercial operation.

‘Confidence in This Technology’

Neary said with the facility in Oklahoma, at the AES Shady Point coal-fired plant near Tulsa, “we were very restricted in who we could have on-site. We were restricted in the [type of] coal we could test at that facility. By moving to Wyoming and our own site, I can’t say enough about the support we’re receiving from the university, the governor’s office, the mayor of Gillette, [and] the Wyoming Business Council. We can now test any coal at the location, even international coal, there are no restrictions.

“With the university’s help, it has taken the technology from a Ford Model T, to closer to a Ferrari,” Neary said. “We’re going to be able to constantly upgrade the coal and make it more marketable. It’s a pretty unique process. All the simulated modeling we’ve done tells us we can expect to see an increase in the beneficiation of the coal. We have every confidence in this technology.”

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).