Interview with Scott Austin Quillinan, University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources, USA

Scott Quillinan is the Director of Research for the School of Energy Resources (SER), University Of Wyoming (UW), and a licensed, consulting Professional Geologist (PG-3824). Quillinan directs SER grant-funded and state-funded research, is a Principal Investigator for several Department of Energy-funded projects, directs the SER Center of Economic Geology, and manages the funding for the SER Centers of Excellence.

Scott Austin Quillinan

Quillinan has geologic expertise in Wyoming’s geologic basins (e.g. Powder River, Green River, Wind River, Bighorn, and DJ) and in China’s Ordos Basin. Quillinan’s research focuses on the interconnections between energy resource production and groundwater resources. Quillinan has worked with energy challenges associated with the production of coal, coalbed methane, oil and gas, hydraulic fracturing and CO2 sequestration.

Specifically, his research interests include; predicting and identifying water/rock geochemical reactions, isotopic groundwater tracing, characterization of rare earth element and high-value materials, identifying aquifer/reservoir mixing, efficient reservoir dewatering techniques, potential beneficial use for produced waters, and the permanent and safe geologic storage of CO2.

What is the mission of the School of Energy Resources (SER) and how SER uses that mission to support energy extractive industries within the State of Wyoming?

Scott Austin Quillinan: The Mission of the School of Energy Resources is energy-driven economic development for the state of Wyoming. To accomplish this, SER develops and deploys expertise to solve critical energy challenges, add value to the Wyoming energy sector, and position UW as a primary provider for energy innovation at the national level.

To that end, SER facilitates internal and external interdisciplinary coalitions and builds institutional capacity in energy education, research and outreach.

SER distinguishes its programs in areas of strategic importance to Wyoming’s extractive industries by focusing on four strategic areas:

  1. Maximizing the economic recovery of energy and mineral resources;
  2. Protecting existing markets for Wyoming’s energy and mineral resources;
  3. Creating new markets – traditional and value-added – from Wyoming energy and mineral resources;
  4. Educating the workforce and stakeholders to facilitate growth and diversification of the energy sector through the addition of value-added activities.

What is the Wyoming energy mix and why it is important to the State? What is the SER research portfolio and Carbon Capture and storage (CCS)? What is its importance to Wyoming?

Scott Austin Quillinan: Nationally, Wyoming is the largest producer of coal, ranks first in uranium, eighth in oil, ninth in natural gas, and third in wind energy generation capacity. The state’s economy historically has been supported by the energy and extractive industries.

Due to the economic significance to the state, the SER research portfolio is designed to solve challenges faced by these industries. Generally the topic areas are organized into Centers of Excellence housed within SER that maximize partnerships and expertise in other UW departments.

The various centers work on topics related to diversifying and adding value to Wyoming coal, unconventional oil and gas development, carbon capture, use and storage, produced water management, air quality and methane mitigation, hydrogen (production, transportation, use and storage), nuclear energy, and wind energy. Chief among the many research topics is carbon capture and storage. Carbon capture and storage is the process of capturing (or separating) carbon dioxide (CO2) from a point source or even directly from the air, and then compressing the CO2 into a dense phase to store in deep underground geologic formations. Carbon capture and storage can help extractive industries –like those operating in Wyoming—meet net zero goals.

Please talk about Wyoming CarbonSAFE and how CCS can be leverage to diversify WY’s energy economy?

Scott Austin Quillinan: The Department of Energy (DOE) Carbon Storage Assurance Facility Enterprise (CarbonSAFE) Initiative began in 2016 with the goal of addressing the key gaps on the critical path towards CCS deployment. The Wyoming CarbonSAFE project is one of thirteen original carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) project sites funded by the DOE program. Four of the original thirteen projects have advanced to Phase III through competitive down select, including sites in North Dakota, Alabama, and Illinois. One new project located in New Mexico has joined the program.

Wyoming CarbonSAFE is located at the Basin Electric Dry Fork Power Station and Wyoming Integrated Test Center in the Powder River Basin (“PRB”) in Campbell County, north of Gillette, Wyoming. In the project’s current phase – Phase III (Site Characterization and CO2 Capture Assessment) – a detailed site characterization is being conducted.

The site characterization includes:

  • Additional data collection activities in the field through, for example, the drilling of a second test well (UW PRB#2);
  • a front-end engineering design and CO2 capture analysis;
  • baseline data collection and surface monitoring;
  • subsurface data analysis and modeling;
  • National Environmental Policy Act approvals;
  • preparation of Underground Injection Control (UIC) Class VI permits to construct;
  • preparation of a risk assessment, mitigation plan and monitoring, verification and accounting (MVA) plan; and
  • finalization of a business plan and related commercial aspects.

Wyoming CarbonSAFE is important because the coal mines located in the Powder River Basin supply subbituminous coal to 113 coal-fired plants in 25 states.

We seek to demonstrate that carbon capture and storage can be deployed safely, economically, and at a commercial scale on a coal-fired power plant. More importantly, we want to transfer the knowledge, expertise and methodologies to accelerate CCS at the national scale.

Carbon capture and storage can also be the key to diversifying the Wyoming energy economy. For example, hydrogen generation and direct air capture are nascent and rapidly growing industries. Hydrogen can be created from natural gas or coal and if the process is combined with CCS, the hydrogen can have a low carbon-intensity.

Direct air capture is the process of removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere. Once removed it can be permanently stored deep underground. Each of these industries provide new opportunities for the highly trained workforce that we have in Wyoming and require access to carbon storage.

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Kindly discuss Carbon Engineering, developing new non-thermal uses for coal, and how Carbon Engineering can be used to diversify Wyoming’s Economy?

Scott Austin Quillinan: While we continue to focus on supporting existing markets for Wyoming coal, the SER Carbon Engineering Initiative seeks to discover new added value uses for coal. These include the development of novel market products derived from coal with a strategic focus on products that consume large volumes of coal.

The program is also focused on workforce development and how these new markets can utilize the talented existing workforce to create new coal-based manufacturing businesses.

A few examples of the products under development include; coal-derived building materials, coal-derived paving and asphalts, and coal-derived agricultural products (e.g. soil amendments).

One example of the coal-based building materials is a char brick. The brick is actually made from coal char that is created as a result of fast pyrolysis (a component of the SER patented coal refinery) that deliberately decomposes the coal into the valuable char byproduct.

Thus far, lab results have indicated that the char bricks are superior to the clay bricks in many ways. They are lighter, stronger, less expensive, and require less energy to make and transport when compared to conventional bricks. Many of these attributes are because the bricks are porous, meaning the bricks contain air pockets within the matrix. The high porosity increases the thermal capacity and decreases the weight. SER researchers are even experimenting with coal derived bricks that are less dense than water.
While these materials are performing well in the laboratory, it is important to see how they perform outside in the elements. For this work, the coal-derived building material program recently celebrated the completion of a demonstration house constructed of the coal-derived bricks.

This way the bricks can be tested against the Wyoming elements (i.e. wind, sun, snow and ice). We also want to understand how the bricks perform relative to conventional materials. To do this, SER Researchers constructed a clay brick-built demonstration house adjacent to the coal demonstration house to measure the difference in performance. They are monitoring variations in temperature, air quality, weathering, and sound. Monitoring and testing will last another 12 months, but when entering each demonstration house it is easy to feel the increased thermal performance that the porous coal bricks add to the construction.
In addition to the bricks other coal-based building materials include, plaster to substitute for dry wall, flooring tiles, roofing materials, mortar, and structural components that will one day be able to replace steel and aluminum beams.

What are your views on the current state of Rare earth elements and critical minerals in terms of background, location and distribution and how does this help coal mining?

Scott Austin Quillinan: The current state of rare earth elements (REE) and critical minerals (CM), is that they are growing in demand, and reliable and affordable access to these minerals is needed for energy diversification, modern living, and national security.

For example, these minerals are used in batteries, non-reflective glass, lasers, smart phones, and lighting among many other uses. Today the majority of these minerals, are mined and processed overseas.

Even though current global operations are located abroad, the U.S does have domestic resources that can be developed. SER has several projects related to rare earth elements and critical minerals — both from conventional and unconventional sources – to support a potential domestic mining industry. The first of these programs is funded by the U.S Department of Energy under the Carbon Ore, Rare Earth Element and Critical Minerals Initiative (CORE-CM). This program is aimed at developing domestic strategies for rare earth element and critical mineral development across the value chain.

For example the program is looking at exploration, mining techniques, mineral extraction, mineral processing, needed infrastructure, workforce development, commercial business plans, environmental and social governance, and more.

Under the larger umbrella of CORE-CM we have several different projects that are ongoing. The largest of these is a project focused on identifying and extracting rare earth elements and critical minerals in coal and in coal fly-ash. It turns out that coal seams are a great place to look for rare earth elements.

SER researchers have identified elevated concentrations directly above and below coal seams. They have also found elevated concentrations is ash beds within the coal seams, and they have found elevated concentrations in coal fly-ash. Fly ash is a by-product that is left after coal is burned for power generation.
The benefit of coal-based REE and CM resources is that it is already being mined. The high concentration areas in the over and under burden of the coal seams are often removed during the mining process but not used because of the high ash content.

REE and CMs that lie in the coal ash have been accumulating near coal-fired power plants for many years. The interesting attribute of Powder River Basin derived coal-ash is that the coal can contain high calcium concentrations in the ash. This high calcium concentration allows for the REEs and CMs to be easily extracted from the coal ash using an acid digestion. In addition to coal-sourced REEs and CMs, SER is looking into other unconventional sources that lie in uranium deposits, phosphate deposits, and produced water, as well as conventional sources that lie in hard rock deposits.

What is needed to grow a domestic industry?

Scott Austin Quillinan: In my opinion, growing a domestic industry is going to be a challenge. It can’t be done by simply identifying a resource. It requires clever and intentional policy development, workforce training, technology innovation, community support and engagement, and a commitment from domestic consumers. A domestic industry also has to be economically competitive with current markets. The CORE-CM program is developing strategies for each of these various topic areas.

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