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University Announces Plans To Turn Coal Into Carbon Fibre

Tasuns Composite Technology Co.,Ltd | Updated: Nov 03, 2016

Jay Williams, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, announced the project would receive a $790,000 EDA POWER grant. It is one of a new slate of POWER grants announced by Williams 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.

University of Utah chemical engineering professor Eric Eddings, who leads the research team said;

There’s an abundance of coal and we would like to find an alternative use for it. It is a huge natural resource in the U.S., and we have a whole coal-mining community that is desperate for a new direction. If we can find an economical way to use coal to produce carbon fibres and have enough useful products so their can be a market for it, then they have that new direction. And it’s more carbon-friendly than just burning coal in a power plant.

Typically, when coal is heated it produces hydrocarbon materials that are burned as fuel in the presence of oxygen. But if it is heated in the absence of oxygen—as in the cooking process smelters use to produce iron—those hydrocarbons can be captured, modified and turned into an asphalt-like material known as pitch.

The pitch can then be spun into carbon fibres used to produce a composite material that is strong and light. Most carbon-fibre composite material is made from a derivative of petroleum known as polyacrylonitrile, but that process is expensive.

While burning coal for power generation produces carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released into the atmosphere, processing coal for carbon fibre produces “substantially” less CO2, Eddings says.

With the new Utah grant, Eddings and his team will analyse 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-fibre material.

Researchers will produce different variants of pitch and then deliver them to Matthew Weisenberger and his team at the University of Kentucky’s Centre for Applied Energy Research, who are subcontractors in the project and experts at spinning pitch into carbon fibres. Engineers will research the best ways of producing pitch with as little CO2 as possible.

The research team is also working with the Utah Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Initiative (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.

In Utah, six coal operators produced 17.9 million tons of coal valued at $600 million from one surface and seven underground mines in 2014, according to the latest statistics from the Utah Geological Survey. Today, there are six active Utah mines—not counting sites that produce coal from old waste piles—operating in Carbon, Emery, Sevier and Kane counties, according to the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.

If researchers prove successful in their work turning Utah coal into carbon fibre, the result could have a tremendous impact on the state’s declining coal production as well as feed new material into the local hub of advanced materials manufacturers.

Utah is a hotspot for advanced materials manufacturing, with more than 30 companies that manufacture or use carbon-fibre composites in their products, including for aerospace and defence applications, outdoor recreational equipment such as skis and bicycle rims, and lower-limb prosthetics. The advanced materials manufacturing industry in Utah employs more than 12,000 workers, according to the Economic Development Corporation of Utah. Part of the Utah team’s research will be to determine if these same products can use carbon fibre composites made from coal-derived pitch.

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