More than 100 people were on hand at the future site of the Wyoming Innovation Center on Monday morning to celebrate the vision that made the project possible while looking forward with excitement to the future.

During a groundbreaking ceremony, Phil Christopherson, executive director of Energy Capital Economic Development, credited Dave Spencer, the former regional director for the Wyoming Business Council, for coming up with the idea for the facility five or six years ago.

Companies were looking to come to northeast Wyoming, and they wanted a place where they could test technologies on a larger scale.

After more than four years of working to get funding for the project — including a $1.5 million grant from the Wyoming Business Council, a $1.46 million grant from the Economic Development Administration and $176,000 each from the city of Gillette and Campbell County — the project officially broke ground.

Although a lot of work still needs to be done, this point in the process was cause for celebration.

The Wyoming Innovation Center, formerly known as the Advanced Carbon Products Innovation Center, will be located on 9.5 acres of land at the former Fort Union mine site 4 miles north of Gillette along North Garner Lake Road.

It will have seven pilot pads ranging from 24,150 square feet to 42,000 square feet where tenants can test their technologies. There will be an office building with lab space and also a building dedicated to processing materials, from coal to rare earth minerals to fly ash. These materials also can be crushed and stored in the building.

The University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources will be a tenant at the facility, testing technologies to make products like construction materials out of coal, as well as extracting rare-earth elements from coal fly ash and coal seams.

“We’re so excited about building up these new technologies, getting them out of our labs, out into the fields and making them a reality,” said Holly Krutka, executive director of the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources.

When completed, the Wyoming Innovation Center will give researchers a place to test the commercial viability of technologies that have been proven in a lab.

“I couldn’t overstate how important that is,” Krutka said. “Technologies go through a valley of death, and one of the hardest points is when they’re at the pilot scale.”

Mike Easley, CEO of Powder River Energy Corp., said the project showcases Wyoming’s determination.

“It would’ve been so easy many years ago to assume the role of the victim, to find a persecutor and look for a rescuer,” he said. “Instead, because of the leadership that we have — people like Phil, Gov. (Mark) Gordon and (former) Gov. (Matt) Mead — we assumed the role of a creator, and we are making things happen here.”

Gordon said that despite the growing movement to eliminate fossil fuels, thermal coal still has a future. But Campbell County is selling itself short if it just ships coal out to be burned.

“We can use it for so much more, and that’s what the Innovation Center is about,” he said.

“We look forward to tomorrow and to changing the fate of Wyoming’s coal sector and beyond,” Krutka said.

Gordon pointed out that the U.S. is too reliant on foreign countries for things such as uranium and rare-earth elements. The Wyoming Innovation Center will help the nation turn things around in this regard.

“It’s time America starts selling energy and technology and the future to our friends, instead of trying to buy it from our enemies,” he said.

Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell said the facility has been a vision of many people for a long time. It took a lot of partnerships to make it happen, and it’ll take more collaboration to be successful.

“We’re all on the same team, and this is going to be a team effort that’s going to make Wyoming and Campbell County better for all of us,” he said.

“Gillette is the center of where innovation is going to come from,” Gordon said. “It will lead this nation forward, make us energy independent and truly drive us into a great world.”

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