What may have seemed more like science fiction less than a decade ago could soon become science fact.
Solving the planet’s carbon dioxide problem has become one of the most pressing global initiatives, if not also one of the most daunting as scientists and governments contemplate what can appear to be a task so herculean it can’t be done.
That’s where places like the Integrated Test Center and people like Gaurav Sant come in.
Sant is a professor at the UCLA Smueli School of Engineering and team lead for CarbonBuilt, one of five finalist research projects chosen to compete at the ITC for a share of $20 million in prize money to turn CO2 emissions into valuable products, and fiction into fact along the way.
Solving enormous, life-changing problems is what inspires scientists like him, Gaurav said. A crucial part of that inspiration was realized at the ITC, attached to the Dry Fork Station gas-fired power plant about 10 miles north of Gillette.
CarbonBuilt finished its on-site testing near the end of last summer and continues to research and refine its technology while waiting for the XPrize winners to be announced. The 10 finalists in two tracks of the competition — five at the ITC and five at a gas-fired plant in Alberta, Canada — may soon learn if they’ve done enough to win. The winner in each track gets $7.5 million for the solution that captures the most CO2 and turns it into the most valuable products.
The teams split another $5 million in prize money when they were named finalists in 2018.
For CarbonBuilt, that solution is infusing waste CO2 into concrete to make cinder blocks and other building materials.
Because the ITC gives research teams access to large amounts of flue gas from the power plant, it offers a unique opportunity to show how technologies can scale to handle a high volume of CO2 emissions, he said.
“Without access to facilities of that sort, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do,” he said. “It’s really a foundational step to be able to demonstrate and move the types of (solutions) we have.”
While at the ITC, CarbonBuilt completed some very successful research, Gaurav said.
“We were happy with the concrete results we ended up with,” he said. “The demonstration was a success for two reasons. It showed us the system actually performed much better than our expectations.
“It showed the technology works, and it also showed the economics of the process. It demonstrated economics of what we suggested all along as it works out at a much larger scale.”
While in Gillette, the team made about 10,000 concrete construction blocks, or about 160 metric tons of product, what Gaurav called “a fairly large quantity.”
While CarbonBuilt and many of the other XPrize teams already have other partnerships and plans to commercialize their technologies, Gaurav said the point isn’t to win.
“I think the XPrize really forced us to take something that was essentially a research project and translate technologies into a larger (scale) and through a commercial lens,” he said. “It’s a change in the scientific mindset that may have come about.”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to win. That would be a $7.5 million bonus, Gaurav said.
“We never enter with the objective to win,” he said. “The success is the journey. While everyone likes to win, what the prize is most successful at is getting people to make the journey who may not have thought out of the box (enough) or their comfort zone.”
The COVID effect
Because of COVID-19, only two of the five NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize finalists picked to prove their research at the ITC could make it to Gillette last summer.
Along with CarbonBuilt, Air Co. from New York City set up shop to scale its patented technology to capture CO2 from flue gas and convert it into a pure ethyl alcohol. That alcohol can be used in many ways and to make things like spirits, cleaners and sanitizers, fragrances and even a carbon-neutral fuel.
Teams from India, China and Aberdeen, Scotland, couldn’t do their research at the ITC because of international travel restrictions related to the pandemic. Instead, those teams were allowed to do more research and whatever they could to show how their technologies would scale, said Jason Begger, managing director for the Wyoming Integrated Test Center.
The teams were disappointed that they were denied access to a world-class research facility like the ITC, he said. But he’s also excited for the impending announcement of the winners. While the XPrize Foundation hasn’t officially announced when that will happen, it could come at any time.
“The thing about these tests is a lot of them are years in the making,” Begger said. “It’s not like somebody has test equipment sitting in a warehouse somewhere looking to deploy it. This is where you do it.”
The XPrize was the first tenant at the ITC, which has brought a lot of positive, global attention to the facility and to Wyoming as a leader in CO2 research and innovation, said Holly Krutka, executive director for the School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming.
Along with UW’s involvement in a number of carbon-related research projects in and around Campbell County, Krutka also is an XPrize judge.
While she couldn’t talk about any of the specific projects in the competition, she said the innovation being proven at the Integrated Test Center is exciting. Whether they win or lose, she anticipates many teams capitalizing on viable solutions to capture and repurpose waste CO2.
“There are a lot of positive things regarding the XPrize competition,” she said. Carbon capture and reuse “is a tough arena and it’s early stage work, but these are really exciting technologies. I think the XPrize competition has been good in that it really pushes teams that otherwise might have stayed in a lab.”
The pandemic was a bit of a monkey wrench in the works, “but we did the best we could with what we had,” Krutka said. “The impacts of the technologies are really important and they’re being deployed all over the world.”
And although CO2 emissions is a global problem, Krutka believes the ITC and the research done there also will be a boon for Wyoming and Campbell County.
“I’ve worked in (the energy) space my whole career, and I do expect this to help here at home,” she said. “As we think about CCS (carbon capture and sequestration), it’s much more broad than just poor plant emissions. There are other industrial applications. If we’re serious about reducing carbon emissions, we have to do this.”
That some international teams couldn’t use the research facilities in Gillette or Canada shouldn’t impact the judging, Krutka said.
But research at places like the ITC are becoming more important in moving ideas from theory to practice, she said.
“We have to look at scale,” she said. “We try to find areas where we can use a lot of coal, like for construction equipment and soil amendments. You can’t replace every ton (of coal mined for power generation), but you can replace some tons and keep coal as an economic driver. That’s an area we’re really excited about.”
A sleeping giant
Wyoming and the Integrated Test Center promise to be front and center for innovation and creating new CO2-based products as the United States government puts more importance on climate control, said U.S. Sen. John Barrasso.
The Wyoming Republican is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He said the Cowboy State is fighting for innovation and against President Joe Biden and an administration that would rather eliminate fossil fuels altogether than find a solution for CO2 emissions.
“Biden has declared war on Wyoming energy,” Barrasso said. “But I’m still very optimistic about what we’re doing in Wyoming. Wyoming is really leading the world in this. You’re not seeing this level of commitment by a state anywhere else.”
Much of that is because of the Integrated Test Center, which was born when the 2014 Legislature allocated $15 million to build the facility.
“That test center, with our ability to capture carbon from flue gas, allows us to do more research, and we’re developing technology for direct air capture,” Barrasso said.
One game-changing breakthrough the senator anticipates happening through research at places like the ITC is to not only pull CO2 from industrial emissions, but from the atmosphere.
“Isn’t that the goal, to capture the carbon and do it efficiently, then convert it into products that can be sold?” he said.
While the U.S. market for coal is severely depressed, that’s not the case around the globe, Barrasso said. Coal is less dominant in producing domestic energy, but countries around the world are building more coal-fired generation. That means there’s an international market for potential innovations made in Wyoming.
“Twenty years from now, the world is going to be using more coal than it is today,” he said. “We’re going to be using more energy than we are today and Wyoming continues to be on the leading edge with the technology that’s going to make a difference worldwide.
“I’m very optimistic and enthusiastic about what we’re doing in Wyoming, and specifically Campbell County. It’s not only important for Wyoming, but also for the planet.”
Where do we go from here?
The culmination of the Carbon XPrize isn’t the end of the ITC’s journey in finding CO2 solutions, it’s the beginning.
As the $20 million competition winds down, billionaire businessman and visionary Elon Musk has teamed with the XPrize Foundation for the largest scientific competition in history. His $100 million Gigaton Scale Carbon Removal contest is scheduled to officially kick off April 22, which is Earth Day.
Five times larger than the NRG COSIA XPrize, the Gigaton project “is aimed at tackling the biggest threat facing humanity — fighting climate change and rebalancing Earth’s carbon cycle,” according to the XPrize Foundation website.
Over four years of the contest, research teams will be tasked with creating and demonstrating technology and processes that can pull CO2 directly from the atmosphere and oceans and scale to huge levels.
It’s possible that some of that research could happen at the Integrated Test Center, Barrasso said.
The $100 million Gigaton competition also comes at a great time for the ITC, Begger said. With the XPrize teams finished and the pandemic travel beginning to ease some, the facility can start searching in earnest for new tenants.
He also said the future success of the XPrize teams will continue to have a positive impact for the ITC, which will be connected to those successes.
“It was really cool to see the projects on the ground at the test center, like the team from UCLA making concrete blocks,” he said. “That makes it real and exciting.
“For me, what will be really interesting is watching to see what sort of private investors step up. At the end of the day, whether it’s carbon capture or carbon utilization, it’s got to turn into a viable business, and that’s going to take the private sector.”
The success of the XPrize and the research proven at the Integrated Test Center will continue to resonate for Wyoming, Barrasso said. That’s needed to help combat a perception outside the state that Wyoming is anti-environment.
“This is a way we can use innovation instead of taxation and regulation,” he said. “We can continue to protect the environment and not punish the economy.”
Now, Biden and others he calls “climate alarmists” have momentum and push a keep-it-in-the-ground agenda “that’s just not being realists,” Barrasso said. “We need it all. We need the renewables, we need fossil fuels.”
The world also needs an important and often overlooked Wyoming natural resource — innovation.
Months into Wyoming’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Campbell County lags behind all other counties in the state with its percentage of population fully vaccinated, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
But despite the lower numbers, Campbell County Public Health Executive Director Jane Glaser said the county’s rollout has improved since its low uptake rates in the early days of vaccination.
As of April 5, the Wyoming Department of Health reported that 9.67% of Campbell County’s population has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19.
The county with the next lowest percentage of fully vaccinated people is Crook County, where 11.81% of its population has had two shots or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Teton County leads the way with 30.21% of its population fully vaccinated, with Albany, Fremont, Hot Springs, Park and Sheridan counties all with more than 20% fully vaccinated, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
Besides lagging in the overall percentage vaccinated, Campbell County has received less vaccine than other comparable counties.
Despite having Wyoming’s third-highest population, Campbell County has received the ninth-most vaccines in the state.
“I honestly am not sure,” Glaser said about why Campbell County is getting less vaccine than others. “We actually were rolling ours out faster than other counties. We went through the tiers faster than other places. It also could be that we have a larger population than some of the other ones and other counties had a better uptake in the beginning than we did.”
There are an estimated 46,341 people in Campbell County, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 population estimates. Of those, 33,783, or 72.9%, are older than 18.
On March 31, Gov. Mark Gordon announced the COVID-19 vaccine is available to anyone in the state age 16 and older.
It is unclear how many of the remaining 12,558 people in Campbell County under 18 are 16 and older, making them vaccine eligible.
The 9,490 first doses and single-dose vaccines received as of April 5 is enough to inoculate about 28% of Campbell County’s adult population. The 7,051 shots given cover about 21% of that eligible population.
Not included in the state Department of Health’s county-specific vaccine counts is the number of doses sent to pharmacies through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program.
In Gillette, the Walgreens, Walmart and Smith’s pharmacies offer appointments for the vaccine.
Through its weekly vaccine clinics, Campbell County Public Health is able to give 250 to 300 shots a day three days a week.
With the clinics running smoothly and multiple locations for people to schedule appointments, Glaser said she is not concerned about the relatively low vaccine supply in Campbell County.
“I think for right now, because there’s a number of entities giving it, I don’t think it’s an issue of not having enough supply,” she said. “I think that we have plenty of supply. It’s more that we need to make sure that the people still are going to come and get it.”
When Public Health switched to in-house clinics a couple of months ago, the organization had appointments booked two to three weeks in advance. Now, appointment slots are still filling up, but the waiting list is closer to a week out, Glaser said, signaling a slight decrease in demand.
There is no fixed percentage goal that the county is striving to have vaccinated. Glaser said that developing herd immunity is not so straightforward. That said, the county, like the rest of the country, still has a long way to go.
“I think we always have room for improvement,” Glaser said. “We still have a lot of community left that it would be good to get vaccinated. But I do think we are making progress.”
As variants of COVID-19 have become more prevalent in parts of the country, Wyoming and Campbell County have seen an increase as well.
This past week, the Wyoming Department of Health said that multiple COVID-19 “variants of concern” have been identified in Wyoming since November.
The 40 or more cases of B.1.1.7., better known as the U.K. variant, found in the state make it the most common variant, followed by more than 40 combined cases of two variants believed to have originated in California, B.1.427 and B.1.429.
There has been one case of the South African variant, B.1.351., found in Wyoming so far.
The Wyoming Public Health Laboratory identified the variants through genetic sequencing of a large number of positive COVID-19 samples taken in the state since November.
Public Health announced finding the first case of the U.K. variant in Campbell County in February.
Since then, three instances of the California variants have been identified in the county, all in March, Glaser said, adding that the three cases do not appear to be connected.
“The problem is that it takes a while to get the variant results back,” she said. “In all of these situations, the positive person was already out of quarantine and done everything they were supposed to have done.”
Going forward, Glaser expects Public Health to continue its vaccine rollout. But how far into the future COVID-19 shots will be continue being administered isn’t likely to be known soon.
“I think we’ll probably always have the need to vaccinate against COVID-19 the way we have the need to vaccinate against any communicable disease,” she said. “It will depend on how prevalent it is in the community.”
A man accused of raping and holding a woman captive faces another felony charge of intimidating a witness.
A preliminary hearing has been continued for Louiz S. Pena, 35, who has been charged with influencing, intimidating or impeding a witness, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Pena already has pleaded not guilty to three counts of first-degree sexual assault, two counts of kidnapping and five counts of strangulation of a household member, all felonies, and two counts of misdemeanor domestic battery.
He remains in Campbell County jail awaiting trial on those charges, which is scheduled to begin May 24.
He was arrested in March 2020 after he allegedly beat, strangled and anally raped a woman. Police learned of the incident after an anonymous tipster called to say that Pena was bragging to his friends in Casper about anally raping a woman and giving her two black eyes.
Police went to the woman’s home to check on her and found her with two black eyes, bruises on her neck and head consistent with strangulation and numerous bruises on her body and head. She didn’t want to talk to police initially, fearing retaliation from Pena, according to an affidavit of probable cause. She eventually told them that he had locked a child in a bedroom before attacking her, punching and kicking her repeatedly. She said he strangled her five times and anally raped her three different times throughout the night. She twice tried to escape — once getting almost as far as the neighbor’s house before he caught her and carried her back to the house, according to the affidavit.
During the incident, he told her repeatedly that she was worthless and that he was going to make her children orphans, according to the affidavit.
He finally left about 7 a.m. March 21, 2020, to call his probation officer to see if he needed to take a urinanalysis.
In text messages the following day, she accused him of raping and beating her. He apologized, but didn’t deny her allegations, according to the affidavit.
A few days later, he called her from jail, even though he had been ordered by the courts to have no contact with her. Jail phone calls are recorded and his were listened to by a police investigator.
In that phone call, he repeatedly asked her if she was gong to pursue charges and cooperate with the prosecution. She tried to change the subject.
“I’ve got recordings from inside your house, please don’t play these games with me,” he said, later repeating, “I’ve got recordings from inside your house.”
“Are you really threatening me on a jail phone? … The phone calls are recorded, you understand that, right?” she said.
“I’m not threatening you, but I always doubted you so I needed someone to take care of me,” he said.
Pena had told police that he had hacked into her home security system to watch her, listen to her conversations and learn if she was doing anything illegal.
Dozens of phone calls were made by both Pena and his family to the woman over the next few weeks until she met with his lawyer and signed a letter of non-cooperation, which Pena complained to his daughter about.
“ … I was under the impression that she said none of that s--- happened and they’re (the lawyers) like na(h) that’s not what it said,” he told her, according to the affidavit.
“She’d have to go do another sworn affidavit at my lawyer’s office, saying that s--- never happened,” he said, later continuing, “they gotta write it up! Saying that I didn’t rape her, I didn’t kidnap her, I didn’t choke her out!”
Pena reportedly called the woman that same day, saying that he was brokenhearted because he was under the impression that she had recanted her story but that wasn’t the case, according to the affidavit. He called her repeatedly over the next several days questioning whether she had sent in a letter that recanted her statements to police.
She sent a letter May 23 to the Campbell County Attorney’s Office stating that the things she said about Pena weren’t true.
On July 7, Pena told his daughter in a phone call that he had just learned that the woman’s recantation didn’t include specifics about the charges against him as he thought it needed to and wanted her to try again. He followed up that phone call with a message saying, “OK, so I’m in here on following charges 3 charges of rape 2 charges of kidnapping 5 charges of strangulation 2 charges of domestic battery.”
She did send a letter to the District Court judge dated July 12, about two weeks before his arraignment, recanting her statements to police. In the opening paragraph, she said Pena was “wrongfully accuse of Strangulation of a household member (x5), Kidnapping (x2), Sexual Assault (x3), Domestic Battery (x2).”
On Aug. 27, she wrote an eight-page letter to the County Attorney’s Office explaining why she had recanted.
“She explained that Louiz called her repeatedly, putting her in fear of her and her children’s lives. She feared that he still had her under surveillance and had his family, lawyers and associates contact her continually,” according to the affidavit.
She also said there were armed men showing up randomly at her house and telling her that she needed to keep answering Pena’s calls and doing what he asked.
“(She) explained that she was directed to write the letter of recantation and she wrote it under duress and fear,” the affidavit said. “She stated she was in fear for her own life and for the lives of her children.”