UWYO.EDU — Maohong Fan wants to help solve an energy puzzle that will ensure Wyoming’s coal production remains viable for decades to come. Finding catalysts, or new materials that can be used for processing Wyoming coal, may be the key.

Fan, a School of Energy Resources (SER) associate professor of chemical engineering in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, is using the new Peabody Energy Advanced Coal Technology Laboratory to conduct coal-conversion research. Specifically, his group, including Professor Brian Towler, a UW professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, wants to develop new catalytic coal gasification technologies, which can produce a desired syngas (a gas mixture that mainly contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane) for producing chemicals, including ethylene glycol. Syngas, short for synthesis gas, is created from a process known as coal gasification.

“Ethylene glycol, currently produced from petroleum resources, can be produced from coal in a cost-effective manner,” says Fan, who specializes in advanced coal technologies, low-emission energy production and syntheses and applications of new materials, including catalysts and sorbents.

Ethylene glycol is an organic compound that has a number of uses, including as antifreeze in heating and cooling systems, in hydraulic brake fluids and as a solvent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It also is an important raw material for polyester fiber production.

Wyoming is the nation’s leading coal producer, and most of the commodity is shipped out of state and used for power generation, Fan says. Coal-fired power plants, in the state and elsewhere, face increased costs due to strict environmental regulations, a scenario that is challenging to Wyoming’s coal economy.

The university, through investment by the state of Wyoming and industry partners, is pursuing research and development to create new products and diversify the state’s coal market by using advanced coal-conversion technologies. Ideally, creating higher-value use of coal via the production of ethylene glycol in a low-cost and low-emissions manner will reshape Wyoming’s coal economy.

Fan's research group includes post-doctoral students, graduate students and undergraduate students. Each team member works on certain aspects or steps associated with the coal-conversion process, Fan says. David A. Bell, a UW associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, and Towler are the primary colleagues who work with Fan on his coal-conversion research.

Peabody Energy contributed $2 million, matched by the state of Wyoming, to build the Energy Innovation Center, with the expectation that a portion of the facility would house research directed at advanced coal technologies, says SER Director Mark Northam.

“The Peabody Advanced Coal Technology Laboratory was named to recognize Peabody Energy’s contribution and support of research at UW,” Northam says. “The conversion of low-value fossil resources into higher-value products is a key component of our strategic plan, and we now have top-notch facilities to do this important research.”

“Peabody Energy is a global leader advancing clean coal solutions and has low-carbon projects and partnerships on three continents,” says Greg Boyce, chairman and chief executive officer for Peabody Energy. "We are proud to partner with the University of Wyoming to advance projects that transform coal into multiple necessary products.”

Arch Coal contributed $750,000, also matched by the state, for the research offices that support the advanced coal technology research. The Arch Coal Research Offices supply equipped office space for visiting professionals and researchers from other universities and industry, and are a vital component to the success of this specialized research.