Can science keep Utah’s coal country in the energy game for generations to come?


This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identifying solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Orangeville It was always about keeping the lights on.

In a former coal mine parts warehouse on the outskirts of town, Emery County, the State of Utah and the US government will reinvent energy.

This is the dream. There’s also a back-up plan, and it’s about keeping the lights on in a part of Beehive State that’s lived one way for a century and now must find a new path.

The San Rafael Energy Research Center is a fledgling laboratory just outside of Orangeville. The parts warehouse was once owned by the former Utah Power & Light Co., a predecessor of Rocky Mountain Power that built the massive Hunter Generating Station, whose smokestacks loom in the distance.

Inside the rusting metal building is a lab worthy of a James Bond movie, featuring shiny steel tanks that power “glove rooms”, where scientists will handle experiments in an argon gas atmosphere.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The “glove box” at the San Rafael Energy Research Center near Orangeville in Emery County, Thursday, July 21, 2022.

The center was launched through the work of two chemical engineering professors from Brigham Young University who bring extensive industry experience and several million dollars in grants from the US Department of Energy. The new director of the center is responsible for finding more opportunities in a range of energy technologies, including the production of hydrogen and solar panels.

Early work was funded by the state, and Utah is looking to the federal government for more. The Utah Office of Energy Development has made San Rafael the cornerstone of Utah’s Rural Energy Diversification and Innovation Initiative. U-REDI is one of 20 finalists in a Federal Economic Development Administration program to help coal-dependent communities adapt. The state hopes to receive $30 million, much of which would go to San Rafael and its programs.

The technologies the center is pursuing are cutting edge but not out of the mainstream in a world increasingly desperate for energy solutions.

Towards a molten salt reactor

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Andrew Fry, an associate professor of chemical engineering at BYU, is working on a next-generation system that uses supercritical carbon dioxide instead of a conventional steam boiler.

On the edge? How about molten salt thorium nuclear power? Matthew Memmott, an associate professor at BYU, earned his doctorate in nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before leading Westinghouse’s reactor group. He sees thorium reactors – a decades-old technology – as a safer and cheaper nuclear alternative.

It was Memmott who first approached the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, an alliance of Utah counties with a shared interest in energy. He was looking for a remote location for his research and he thought coal country offered advantages.

“This technology is a great way to help areas with coal shortages,” Memmott said. “Salts are similar to coal. Some of their training transfers.

This meeting eventually led to conversations with Emery County Commissioner Lynn Sitterud, who along with other commissioners decided to take over Memmott’s project at the San Rafael Center.

For Sitterud, energy research comes naturally to the county, and he nurtured the project. But he makes it clear that sustaining a research center for the long term is not something his 10,000 constituents can afford. “He will have to be self-sufficient if he is to survive.”

Sitterud is also adamant that the effort is not just about keeping coal viable. The intention is to pursue several energy-related paths in the hope that one or more will pay off. If any of these efforts result in commercialization, the center has 100 acres available next door as a possible manufacturing site, which could be a key step towards the center’s sustainability.

Memmott also said a remote rural location is a plus when researching medical isotopes and nuclear products and “the perception that it’s not safe.”

In fact, it currently has no plans to produce nuclear products at the San Rafael facility. He faces a mountain of federal permits before a molten salt reactor is built anywhere, and he thinks it could happen faster in a place like the Idaho National Laboratory.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The medical isotope lab.

Instead, he looks to San Rafael to perfect the molten salt part, not the nuclear part. And that’s where Memmott believes he has the secret sauce that could make nuclear thorium the norm. Specifically, he refined a method to remove water and oxygen from molten salts, greatly reducing the corrosion the salts inflict on pipes. This corrosion problem, Memmott said, discouraged its development as a power source.

And the use of thorium instead of uranium as nuclear fuel opens up new opportunities. The isotopes generated in the process have more medical uses and generate less hazardous nuclear waste. And because the produce lives in molten soup instead of solid fuel rods, it’s easier to separate the good stuff.

With investors, he started a company, Alpha Tech Research Corp., to produce a mixture of molten salts that could be used in nuclear reactors. Alpha Tech has its own reactor design, but it also intends to sell its molten salt to others, including a company making a nuclear battery and to MIT, which sees it as a wrapper around its fusion reactor. hot nuclear. (Note: Alpha Tech licenses the technology from BYU, which owns the patents for Memmott’s work, and the school, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will collect royalties if it is marketed.)

It could be that molten salt is being produced in Emery County, but for now, Memmott is just moving his research into the facility. The center’s director, Jeremy Pearson, who also has a background in nuclear research, helps recruit talent.

A new generation generator

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Andrew Fry is backing a machine to make burning energy more efficient.

While Memmott’s research is on an entirely new source of energy, Andrew Fry’s work is more concerned with extending any source.

Fry, also an associate professor of chemical engineering at BYU, is working in an adjacent building on a next-generation system that uses supercritical carbon dioxide instead of a conventional steam boiler. It’s a process that could make any heat generator – coal, wood, nuclear, geothermal – much more efficient at converting heat into electricity.

Fry, who had moved to nearby Price as a teenager, earned his doctorate at the University of Utah. His graduate research focused on limiting mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, and his work in industry focused on making combustion processes more efficient. While in college, he worked with an experimental combustor at a college facility on the west side of Salt Lake City. The United States was downsizing this facility, and Fry went to the Utah Legislature to secure funds to move the firebox to Orangeville. That combustion chamber, still painted red from its American days, now sits at the San Rafael center, and Fry has a $5 million grant from the DOE to continue the research.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The San Rafael Energy Research Center was once owned by the former Utah Power & Light Co., a predecessor of Rocky Mountain Power that built the massive Hunter Generating Station, whose smokestacks tower in the distance .

Fry also conducted research on coal “oxycombustion”, burning coal in pure oxygen to avoid nitrogen emissions. He is interested in carbon capture technologies that can extend the viability of fossil fuels.

“The flavor of my research,” he said, “is to move us forward and continue to use natural resources sustainably.”

San Rafael also attracted the interest of Associate Professor U. Kody Powell. Powell recently got a job at the University of Engineering, and he’s using his sabbatical to return to Emery County. He grew up in nearby Huntington, in the shadow of another large coal-fired power plant. Powell’s work has involved using artificial intelligence to maximize electrical systems, particularly useful for integrating renewables into the energy mix.

Powell has been involved in an effort to produce hydrogen more efficiently, work that could also find a home in San Rafael.

“It’s an energy community, so there’s a workforce there,” he said, adding that government funding for coal communities is also a big draw. “To be frank, the federal government has a lot of money.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A worker welds inside a combustion chamber. “The flavor of my research,” said Andrew Fry, “is to move us forward and continue to use natural resources sustainably.”

Powell also thinks having a living, breathing science in the county sends a strong message to young people. “It would encourage the kids in the neighborhood. We want to send the message that you can get an engineering degree and come back.

That sounds good to Jordan Leonard, who is set to join Sitterud on the Emery County Commission in January. (Leonard beat the incumbent in the GOP primary last month and faces no Democrats in November.) Leonard worked for Utah State University in County, focusing on career opportunities. education for young residents.

Leonard knows well the deep connection the people of his county have in keeping the lights of Utah on. His father died in a coal mine accident when he was 9 years old.

“Energy is just a huge part of our community,” Leonard said. “I would like to continue to be an energy-producing county.”

Correction: Kody Powell is an associate professor at the University of Utah. An earlier version misrepresented its title.

Tim Fitzpatrick is the renewable energy reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains full control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.


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