Interview with Trina Igelsrud Pfeiffer, School of Energy Resources, at the University of Wyoming

For the October 2022 issue of Skillings Mining Review, we had the pleasure of interviewing Trina Igelsrud Pfeiffer, the Interim Director of the Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion (CCCC) in the School of Energy Resources (SER).

Trina Igelsrud Pfeiffer
Trina Igelsrud Pfeiffer

Originally from Denver, Trina Igelsrud Pfeiffer earned her B.S. and M.Sc. in Chemical and Petroleum Refining Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines in 1980 and 1990, respectively. After completing her education, Pfeiffer immediately began working for an engineering corporation for over a decade before starting her own consulting company and serving as the first female local section chair for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) in the Denver area.

Trina Igelsrud Pfeiffer has been instrumental in making the CCCC’s patent-pending thermo-chemical process technology a reality. The integrated coal refining system utilizes different conversion processes to break down Powder River Basin (PRB) coal and convert it into non-energy and fuel products with a minimal carbon footprint.

Trina Igelsrud Pfeiffer brings forty years of technical experience with her to SER and a wealth of knowledge to help move projects in the CCCC closer to commercialization by finding alternative, high-volume uses for Wyoming coal. Moving forward, she will also be serving as a co-principal investigator on a recently introduced rare earth element extraction project in the center. Pfeiffer will also take charge of the CO2 capture pilot plant that is currently being commissioned in the center.

Please tell us in detail about your educational background.

“I have Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Chemical and Petroleum Refining Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. When I was a student at Mines, there were not many women attending. It had six fraternities and no sororities — not that I was interested in that, but you get the idea! It has changed dramatically since I went there, which is a good thing. I believe there are currently about 25% women attending Mines.”

Please talk about your professional experiences; how did you reach your current designation?

“I have been in several different roles throughout my career. From a process engineer working on designing equipment, and relief systems and modelling chemical processes, engineering led to being in charge of designing and running pilot scale plants for the University of Wyoming.

I am now the director of the Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion, which oversees the lab scale, pilot scale and field demonstration scale for our coal refinery. The idea behind the coal refinery is to repurpose coal in non-thermal ways so coal products can be competitive and environmentally friendly. It is a way to keep coal alive in this ever-changing energy world.”

Trina Igelsrud Pfeiffer

Provide details regarding your prestigious institution P&P Innovative Software; what are the key turnarounds, discoveries and innovations that it has made, and what have been your contributions?

“P&P has been one of the only companies to take the ASPEN (Advanced System for Process Engineering) simulation program, which is the product of a Department of Engineering project that ended in 1980, and write affordable software for use in thermodynamic calculations, pressure relief design calculations and fluid flow calculations.”

What is your advice to young students considering metals/mining or environmental sustainability as full-time professions?

“Students looking to get into chemical engineering have a great future ahead of them. There are more options now than when I graduated from school. In addition to oil and gas, chemicals and environmental arenas, there are also food, pharma, and renewable energy possibilities. It is a great field, and students can take so many paths.”

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Throw some light on the new coal byproduct demonstration project.

“The demonstration plant is being built to showcase the heart of our coal refinery. There are two processes: solvent extraction of coal and coal pyrolysis which is the main focus.

The products from these two processes, coal extract and coal char are intermediate products that can be used to make many downstream products: building materials, soil amendments, asphalt products and polymers, coatings and resins.
Most of these downstream products are field tested, and data is gathered on the pilot scale.

When the field demonstration plant is built, we will use the material generated from this plant to verify our lab data. Once our data and the processes have been verified, we will be ready for the commercialization of our coal refinery.”

You have been associated with so many companies in the energy spectrum. What are the common obstacles and shared benefits?

Obstacles: Overcoming economic difficulties caused by recurring economic cycles — boom or bust.
Benefits: computer technology and communications advances have benefited all companies.

What has been the impact of COVID-19 on the energy sector?

The pandemic has been difficult for almost every sector. “Low demand for oil due to people not driving or flying has been a real issue since the onset of COVID-19. The continued remote work environment and its effect on the ever-changing corporate culture contribute to the lower oil demand. The weakened supply chain bottleneck can also impact corporate progress and development.”

How easy or difficult is it for women to get into this work nowadays? Any particular advice for them?

“I think women wanting to enter this sector now have it much easier than in the past. It is still a male-dominated industry, but I think the old way of thinking is becoming less prevalent. It is very refreshing to see women in positions of power.”

What are your plans for the future?

“To see the coal refinery become a reality in the state of Wyoming.”

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