Ramaco Carbon has cleared the final hurdle to secure a new coal mine permit and intends to move forward this summer at the Brook Mine a few miles north of Sheridan.
The mining method and intended use of the coal is different from any other business in the state.
According to CEO and Chairman Randall Atkins, Ramaco intends to refine technologies to isolate chemical compounds naturally occurring in coal to procure raw materials, including carbon fibers, graphene, graphite and other materials. The Wyoming-based company has partnered with high-profile energy and development firms and established a strong financial backing that, if successful, can help redefine Wyoming’s fossil fuel economy.
The Brook Mine gained approval from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality last summer and was first new mine permit issued in the state in more than 40 years.
In a region where coal mines routinely go through high-profile bankruptcies, the new mine is intended to feed an on-site research and manufacturing facility.
The permit was challenged by the Powder River Basin Resource Council due to environmental concerns and others who own land in the vicinity of the proposed mine site who expressed apprehensions about the impact of the mine’s operations.
“The fact that the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality placed 12 conditions on the permit is an indication that the Brook Mine permit is inadequate and incomplete,” said PRBRC Chair Marcia Weskott in a press release last summer.
The final permit includes DEQ-added requirements to post $1.4 million for future cleanup before mining can start, additional monitoring requirements to protect wildlife and water quality, and limits on blasting, ground vibration and surface disturbances.
“We’re disappointed the permit has been issued, but we hope that the numerous conditions will protect our health, water, safety and property. We also hope that Ramaco is going to be a good neighbor, that they listen to and respect the neighboring landowners,” said Sheridan County resident Anton Bocek, who owns land near the mine boundary and worked with the PRBRC to appeal the permit.
The permit was ultimately upheld by an independent review by the Wyoming Environmental Quality Council. Going forward, Atkins said operations are going to look much different than what was envisioned in the beginning.
“We bought the property by Acme in 2011,” Atkins said, referring to a 118-acre section of land visible from Interstate 90 where the new business park is starting to take shape. “At the time we bought it, we candidly hoped to be able to put in a typical utility-oriented thermal coal mine, just like you would find in Gillette or anyplace else. Two or three years into our planning and permitting, it became apparent that utilities were changing pretty quickly, and the price did not justify a big, open pit thermal mine. That put us on an odyssey to come up with an entirely new use for coal.”
Inspired by other mines in West Virginia that are extracting coal for its innate chemistry instead of combustion properties, Ramaco Carbon adapted its business model to align with tomorrow’s economy.
Today, the company has partnered with multiple high-profile research institutions including the National Energy Technology Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Western Research Institute in Laramie and Terra Power, a company focused on innovative nuclear power and backed by Bill Gates. Additionally, the company was awarded $5 million to work with the Department of Energy to streamline vehicle manufacturing costs and is also heavily involved in 3D manufacturing technology, especially in the realm of military and medical sciences.
The common thread in Ramaco Carbon’s diverse projects is using manufacturing precursors derived from coal.
For example, carbon fiber derived from coal instead of today’s conventional sources promises to be less expensive and fill a broad spectrum of purposes.
Atkins said carbon fiber is significantly stronger than steel and aluminum, and Ramaco is working to unlock the science involved in “reverse-engineering” that and other crucial building blocks for manufacturing at a fraction of the cost of existing conventional supply chains.
Now that the mining permit has been secured, Ramaco is starting a step-by-step process that ends with a rewrite of the script for what it means to own a Wyoming coal mine. Instead of the traditional open pit mine models the state is known for, plans at Acme are for a “high wall” style of mining, which involves using an auger to dig into a hillside.
“It’s going to be light years less disturbance than the type of mines you see in Gillette,” Atkins said, explaining high wall mining only requires a trench-like indentation in the earth that’s a few hundred feet long for an auger to be placed. After the auger has drilled the desired sections, earth removed from the mined sections will be replaced. “There’s a reason why that’s important: what we are looking for is to be able to mine a fairly uniform seam of coal that has the same chemical quality.”
By keeping the makeup of coal mined as consistent as possible, researchers can replicate experimental results, and any items manufactured will be homogenous in quality.
“As soon as we get our building complete this summer, we will install process equipment to produce these products in a benched-scale and limited scale quantities that will be provided to customers,” Atkins said, referring to the envisioned “mine mouth” setup where the coal extracted from the land will be processed into higher-value products on the site where it is mined.
Upon opening, Ramaco Carbon will likely employ 25 to 40 people, but as the company refines its technique and establishes a customer base, that number could grow into the hundreds.
“In the beginning, it’s going to be a modest amount of coal,” he said. “Even for the stoker market, it will be measured in the 100,000 tons instead of millions of tons, which is very small compared to what Wyoming is used to.”
Atkins said he expects Ramaco’s carbon-based manufacturing endeavors to take off quickly, which will redirect the emphasis of operations away from mining and refocus on manufacturing. While mining is nothing new to the Cowboy State, the most lucrative work done at the Brook Mine will ultimately not be coal extraction, but the engineering of coal into other precursor materials for manufacturing.
“The storyline here is were are moving Wyoming into the lane of advanced products and materials manufacturing. The mining is a historic part to the state, but what we’re trying to do is create a whole new form of manufacturing,” Atkins said.
The Brook Mine has deep roots in the state’s tradition of mining as the backbone of the economy. The project also involves harnessing technology of the future to make more affordable, durable and sustainable goods.
This isn’t just another Wyoming mine. Whatever happens, this will be different from anything tried here before.