Earlier this year, researchers from some of the nation’s most innovative universities, research institutes, laboratories and energy companies — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, National Energy Technology Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and many more — traveled to a small town in northern Wyoming for the first-ever “coal-to-products” research conference. They were there to discuss recent developments in advanced materials and manufacturing technology, which have the potential to create new, higher value purposes for coal, far beyond energy production.
If you were to ask people where positive disruptions might appear in our economy, few would think of coal. The jury is out as to whether, over the long term, it will successfully compete with renewables or gas when it comes to power generation. But the U.S. possesses the largest and cheapest coal reserves in the world. This means it also has the world’s largest and cheapest carbon reserves.
The possibilities are expanding for how coal’s carbon and chemical properties can be used, both constructively and commercially. Products such as carbon fiber, for example, are expensive because they are made from petroleum. Although petroleum and coal have about the same percentage of carbon (about 75 percent), a ton of petroleum is about $500. A ton of coal from the Powder River Basin costs less than $15.
In recent years, science has gotten us closer to harnessing the unique properties of carbon. This is a key moment, when private investment, government support and new research can help us realize the future economic potential presented by our nation’s coal reserves, which is monumental.
Carbon is becoming the dominant “advanced material” of the 21st century – think carbon fiber, graphene, graphite and carbon-based resins. If we could use coal to make these advanced materials for lower costs, it could be vastly disruptive across many industries. These new advanced materials could enhance or replace basic metals like steel or aluminum, and also building products like cement, asphalt, rebar or roof shingles.
Carbon from coal can also be used to make chemicals, resins and very excitingly, in the field of medical life sciences. It can be used to provide the resins for 3D printers, for example, which themselves have the potential to revolutionize almost all forms of manufacturing.
All of these are fast-growing, game-changing uses that can in some cases require over 100 million tons of coal per year per use, by our estimates. When you consider the United States produced roughly 700 million tons of coal last year, even a few new major uses can create a demand inflection point for the entire coal industry.
The coal industry is a traditional, conservative one, not known for courting risk without good cause. But sometimes opportunities present themselves that are worth taking that risk.
In the early days of computer technology, forward-thinking investors and government support helped create a wellspring of innovation and wealth in Silicon Valley. Coal now needs its own “Carbon Valley”. We need to support the efforts of researchers to commercialize their work in the realm of “coal-to-products”. By doing so, we can unlock the potential to create an alternative, positive and disruptive future use for this abundant natural resource.