Coal in a New Carbon Age

Social Benefits – The economic growth potential of coal-to-products provides social benefits through new mining and manufacturing jobs, especially in regions of the country adversely impacted by reduced coal production. Many future coal-to-product manufacturing sites could be located in repurposed areas of former mines to take advantage of coal feedstocks and logistics.

Environmental Benefits – Advanced forms of carbon now serve as key building blocks of applications resulting in cleaner energy, water and air. Benefits are realized by: 1) alternative uses of coal that do not have the same carbon emission characteristics as current uses; 2) using coal to create durable, lightweight carbon products for the aerospace and automotive industries with the potential for a corresponding reduction in fuel use because of lightweighting; 3) using coal to create sorbents for capturing CO2 from fossil fuel power plants, cement kilns and industrial sources, and sorbents for water purification; and 4) using coal to create composite products for infrastructure, concrete and building materials.

National Security Benefits – Rare earth elements support critical U.S. defense industry sectors. Advancing domestic production of these critical minerals from coal and coal ash could greatly reduce the nation’s nearly 100 percent dependence on Chinese imports.

The Coal-to-Products Opportunity

The NCC undertook a systematic approach for characterizing, assessing and prioritizing market and product attractiveness using a nine-block analysis. Each of the coal-to-products markets was assessed based on its market attractiveness (market size, market growth rate, attributes) and competitive strength (relative market share, ability to compete on price and quality, competitive strengths and weaknesses).

This analysis provides a qualitative, directional assessment of market opportunities. In the illustration below, the size of the darker blue inner bubble is a qualitative representation of the total size of the market (annual revenues) that coal can address; the size of the lighter blue outer bubble is a qualitative representation of potential market growth over the next 25 years.

The results indicate that the most significant opportunities for U.S. coal are in producing high value specialty materials and products at reduced costs that will accelerate growth and spearhead large-scale applications. This could constitute a step-change in turning coal into the future “carbon ore” mineral asset. Coal could become a new, innovative, low-cost solution to creating advanced materials and products.

Recommendations for Advancing U.S. Coal-to-Products Markets

The NCC recommends three primary strategic objectives for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to accelerate U.S. development and commercialization of coal-derived solid carbon products, chemicals, fuels and rare earth elements.

  • Establish a focused research and development (R&D) program on coal-to-products. Additional R&D is needed to achieve commercially viable technical performance-to-cost ratios for manufacturing coal-derived products.
  • Accelerate research-to-commercial deployment in coal-to-products markets. The U.S. must bring new technologies and related manufacturing to market much faster, via replicable modular systems, to compete globally and avoid being outpaced by other countries. Gaps in funding and delays in progressing commercial deployment, including new-skills workforce development, must be eliminated. A dedicated Office of Carbon within DOE would enhance these efforts.
  • Incentivize private sector investment in coal-to-products production and manufacturing sectors. Establishing a stronger private sector investment appetite for first-of-a-kind (FOAK) and subsequent single-digit coal conversion plants and end-product factories is needed to quickly move DOE-supported coal-to-products technologies into commercial operation, creating jobs and improving the U.S. balance of trade.

Janet Gellici is CEO of the National Coal Council.