Utah’s coal miners are becoming extinct. Is there a greener future for them?

Innovations in energy and manufacturing may breathe new, sustainable life into old industries in Carbon and Utah County.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nathan Rich shows a mandrel that’s used to construct a carbon fiber cell tower in the Philippines at the Isotruss office in Springville, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. The company designs structures using geometric engineering and reinforced layers of carbon fiber.

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

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It was touted as the greatest “economic development in Utah history.” A massive project aimed at turning underutilized, swampy, lake-side space into a roaring economic engine. A tax dollar-funded economic endeavor with broad consequences for, “the entire west.”

No, we’re not talking about the Inland Port.

The year is 1941, and we’re talking about Geneva Steel.

Built to provide inland steel production during World War II, Geneva Steel shaped the economy of Utah Valley for half a century. It also helped put Utah County on the map for some of the worst air quality in the nation and high levels of respiratory cancer for a county with so few smokers.

Geneva Steel has been shuttered for two decades now. Parts of the old site are still under environmental clean up, but the rest is now home to the fastest growing city in the nation, Vineyard, Utah. And Utah County’s economy is now built around its exploding tech sector and two large higher education institutions.

Meanwhile in Utah’s coal country, the pain of economic change is real. Carbon and Emery are among the few Utah counties that shrank in population over last 10 years, according to the 2020 census. And in Emery County, the major private employer is Pacificorp’s two coal-fired power plants, which are scheduled for shut down over the next two decades.

Coal country’s pains come as energy consumers and producers look to cleaner sources of energy. But could there still be a greener economic future for coal?

The fate of energy and manufacturing in Utah’s old steel and coal counties may be bound together:

  • In Utah County, companies like IsoTruss, which builds more-sustainable-than-steel infrastructure out of carbon fiber, hope to resurrect a greener version of what the county once was.

“Clean, high-paying, hard science jobs,” said Nathan Rich, CEO of IsoTruss. “That’s what we’re here for.”

  • In Carbon and Emery, applied research is testing whether coal could be used not as carbon-emitting fuel, but as the base ingredient for low-cost carbon fiber polymers that might be used by companies like IsoTruss.

But connecting the dots to reinvent these two industries and regions for the era of climate change comes with many challenges.

Geometry over steel

From bikes to cell towers, IsoTruss can do a lot with a little math and physics.

The advanced manufacturing company, which recently opened an innovation center in Springville for its small-but-expanding operation, is an example of how academic theory can move to real-world practice.

Research going back to the mid-1990s by retired BYU civil engineering professor David Jensen asked the question, “What if we could carry more weight with less material?”

The answer came in the form of geometry. Isotruss is continuously tinkering with the design for different applications, but the basic concept is a repeating lattice of carbon fiber polymer forming an empty cylinder or square shape.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) An example of a carbon fiber structure is used as a bicycle frame at the Isotruss office in Springville, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. The company designs structures using geometric engineering and reinforced layers of carbon fiber.

Compared with a solid piece of metal, particularly steel, the material is extremely light.

“Because it’s light, there are fewer carbon emissions from transportation of the material than with steel,” said CEO Nathan Rich.

IsoTruss is primarily producing 5G towers for areas in Southeast Asia.

“Coastal areas with high winds and a lot of salt water,” said Rich. “In those environments a steel tower would last 10 years. An IsoTruss tower will last 50 to 100 years.”

Less frequent replacement means less greenhouse gas from production and transportation over the lifetime of the tower. IsoTruss materials, under a USDA grant, are also being used to bridge the digital divide in the rural U.S. because the lighter material is easier to transport to rugged, remote areas.

Rich, who grew up in rural Idaho, the son of a tractor dealer, is happy to see IsoTruss help connect rural Americans. “We come in where fiberoptic can’t reach and help get internet connectivity to the end of the row,” he said, using an irrigation metaphor.

IsoTruss hopes light carbon fiber can effectively replace steel and other heavy materials in a variety of civil engineering and aerospace applications.

Making carbon fiber green

Carbon fiber is far from perfect. Per pound, carbon fiber creates more greenhouse gas emissions than steel because 90% of the energy of the production process goes into transforming base elements into carbon fiber elements. IsoTruss realizes an environmental edge by using less material. But what if carbon fiber production were more sustainable?

As the name implies, carbon fiber involves carbon. Roughly 90% of the energy involved in producing the product is in the purification of carbon to be spun out into carbon fibers.

Petroleum is the usual base source of carbon, but some researchers are looking at bio waste as an alternative. Finding means of recycling plant or animal waste is its own frontier in the fight against greenhouse gasses.

Professor Eric Eddings, chair of the chemistry department at the University of Utah, is on a hunt not only for more environmentally friendly options, but also ones that help economies in transition.

“Carbon fiber is used in expensive cars, for example, because it’s an expensive product,” Eddings said. “But lighter carbon fiber cars are more efficient, burn less fuel, and have lower emissions.”

Eddings’ work on using coal as the base element for carbon fiber production will, he hopes, lead to the development of cheap carbon fiber, and therefore wider adoption of the light material.

The key from there, said Eddings, is not only to make production of carbon fiber more energy efficient, but also to “utilize more of the coal.” The U is also involved in a project looking at extraction of rare earth elements (used in high tech products like cell phones) from coal. If coal can be used for multiple purposes, then greenhouse emissions and other environmental hazards are reduced.

Emery County, which is home to Utah’s remaining coal-fired power plants, is investing heavily in moving Eddings’ research into practice with its San Rafael Energy Research Center. The hope is that the county can still use its natural resources, but in more sustainable ways.

“If you’re using coal for carbon fiber instead of burning it for energy, that’s much better for climate change,” Eddings said. “It uses less coal, though.”

“Less coal means fewer jobs,” Eddings added, “but greener ones.”

A new garden

In the 1941 Provo City Directory, Provo’s nickname was “The Garden City.” By the 1944 directory Provo had become “Steel Center of the West.”

Caption from the 1944 Provo City Directory.

Geneva Steel is long gone, but manufacturing is finding a new home in Utah County.

“We need high tech in Utah, but we also need manufacturing and hard science jobs,” said Nathan Rich of IsoTruss.