Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on the day's biggest business stories

Subscribe to Axios Closer for insights into the day’s business news and trends and why they matter

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Axios on your phone

Get breaking news and scoops on the go with the Axios app.

Download for free.

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sign up for Axios NW Arkansas

Stay up-to-date on the most important and interesting stories affecting NW Arkansas, authored by local reporters

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Randy Atkins is trying to make coal great again, but not how President Trump has promised.

The intrigue: Atkins’ company, Ramaco Carbon, is working to open what would be Wyoming’s first coal mine devoted not to electricity, but to high-tech products like carbon fiber or 3D printing material. Atkins represents the leading edge of what could be a new, high-value market for coal after decades of being America’s cheapest power source.

The big picture: Coal’s share of U.S. electricity mix has plummeted from nearly 50% to 30% in just the past decade, fueled by growth in cheap, cleaner-burning natural gas and tougher environmental regulations. Trump has promised to revive coal and is directing his Energy Department to bolster economically struggling coal plants (and similarly challenged nuclear reactors).

Atkins, whose career has spanned energy and financial firms for more than 35 years and whose father founded Arch Coal, says finding new uses for coal is a better long-term bet.

“Market forces always in the end predominate one way or another, good or bad. If you create an artificial demand, at some point that will probably go away. And so we have to have a real demand for a product to have some longevity perspective.”
— Randy Atkins, CEO, Ramaco Carbon

A high-tech carbon industry could support an average of 2,600 jobs annually through 2035 in Wyoming, which is about a quarter of the state’s current manufacturing workforce. That's according to a report released today by American Jobs Project, a nonpartisan California-based think tank that looks at how advanced energy tech can drive local economies.

Atkins’ company is set to begin construction within weeks on a research center in Wyoming for high-tech coal products. Longer term, he plans to build an industrial park in the mold of Silicon Valley — but for coal. Wyoming is America's No. 1 coal producer, accounting for 40% of all coal mined.

The types of products that coal could be refined into seems limitless, Atkins said, and could replace other hydrocarbons — namely oil and natural gas. Cost is the main challenge, with no existing manufacturing base to refine coal like there is for oil and gas. Some of attractive products include:

  • Carbon fiber as a lighter weight and stronger replacement for steel and aluminum in cars, wind turbines and more.
  • Building materials like concrete.
  • Chemicals used in a wide variety of everyday products, from cosmetics to shoes, which currently come from refined oil and gas.

To some historians, this may sound familiar. America used coal for things other than electricity more than a century ago (and experimented with its use as a liquid fuel in the 1970s and 1980s). But today's technology enables much higher tech, according to a scientist at an Energy Department lab in Pittsburgh, which has stepped up its research in this area since 2015.

"There’s been a renewed interest to use coal in manufacturing because we have new scientific tools and a better understanding of the physics and chemistry of coal than we had 100 years ago. This allows us to think about things we never would have thought about even 10, 15 years ago, like making carbon fiber."
— Christopher Matranga, National Energy Technology Lab

It wouldn't be a total replacement for coal jobs lost from electricity use decline, but it could still provide an economic boost. The sheer quantity of coal needed for power dwarfs what could be refined into high-tech material.

Volumes of high-tech carbon could reach 100 million tons, compared to the 725 million tons of coal the U.S. mined last year, according to a presentation Atkins shared with lawmakers when testifying on the topic last month. The mantra driving Atkins and others is quality over quantity — and much higher profit margins.

“You’re using less coal but creating higher value products that may have similar effects in the local economy because of good wages,” said Kate Ringness, co-director of the American Jobs Project.

The environmental and climate change impact of high-tech coal is less compelling than its potential to reap high economic values.

  • Coal is still being mined, which has environmental and public-health impacts.
  • From a climate perspective, turning coal into products gets at just half the problem: avoiding emissions from burning it for electricity. Using captured carbon dioxide emissions and turning that into products would be most optimal from a climate perspective, experts say. But on a cost basis, coal is cheaper than captured CO2.

“You cannot make that economic argument in the absence of a climate context,” said Volker Sick, a University of Michigan professor. Last week he helped launch a new initiative at the school injecting millions of dollars into technology capturing carbon emissions and turning that into similar products Atkins is aiming to create with coal.

What’s next: The National Coal Council, a federal advisory committee to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, is preparing to write a report examining how coal can expand beyond electricity into products. It has asked Atkins to chair the effort, according to a draft letter viewed by Axios.

The council expects to receive an official directive from Perry to conduct the report next month. An Energy Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

Team USA's Simone Biles watching the women's uneven bars final at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, on Sunday. Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

🚨: Simone Biles will compete in her final Olympic event

⚽: U.S. women's soccer team falls to Canada in semifinals, ending chances at gold

🏋️‍♀️: Laurel Hubbard becomes first openly trans woman to compete at Olympics

🤸: U.S. gymnast Jade Carey wins Olympic gold in floor exercise final

🪧: IOC "looking into" American Raven Saunders' Olympic podium protest gesture

📷In photos: Day 10 Olympics highlights

🏳️‍⚧️: Axios at the Olympics: Games grapple with trans athletesTrans athletes see the Tokyo Games as a watershed moment

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

Updated 2 hours ago - Sports

Laurel Hubbard becomes first openly trans woman to compete at Olympics

Laurel Hubbard. Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov\TASS via Getty Images

New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard made history on Monday as the first openly transgender female athlete to compete at the Olympics.

Why it matters: The presence of trans and nonbinary athletes at this year's Games has been celebrated by LGBTQ+ rights advocates, but stirred controversy among critics, who argue trans women have an unfair advantage even after taking hormones to lower their testosterone.

Index fund investors saved $357 billion over last 25 years

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Investors who’ve opted to passively track the stock market haven’t just outperformed most active fund managers. They’ve also saved a ton of money in fees while doing it.

Why it matters: There are loads of active fund managers aiming to beat the returns of funds that track indexes like the S&P 500.