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Rural communities tap into 'space economy'

Scripps News visits Triadelphia, West Virginia, a small town of just over 600 people, where carbon foam is manufactured for the aerospace industry.
Posted at 10:55 AM, Apr 03, 2023

Nestled among the hills and mountains, in the heart of coal country, they are reaching for the stars – literally.

"The two products we make both have opportunities to go to space," said Rudy Olson, director of Consol Innovations, makers of CFOAM, a type of carbon foam used in the aerospace industry.

The material is prized for how it interacts with heat.

"I'll demonstrate that with this, our standard carbon foam," Olson said as he held a blowtorch to one of the carbon foam squares. "That flame is probably approaching 1,500 degrees Celsius, and you can see the carbon — it's starting to glow."

It won't break, though, which is one of the reasons it's part of the building blocks of space exploration.

"One of the biggest applications is really aerospace," Olson said, "and it turns out carbon foam is an ideal material for making those types of parts."

It all begins inside their manufacturing facility in Triadelphia, West Virginia, a small town of just over 600 people.

"We're kind of a small group, you know. So, we're kind of tight knit, stay together," said employee Jonathan Faldoski. 

He has worked there for three years and is one of a dozen employees.

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"For it to be advancing into something else and not just the same thing, which is just mining and everything like that — I think that's pretty cool," Faldoski said.

It's a far cry from the historic use of coal as fuel, which is getting phased out from power plants in many parts of the country. It's not just coal that's used here, but also coal waste.

"Most definitely, we can use coal waste to make valuable carbon products," Olson said.

Justine Kasznica is with the Keystone Space Collaborative, which works with aerospace-related companies from Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

"We should not overlook the rural communities as well," Kasznica said. "You travel to any rural community in northwest Pennsylvania, northeast Pennsylvania, Ohio — Youngstown area — West Virginia, and you will find tremendous amounts of suppliers who supply Navy, NASA, Air Force — and no one knows about them and no one's put them on the map."

That is something Rudy Olson hopes may be starting to change.

"We're going to be able to grow into aerospace applications even further," he said. "I think people really have a passion for this kind of a concept."