It’s been nearly a decade since Atlas Carbon bought up 20 acres of land in an aging industrial area in Gillette based on a concept that had been long talked about, but rarely executed — do something profitable with Wyoming coal other than burning it.
It was a time when the Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming began to embrace the concept of becoming the state’s Carbon Valley, akin to California’s high-tech Silicon Valley, and form a vision of the future for America’s largest coal-producing region.
The idea behind Carbon Valley was to attract companies like Atlas Carbon that could bring in the talent to come up with new ways to take coal and transform it into valuable products beyond power generation.
The principal backers of Atlas Carbon — former CEO Frank Levy and Michael Jones — had a novel idea to help out a struggling coal industry to manufacture activated carbon, a form of carbon commonly used to filter contaminants and odors from water and the air.
They’ve geared up the operation to handle 300 to 400 railcars a year filled with an average of 120,000 pounds of coal each to turn into activated carbon.
Atlas Carbon isn’t the only game in town when it comes to activated carbon, but it is the only one tapping coal from the Powder River Basin.
The major rivals, including Colorado-based Advanced Emissions Solutions Inc., Pennsylvania-based Calgon Carbon Corp. and Norit Activated Carbon of The Netherlands, receive their coal supplies for activated carbon from elsewhere in the U.S.
“We are much smaller than our three primary competitors. But because of that, we’re very hungry and ambitious for growth,” said Amy Cooper, vice president of sales and marketing with Atlas Carbon, of her company whose growth prospects are bright with its patented technology.
“What they are doing is vital to the state of Wyoming because it shows you can take coal and do something very useful with it other than burning it,” said Phil Christopherson, CEO of Energy Capital Economic Development in Gillette.
“It’s not a unique product, but it’s a unique product because it’s the only activated carbon from coal found in the Powder River Basin,” Christopherson said.
“Those competitors don’t have any plants anywhere around here,” Christopherson said. “All of those plants are located on the East and West coasts, so Atlas is in a good position as a supplier.”
More Money Coming?
In 2018, the State of Wyoming, a big supporter of the coal industry and other energy sectors, loaned Atlas Carbon roughly $15 million to advance its research.
Atlas was the first recipient of a loan from the Economic Development Large Project Program, which began in 2014.
As a research and development company, making the transition to commercialization was tough.
In July 2019, Virginia Beach, Virginia-based management firm Polaris Asset Corp. was hired to bring Atlas Carbon to its next stage of growth.
Then two years ago, Polaris Chairman and CEO Reza Hashampour stepped into the post as CEO of Atlas Carbon when Levy, the founder and majority shareholder, stepped aside to spend more time with his family.
Levy remains chairman of Atlas, but stepped back from his day-to-day duties.
Growing The Business
Since then, the 62-year-old Hashampour has advanced the company along on many fronts.
It has more than 40 clients to sell its products and has had conversations with international prospects from Poland to Colombia.
Hashampour told Cowboy State Daily from his Kentucky home that Atlas Carbon is nearing a deal with Wyoming and private equity investors to expand commercial production in Gillette.
The company, which generates just under $10 million in annual revenue, plans to add a second manufacturing facility on its Gillette land that could churn out 23 million pounds of activated carbon.
The expansion, which is dependent on another cash infusion from the state and private equity backers, could bring its total employment to 70 workers.
“We are in the process of putting pen to paper on developing a project so that we can build a 23-million-pound plant in Gillette,” Hashampour said. “We already have a plant that does 11 million pounds a year. Now we want to do something that gives us an additional 23 million pounds in capacity.”
The new plant will have a smaller footprint than the current one in Gillette and require fewer people to run it, but provide more manufacturing capability.
“It’ll take advantage of the infrastructure that we’ve already paid for, so we don’t have to go create a road, we don’t have to go bring in a gas line, electrical line or put up a fence,” Hashampour said. “Now we’ll have two plants that can have a capability of producing a total of 34 million pounds a year of the product.”
Battling The Anti-Coal Sentiment
Attracting new investors to a coal-related project has not been easy.
“Everybody suddenly developed an allergy when it came to coal, and nobody wants to give you money to build a plant,” Hashampour observed.
“Now in America, in the last three years, everybody’s getting a wakeup call and saying, ‘Oops, you know these electric cars we’ve got to hook up to a coal-fired plant, you know the battery doesn’t recharge by itself,’” he said.
The realization that energy like coal is still needed for power plants to fuel EVs has led banks and other financiers to change their tune.
They now want to become engaged with a company like Atlas Carbon to raise investment money to help the business build its manufacturing operation in Gillette, Hashampour said.
“For us, we cannot get into the details of how the financing is going to work because it’s a little bit of putting the cart before the horse,” he said.
Pat Maio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.