Coal in a New Carbon Age

By Janet Gellici, National Coal Council

The United States is embarking on a “New Age of Carbon” which will usher in significant opportunities for our nation’s abundant coal resources beyond conventional markets for power generation and steelmaking. Coal, and the carbon it contains, is on the crest of powering a wave of innovation in advanced products and manufacturing.

The opportunity represented by these “coal-to-products” markets is compelling. In its most recent report for U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, the National Coal Council’s (NCC) analysis indicates that utilization of domestic coal for these carbon-based products has the potential to be on the same order of magnitude as that projected for future coal power generation.

Advancing new markets for coal can enhance U.S. national defense security, bolster energy and mineral security, enhance environmental objectives and contribute to economic prosperity. Markets for Coal in the New Age of Carbon

Advanced markets for coal-derived products, materials and technologies include:

  • Coal to Solid Carbon Products – carbon fiber, activated carbon, graphite, electrodes, graphene, building and construction products, carbon foam and carbon black
  • Rare Earth Elements – component minerals for health care, military, transportation, power generation, petroleum refining and electronics applications
  • Coal Beneficiation – quality enhancements to coal for specialty product applications
  • Life Science, Biotech and Medical – prosthetics and biosensors
  • Agricultural Uses – fertilizer
  • Coal to Liquids – fuels and chemicals

The most significant near-term growth potential resides in the production of high-value specialty materials and products. These markets are being catalyzed by greater demands for high-performance advanced carbon materials in applications requiring ultralightweight, ultra-high-strength, and high electrical- and thermal-conducting materials.

  • Carbon Fiber – Developed in the 1960s as a space age material for satellites and military aircraft, carbon fiber is moving into the infrastructure, energy and transportation sectors. A burgeoning new role is in reducing the use of energy-intensive materials such as steel and concrete.
  • Synthetic Graphites and Electrodes – Developed for aluminum smelting and electric arc furnaces for steelmaking, these products are moving into Li-ion battery applications and as conductive pastes in electronic applications.
  • Graphene – Recently discovered atomic-layered carbon, found in coal, holds promise as a “wonder material” exhibiting the highest known material strength ever recorded. Prospective applications include uses as a toughening agent in building materials and as an electrical conductivity enhancer in new metal alloy systems.
  • Rare Earth Elements (REEs) – Produced almost exclusively in China, rare earth elements are not “rare” but of high strategic value. A single-source basis (China) has led to market availability concerns worldwide. Some coal deposits are naturally rich in REEs, which have important defense applications and are essential for products such as batteries and electromagnetic motors.
  • Soil Amendment (Humic Acid and Humate) – Lignite coal has long been used as a fertilizer. It contains humate – natural organic compounds from the decomposition of plants. Application of humates to soils provides benefits of increased water retention, growth of beneficial micro-organisms, root growth and plant yield, and replacement of lost topsoil.
  • Life Science (Biosensors) – Specialty carbon materials are used in prosthetics and implants and as carriers in drug delivery. Particularly useful in life sciences and medicine, coal-based biosensors with high sensitivity and specificity can significantly enhance patient care, early diagnosis of diseases and pathogen detection in clinical practice.

Benefits of Coal-Derived Carbon Products

Economic Benefits – Currently, the global market for coal-to-products is estimated at 300-400 million tons annually, mostly in chemicals, fuels and fertilizers in emerging economies. For reference, 2018 U.S. coal production was roughly 750 million tons. In many advanced market applications, coal is less expensive ($12-$50/ton) than traditional feedstocks such as petroleum ($400-$500/ton), offering cost reduction opportunities for manufacturing carbon products and providing a superior quality carbon feedstock.