A hard problem deserves hard solutions.
That seems to be the message from the XPrize Foundation, which announced that both grand prize winners of the NRG COSIA XPrize competition are concrete technologies.
A pair of projects that promise to revolutionize the construction industry while helping solve the world’s carbon dioxide emissions each will get $7.5 million for proving their processes can capture and reuse large amounts of CO2 and turn them into valuable products.
CarbonBuilt, a team from UCLA led by Prof. Gaurav Sant that demonstrated its technology at the Integrated Test Center attached to the Dry Fork Station coal-fired power plant north of Gillette, won the coal track of the XPrize competition.
CarbonCure Technologies, which demonstrated its process of infusing waste CO2 into concrete at a gas-fired plant in Alberta, Canada, won the gas track.
The teams split $15 million of the overall $20 million prize pool of the Carbon XPrize. The other $5 million was paid out $500,000 each to the 10 finalist teams in the competition.
The winners were announced Monday morning by the XPrize Foundation.
Both teams demonstrated unique proprietary technologies that infuse waste CO2 into concrete, one of the most prolific man-made materials on the planet.
CarbonBuilt uses captured carbon dioxide emissions and infuses it into concrete building blocks as they’re made. The result is a more cost-efficient cinder block that uses less cement that’s actually stronger than before, said Sant.
CarbonCure already is on a fast-track to implementing its process into mainstream construction. It takes waste CO2 and injects it into the concrete mix as it’s being pumped onto a truck. This happens through an apparatus attached to a batch plant. The raw concrete then is poured as normal for foundations, driveways, sidewalks and other uses.
Both teams are excited to win and said the XPrize is just the beginning of their research and transition into the business world.
“Obviously, I think it’s a phenomenal success for the university team,” said Sant in a Zoom interview with the News Record. “As you can imagine, being part of an effort that can lead to success in the XPrize, it really demonstrates what we’re doing at the university and how to make it work.”
As one of only a pair of the five gas-fired finalists able to make it to the ITC to show how their technologies can scale to use large amounts of CO2 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team was grateful to be in Gillette last summer, Sant said. He added that the ITC is a world-class research facility.
“Having access to the flue gas (from Dry Fork Station) was a great opportunity for us to demonstrate the technology at scale,” said Iman Mehdipour, a member of the research team on the ground in Gillette and now vice president of engineering for CarbonBuilt.
“We had lot of challenges, including working weekends to get access to the trucks to make concrete,” he said. It’s also gratifying to show “the proof of concept and doing lots of extensive projects in the basement of UCLA paid off.”
Mehdipour called infusing CO2 into building materials “practical and it’s cost-effective,” and that having both XPrize winners be concrete technologies shows the potential for the industry to account for large amounts of CO2 while making the most valuable products.
Winning means “all the hard work of the last five to 10 years paid off,” he said. “But the technology actually working out, that was the most important piece of this prize.”
The same is true for CarbonCure, said company CEO and founder Rob Niven, also in a Zoom call with the News Record.
CarbonCure’s technology can be used at existing concrete batch plants and is easy to install. It’s already being used at hundreds of plants around the world and is expected to explode, especially after becoming an XPrize winner, Niven said.
“When this journey started back in 2015, we just had a small handful of pilot plants ... (and were) making all the mistakes you’d expect from an early stage technology company,” he said.
It seems impressive that CarbonCure is in more than 300 plants on four continents so far, but Niven said that only scratches the surface of potential for the technology.
“There are 125,000 plants worldwide, 6,000 in the United States,” he said. “Our journey is still at its infancy. There are a lot of plants and a lot of new markets.”
He said the $7.5 million that comes with winning the Carbon XPrize is nice and most will be put back into research and continued development of CarbonCure as a process and company.
But first, the team will get to celebrate a little bit, even if it’s at a distance because of the pandemic.
“The first gesture is we gave them all some extra cash to buy a really nice dinner with a nice bottle of champagne,” Niven said.
Then it’s back to work.
In many ways, the Carbon XPrize has paralleled the development and growth of the Integrated Test Center, said Jason Begger, the facility’s managing director. The competition was the first tenant to sign on to use the ITC before it was built.
“I want to congratulate CarbonBuilt and the NRB COSIA Carbon XPrize team,” Begger said. “When we started this process, carbon utilization and the incredible opportunity of this industry was relatively unknown.
“It’s now getting global recognition and we continue to be excited to see how all the teams involved move toward commercialization of their technologies.”
Basin Electric Power Cooperative, which owns the Dry Fork Station plant, also has been a key player in supporting the development of CO2 capture and reuse technologies. In addition to having the ITC adjacent to the plant, it provides the research facility with large amounts of flue gas.
The announcement of the XPrize winners also is exciting for the plant and Basin Electric, said Paul Sukut, the cooperative’s chief executive officer and general manager.
“We’re proud to host innovation that could enable a path forward for coal,” he said. “Our cooperative believes an all-of-the-above energy strategy is best for meeting our members’ needs, and coal as a reliable fuel source is part of that.”
That said, CO2 emissions are a serious problem that need solutions, he said.
“We recognize this strategy requires managing our carbon footprint,” Sukut said. “Technology devised through the XPrize competition can help not only manage carbon, but also put it to beneficial use. It’s the right thing to do.”
Gov. Mark Gordon congratulated the winning teams while confirming Wyoming’s commitment to be a global leader in carbon research and technology development.
“Finding alternative, economic uses of carbon dioxide is paramount to the success of (carbon capture and utilization) in Wyoming and across the nation,” he said. “I congratulate CarbonBuilt on their technology to develop a low CO2 concrete replacement with coal-fired flue gas.”
While the XPrize announcement closes out its competition, the potential for the ITC is only now unfolding, Gordon said.
“I am also hopeful that this is just the first of many opportunities for us to work collaboratively to provide technical solutions to CO2 capture challenges in Wyoming,” he said.
The XPrize factor
And there should be plenty of work for both teams, as winning the XPrize comes with much more than a cash payout, it vaults the projects into another stratosphere of recognition and legitimacy, said both Niven and Sant.
“We thought construction materials were potentially the biggest sink for carbon dioxide,” Sant said. “What the XPrize win really indicates is that assertion was true.
“Winning the XPrize is about as good as it gets. The only thing better is winning a $300 million Powerball lotto.”
If the goal is to capture and reuse large amounts of CO2, “there’s no alternative for concrete,” Niven said.
“If you’re looking to apply CO2 somewhere, you want to apply it where you have the biggest sink, and that’s concrete,” he said.
Niven also said the timing of the XPrize competition and his team’s research was compatible.
“The XPrize was never our only focus, but it was so aligned with what we were doing anyway,” he said. “Our team was in Calgary for the competition and never went home.”
The timing also seems ripe for CO2 capture and reuse, said Sant. He said that when he started researching solutions with concrete, all the correspondence he received from young scientists wanting to work with him focused on concrete.
“Now every single email I get is climate change, not concrete,” he said. “Awareness, particularly with the younger generation, is through the roof. You need people who are committed to making a difference.”
In the end, everyone wins with CO2 solutions like CarbonBuilt and CarbonCure, Niven said.
“These solutions are real, but they also don’t cost anything additional,” he said. “You don’t have to always believe these solutions are 10 years away.
“People have to stop thinking of this as science fiction. This is real.”
A 23-foot body made of chicken wire and cloth hung outside the Daly Ranch Saturday night.
Around its neck was a chain that spelled out “COVID.” The belt buckle was “19.”
Dangling from operating forks hoisted high into the air, the grinning effigy with bloodshot eyes symbolizing COVID-19 was anchored to the ground by several thin ropes, waiting to be set ablaze.
“The Big Man” is what its creator, Wilson Restrepo, 58, named the effigy. While oversized as a representation of a person, its dwarfing presence was appropriate for how large the pandemic has loomed over everyday life for more than a year.
As the wind gently rocked The Big Man and the sky slowly grew darker, Restrepo stood by its side. Soon, he would set fire to the project he spent many hours creating, all in an effort to put the last year behind him.
Sandy Daly, who lives on the ranch, brought the idea to Restrepo near the end of 2020 and he ran with it. The burning of Zozobra, which Daly once experienced in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was the inspiration to burn COVID-19.
“It’s been such a bad year,” Daly said. “I thought that we might try to burn COVID in effigy and have some closure and go forward.”
Concepts began percolating in Restrepo’s head. In Colombia, his native country, there is a similar tradition called Año Viejo. During that December ceremony, an effigy is burned to bid good riddance to the woes of the past year.
In the tradition of Año Viejo, flammable figures are built to resemble people, size and all, before they are ignited. It didn’t take much research for Resrtrepo to realize that the burning of Zozobra is on a far greater scale.
The late summer Santa Fe tradition of the burning of Zozobra has gone on for 96 consecutive years. First created as a 6-foot puppet in 1924, the creature has since grown to 50 feet tall constructed of wood, wire, cotton cloth and stuffed with bags of shredded paper.
As the legend goes, each year Zozobra collects the anxiety, anguish and fill-in-the-blank bad feelings from the people of Santa Fe. Through the year, those feelings feed his life-force as he stores the bad vibes with a plan to unleash them back onto the town.
In the yearly ceremony, the Fire Dancer, performed by a real person, plays the foil and taunts Zozobra at its feet with a torch that is eventually used to set the monster ablaze. The fire consumes Zozobra, setting off explosives planted inside and creating a nighttime spectacle of flames, lights and restored hopes.
Besides the aforementioned fire-starters, Restrepo and Daly’s project focused on another prominent form of kindling borrowed from Zozobra: notes of sorrow memorialized on paper to be turned to smoke and ash.
Before the fire began, attendees jotted messages to be added to the flames. Writing can be therapeutic. By putting into words and focusing thought on what’s heavy on the mind, a certain catharsis can be reached.
And 2020 provided local residents plenty to vent about.
In their notes, they lamented lost time with loved ones and loved ones lost. They wished away a year of time marked by isolation, except for when divisiveness seemed to be all that drew people out.
Some simply wished COVID-19 would go away. Others were glad they could hug their grandchildren again.
Zozobra deals in sorrow. His existence, according to lore, is ostensibly on a single track toward conquest through harboring negative energy and collective angst. Of course, at least for the past 96 years, his goal has ultimately fallen short.
The Big Man isn’t so different. He represents all things bad from the past year, and watching him burn brought relief, even for Restrepo, who spent countless hours this year listening to classic rock and building the figure in his workshop.
Leading up to the burning of The Big Man, the COVID-19 effigy was spread around Restrepo’s apartment and garage workspace in 11 pieces. After hours of connecting the head, arms, legs and torso together, it stood 23 feet tall.
It earned the name The Big Man for obvious reasons. Atop his head, red prongs poked out made to resemble the spike proteins on the COVID-19 virus structure and adding to its height.
Although The Big Man lacks the backstory attached to the creature that inspired his creation, there may be more years ahead to develop his own myth.
By merging the traditions of Año Viejo and Zozobra, in honor of something resembling a new post-COVID era, Restrepo wanted to honor both traditions.
In the process, he may have created one of its own.
Building The Big Man
After first moving from Colombia to New York City, Restrepo found himself brought to Wyoming for his job as a pipeline worker. It was then that he said he fell in love with the Cowboy State. He called his wife, Mary Luz Piedrahita, to come with their son, Pedro Piedrahita, to the least-populated state in the country.
In Colombia, they lived near Medellín and found similar comfort in the countryside and stillness Wyoming offered them.
Pedro knew no English when he moved to the United States. Mary Luz, 46, said that Pedro, then 18, began his studies three days after they arrived in the United States and has not stopped since.
“When we first came, I didn’t know any English,” Pedro said. “We were here in a totally different country with a different culture and we didn’t know what was going to happen with us.”
Now, Pedro is a month away from graduating from the University of Wyoming with a degree in electrical engineering. Two years ago, he became a U.S. citizen. With his degree, he hopes to spend his life with his family in Wyoming, the new home they have embraced.
When thinking about the life his son made for himself since arriving stateside, Restrepo thought of one word worth repeating.
“Pride,” he said. “Pride.”
Burning a lost year
The few times he was home this year, Pedro helped his father build the giant effigy. But still away in Laramie finishing his degree, Pedro was not there Saturday to see the symbol of COVID-19 he helped construct go up in smoke.
“It’s been really tough, a really, really tough year,” Pedro said. “I lost two family members because of COVID, so it’s just been really, really tough last year for us. I hope this can help us kind of let all those bad things go and hopefully we can start (over).”
When it was finally time to symbolically burn away the virus-induced plight of the past year, the crowd migrated toward the towering figure.
With the group assembled, Restrepo soaked a cloth with gasoline and wrapped around the end of a long pipe, almost like a damp metal Q-tip. He then turned it to a torch, which he stuck inside of a teepee-fashioned pile of logs and planks. As smoke began drifting and the fire began to spread, Sebastian Toro, Restrepo’s nephew, lowered the crane holding The Big Man so his foam feet touched the flames.
The few dozen gathered before The Big Man threw their notes into the fire. Quickly, bright flames spread throughout the rest of the giant flammable body.
Restrepo stalked the perimeter of the fire with a small red fire extinguisher as more than 20 feet of flames burned on. While the cloth exterior burned, the craftsmanship and hard work he put into building The Big Man was exposed. He looked on as his creation disappeared, leaving behind a wire skeletal frame dangling above the bonfire.
What began as an errant idea became a cultural blend of a legacy ranch, an immigrant family and a shared understanding of the challenges of the past year.
A New Mexican tradition with a Colombian twist burned under the wide open skies of Wyoming, all in an effort to bring closure to an unprecedented year marred by loss of all kinds caused by the pandemic.
“Goodbye, COVID,” Restrepo said.
Over the next few years, the Campbell County Fire Department will work to expand its ability to respond to calls more quickly.
It hopes to start this coming budget year by hiring four firefighters to staff Station No. 3 part-time to give the southern part of the city more reliable fire coverage.
Fire Chief Jeff Bender proposed adding two captains, an engineer and a firefighter to staff that station for 40 hours a week.
“The south side of the city definitely needs that protection,” he said.
This would be paid for with some of the $790,000 the Fire Department received in CARES Act money.
The department presented its proposed budget for the next fiscal year to the Campbell County Commission, Gillette City Council and town of Wright on Thursday evening.
The Fire Department has a proposed operating budget of $7.07 million for fiscal year 2021-2022. Although it’s up from the $6.27 million budget this current fiscal year, the requested funding levels from the city, county and town of Wright remain the same.
For operations, the department is requesting $3.48 million from the county, $2.4 million from the city and $120,000 from Wright, for a total of $6 million.
It budgeted $1,035,050 for capital expenses, including $512,350 each from the city and county and $10,350 from Wright. Most of that will go into the department’s Wyostar accounts for vehicle depreciation, facilities maintenance and equipment replacement.
Bender budgeted $170,000 for capital facilities repairs, including $80,000 for foundation movement at the north wall of Fire Station No. 1 and $90,000 to look at what needs to be done to the burn tower at the Alan Mickelson Fire Training Center to keep it going for the next few decades.
The National Fire Protection Association has standards on staffing levels and response times for communities of various sizes. The Campbell County Fire Department has some work to do to reach that standard, Bender said, and it starts with Station No. 3.
It won’t be fully staffed to start, but Bender said he hopes to get there in three years. After Station No. 3, the next priority is staffing Fire Station No. 7 by Cam-plex to increase coverage on the eastern side of town.
Usually when fire departments try to make sure they have good coverage, they need to figure out the best locations to put new stations, Bender said.
“The good news is we have the facilities and they’re in the right spot,” Bender said. “(And) we have good equipment.”
The issue is making sure staffing levels are adequate.
One idea Bender has to help with this is starting an internship program. Casper College offers a fire science degree, and those classes now can be taken remotely.
“Conceptually, they’d be on campus here at Gillette College, getting their GE’s, plugging into their fire tech classes when they need to, and they would get their hands on training and experience with us,” Bender said.
The interns would show up to calls, fill shifts and help the seasonal crews. Bender plans to start with three interns the first year, and in three or four years there would be a “pretty good group” of young firefighters that “would be a serious, significant boost to our part-time force.”
The program will cost $35,000 the next fiscal year, and the department will pay for it using some of the $167,000 it made this current fiscal year from sending crews to help fight fires on BLM and federal lands. This does not include the money it will make from helping with the fires in the Black Hills earlier this spring.
Bender also proposed using that revenue to add two engine boss positions to the department’s seasonal staff to help with crew leadership and enhance the department’s ability to respond to fires outside of the county.
The Fire Department also will take some money out of its reserve accounts to help pay for some big costs.
Fire Board Chairman Chris Beltz said the department has applied for a $1 million grant from FEMA to replace the department’s self-contained breathing apparatuses. If it does not get the grant, it will have to take the $1 million from the capital equipment replacement account.
It also will buy a new ladder truck, taking $1.5 million out of the vehicle replacement account. The current ladder truck has been in service since 2002 and is nearing its 20-year life span.