New coal research seeks to help struggling coal communities

By Jodi Delapaz

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 10, 2016 - Engineers from the University of Utah launched a $1.6 million project to research cost-effective, carbon-friendly methods of turning coal-derived pitch into carbon-fiber composite material and analyze its market potential.

If coal it is heated in the absence of oxygen, hydrocarbons can be captured, modified and turned into an asphalt-like material known as pitch, which can then be spun into carbon fibers used to produce a composite material that is strong and light.

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While burning coal for power generation produces carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released into the atmosphere, processing coal for carbon fiber produces “substantially” less CO2, says University of Utah chemical engineering professor Eric Eddings, who leads the research team.

“We're taking the carbon and turning it into carbon fiber, so that's effectively isolating it from going into the environment,” Eddings says.

Most carbon-fiber composite material is currently made from a derivative of petroleum known as polyacrylonitrile, but that process is expensive, the researchers say.

“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,” says Eddings.

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“If we can find an economical way to use coal to produce carbon fibers and have enough useful products so there 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.”

The researchers say if they are successful, the result could have a tremendous impact on declining coal production - and feed new material into the local hub of advanced materials manufacturers.

The project is partly funded by a $790,000 grant from the Economic Development Administration's Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative, with matching funds from industry-related agencies and companies.

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