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.
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.