Can science keep Utah’s coal country in the energy game for generations to come?

San Rafael Energy Research Center in Emery County takes its shot at nuclear and other power technologies — with help from BYU researchers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) With the Hunter Power Plant smokestacks in the distance, the nondescript buildings of San Rafael Energy Research Center in Orangeville will house research that Emery County leaders hope will keep the county an energy hotbed.

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.

[Subscribe to our newsletter here.]

Orangeville It was always about keeping the lights on.

In an old warehouse for coal mine parts on the edge of town, Emery County, the state of Utah and the U.S. government are going to reinvent energy.

That’s the dream. There’s also a fallback plan, and that’s about keeping the lights on in a part of the Beehive State that has lived one way for a century and now must find a new way.

The San Rafael Energy Research Center is a nascent laboratory just outside Orangeville. The parts warehouse was once owned by the old Utah Power & Light Co., a predecessor of Rocky Mountain Power that built the immense Hunter Power Plant, whose smokestacks loom in the distance.

Inside the rusty metal building is a lab worthy of a James Bond movie, including gleaming steel tanks that feed “glove rooms,” where scientists will manipulate experiments in an argon gas atmosphere.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The "Glove Box" at the San Rafael Energy Research Center near Orangeville in Emery County, on Thursday, July 21, 2022.

The center has launched with the work of two Brigham Young University chemical engineering professors who bring extensive industry experience and several million dollars in U.S. Department of Energy grants. The center’s new director is charged with finding more opportunities across a spectrum of energy technologies, including hydrogen and solar panel production.

The early work has been funded by the state, and Utah is looking to the federal government for more. The Utah Office of Energy Development has made San Rafael a cornerstone of the Utah Rural Energy Diversification and Innovation initiative. U-REDI is one of 20 finalists for a federal Economic Development Administration program aimed at helping coal-dependent communities adapt. The state hopes to receive $30 million, a large chunk of which would go to San Rafael and its programs.

The technologies the center is pursuing are on the edge but not outside the mainstream in a world growing more desperate for energy solutions.

Working toward a molten salt reactor

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Andrew Fry, an associate professor in chemical engineering at BYU, works on a next-generation system that uses supercritical carbon-dioxide instead of a conventional steam boiler.

On the edge? How about molten salt thorium nuclear energy? Matthew Memmott, BYU associate professor, earned his doctorate in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before leading the reactor group at Westinghouse. He sees thorium reactors — a decades-old technology — as a safer and cheaper nuclear alternative.

It was Memmott who first reached out to the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, an alliance of Utah counties with a shared interest in energy. He was seeking a remote location for his research, and he thought coal country offered advantages.

“This technology is a great way to help the coal-depressed areas,” Memmott said. “Salts are similar to coal. Some of their training transfers.”

That meeting eventually led to conversations with Emery County Commissioner Lynn Sitterud, who, along with other commissioners, decided to take on Memmott’s project at the San Rafael center.

For Sitterud, energy research is a natural for the county, and he has nursed the project into existence. But he makes clear that sustaining a research center long term is not something his 10,000 constituents can take on. “It will have to be self-sufficient if it is to survive.”

Sitterud is also adamant that the effort isn’t just about keeping coal viable. The intent is to pursue multiple energy-related paths on the hope that one or more will pay off. Should any of these efforts lead to commercialization, the center has 100 acres available next door as a possible manufacturing site, which could be a key step toward sustainability for the center.

Memmott also said a remote, rural location is a plus when the research revolves around medical isotopes and nuclear products and “the perception that it’s unsafe.”

In fact, he has no current plans to produce nuclear products at the San Rafael center. He faces a mountain of federal permitting before a molten salt reactor is built anywhere, and he believes it might happen faster at a place like the Idaho National Laboratory.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Medical Isotope Lab.

Instead, he’s looking to San Rafael to perfect the molten salt part, not the nuclear part. And it’s there that Memmott believes he has the secret sauce that could make thorium nuclear the standard. Specifically, he has refined a method for removing water and oxygen from molten salts, vastly reducing the corrosion the salts inflict on pipes. That corrosion problem, Memmott said, discouraged its development as an energy source.

And using thorium instead of uranium as the nuclear fuel opens up new opportunities. The isotopes generated in the process have more medical uses, and it generates less dangerous nuclear waste. And because the products live in a molten soup instead of solid fuel rods, it’s easier to separate out the good stuff.

With investors he started a company, Alpha Tech Research Corp., to produce a molten salt mixture that can be used in nuclear reactors. Alpha Tech has its own reactor design, but it also has plans to sell its molten salt to others, including a company making a nuclear battery and to MIT, which is looking at it as an envelope around its hot nuclear fusion reactor. (Of note: Alpha Tech is licensing the technology from BYU, which holds patents from Memmott’s work, and the school, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will earn royalties if it becomes commercialized.)

It could be that molten salt will be produced in Emery County, but right now Memmott is just moving his research into the facility. Center Director Jeremy Pearson, who also has a background in nuclear research, is helping recruit talent.

A next-generation generator

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Andrew Fry stands by a machine aimed to make energy combustion more efficient.

If Memmott’s research is about a brand-new energy source, Andrew Fry’s work is more about stretching any source further.

Fry, also an associate professor in chemical engineering at BYU, is working in an adjacent building on a next-generation system that uses supercritical carbon-dioxide instead of a conventional steam boiler. It’s a process that could make any heat-powered generator — coal, wood, nuclear, geothermal — much more efficient in converting heat to electricity.

Fry, who had moved to nearby Price as a teenager, earned his doctorate at the University of Utah. His graduate research was focused on limiting mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, and his work in industry was aimed at making combustion processes more efficient. While at the U., he worked with an experimental combustor at a university facility on Salt Lake City’s west side. The U. was shrinking that facility, and Fry went to the Utah Legislature to get funding to move the combustor to Orangeville. That combustor, still painted red from its U. days, is now in the San Rafael center, and Fry has a $5 million DOE grant to continue the research.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The San Rafael Energy Research Center was once owned by the old Utah Power & Light Co., a predecessor of Rocky Mountain Power that built the immense Hunter Power Plant, whose smokestacks loom in the distance.

Fry also has conducted research around “oxicombustion” of coal, burning coal in pure oxygen to avoid nitrogen emissions. He is interested in carbon-capture technologies that may extend the viability of fossil fuels.

“The flavor of my research,” he said, “is to move us forward and continue to use natural resources in a sustainable way.”

San Rafael also has captured the interest of U. associate professor Kody Powell. Powell recently gained tenure in the U.’s engineering college, and he’s using his sabbatical to return to Emery County. He grew up in nearby Huntington in the shadow of another large coal-fired power plant. Powell’s work has been in using artificial intelligence to maximize power systems, particularly useful for integrating renewables to the power mix.

Powell has been involved in an effort to more efficiently produce hydrogen, work that also could find a home at San Rafael.

“It’s an energy community, so there’s a workforce there,” he said, adding that the government funding aimed at coal communities is also a big attractant. “To be frank, the federal government has a lot of money.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A worker welds inside a combustor. “The flavor of my research,” Andrew Fry said, “is to move us forward and continue to use natural resources in a sustainable way.”

Powell also believes having living, breathing science in the county sends a strong message to young people. “It would encourage the local kids. We want to send the message that you can get an engineering degree and come back.”

That sounds good to Jordan Leonard, who is poised to join Sitterud on the Emery County Commission in January. (Leonard beat the incumbent in last month’s GOP primary and faces no Democrat in November.) Leonard has been working for Utah State University in the county, focusing on education opportunities for young residents.

Leonard knows well the deep connection people in his county have to keeping Utah’s lights on. His father died in a coal-mining accident when he was 9 years old.

“Energy is just a huge piece of our community,” Leonard said. “I would love to continue to be an energy-producing county.”

Correction: Kody Powell is an associate professor at the University of Utah. An earlier version misstated his title.

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.