Stronger than Steel, but Made from Coal

Necessity might be the mother of invention, but whimsical thoughts can help.

Not long ago, Dr. Greg Jones, associate director of the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute and assistant vice president for research at the University of Utah, voiced a thought during a meeting with leaders from the Utah Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Initiative (UAMMI). He said, “We should make carbon fiber from Utah coal since there is a downturn in the coal market.”

His suggestion caught the attention of a coal chemist who asked, “Do you know any carbon fiber people?”

“Are you kidding?” responded Jones. “Utah is full of carbon fiber people.”

Indeed, Utah is a hotspot for advanced materials manufacturing, of which carbon fiber is the main component. More than 60 Utah companies manufacture or use carbon-fiber composites in their products, including for aerospace and defense applications, outdoor recreational equipment and for lower-limb prosthetics, while the advanced materials manufacturing industry employs more than 12,000 workers in the state, according to EDCUtah data.

What’s more, the U.S. Department of Commerce has recognized Utah’s advanced materials manufacturing industry as one of 24 manufacturing industries in the country that are doing progressive economic development work.

Brainstorming around the idea to make carbon fiber from coal led to collaboration between carbon fiber industry expert and retired Brigham Young University professor Brent Strong and coal expert Eric Eddings, a University of Utah chemical engineering professor. The result is the recently launched $1.6 million research grant engaging engineers from the University of Utah to look for cost-effective, carbon-friendly methods of turning coal-derived pitch into carbon-fiber composite material and analyze its market potential.

“It’s a ton of work and a lot of chemistry,” says Jones of the grant. The two main questions to be answered during the three-year effort are, first, is Utah coal appropriate for carbon fiber? (“We think it is,” he notes.) And second, how expensive will the carbon fiber be to produce?

Along with determining how useful it will be, the researchers will evaluate whether any new methods of coal-based chemistry can make carbon fiber at a price point low enough to change the market dynamic. An even bigger question is whether making carbon fiber from coal will help revitalize rural Utah communities suffering from the decline in coal production. During a press conference at the University of Utah’s Industrial Combustion and Gasification Research Facility in downtown Salt Lake City, Jay Williams, U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, said this project is one of a new slate of POWER grants that will finance projects to help struggling coal communities around the country. Matching funds for the Utah project also will come from industry-related agencies and companies.

At the press conference, Eddings noted that coal is a huge natural resource in the U.S. and finding an alternative use for it would help coal-mining communities that are desperate for a new direction. “If we can find an economical way to use coal to produce carbon fibers and have enough useful products so there can be a market for it, these communities will have that new direction,” he said.

Typically, when coal is heated it produces hydrocarbon materials that are burned as fuel in the presence of oxygen. But if coal is heated in the absence of oxygen the hydrocarbons can be captured, modified and turned into an asphalt-like material known as pitch. The pitch is then spun into carbon fibers used to produce a composite material that is strong and light. Most carbon fiber composite material is made from a derivative of petroleum known as polyacrylonitrile, but that process is expensive.

Jones says the research team is just now receiving coal pitch that will be studied in the project. U of U researchers will produce different variants of pitch and then deliver them to Matthew Weisenberger and his team at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research, who are subcontractors in the project and experts at spinning pitch into carbon fibers.

“We have the chemistry,” Jones adds, “while the University of Kentucky has the lab that will actually spin the fiber.”

With the new Utah grant, Eddings and his team will analyze the makeup of Utah coal, which has its own unique properties from coal in other regions, to determine how well it can be used for pitch-based carbon-fiber material. The research team is also working with UAMMI, a consortium of materials companies, research institutions and state agencies, to examine the market potential for producing this composite material from Utah coal, and if other coal communities can benefit from this technology.

“I’m confident the research team can take Utah coal and produce carbon fiber,” says Jones, who is the founding director of UAMMI. “The question is can Utah coal have some innate benefit that lends itself to carbon fiber that is somehow better than other coals? Can we find a way to produce carbon fibers more economically so it can be competitive and the market can grow?”

The success of the project would likely lead to some type of business spinoff or infusion of investment capital in order to take the carbon fiber product out of the research lab and into the marketplace. But success would also have other benefits. While burning coal for power generation produces carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released into the atmosphere, processing coal for carbon fiber produces “substantially” less CO2, according to Eddings, effectively isolating it from going into the environment.

What’s more, the coal-to-carbon-fiber could help turn around the economies in Carbon, Emery, Sevier and Kane Counties, where six coal operators produced 17.9 million tons of coal valued at $600 million from one surface and seven underground mines in 2014. Today, there are six active Utah mines, not counting sites that produce coal from old waste piles. If the researchers prove successful in their work turning Utah coal into carbon fiber, the result could have a tremendous impact on the state’s declining coal production and feed new material into the local hub of advanced materials manufacturers.