Turning Coal into Carbon Fiber at the University of Utah

15th November 2016

Engineers from the University of Utah are launching a $1.6 million project to research cost-effective, carbon-friendly methods of turning coal-derived pitch into carbon-fiber composite material, as well as analyze its market potential and whether it can help revitalize coal communities threatened by a decline in production.

“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,” said University of Utah chemical engineering professor Eric Eddings, who leads the research team. “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.”

Typically, when coal is heated it produces hydrocarbon materials that are burned as fuel in the presence of oxygen. But if it is heated in the absence of oxygen—as in the cooking process smelters use to produce iron—those hydrocarbons can be captured, modified and turned into an asphalt-like material known as pitch.

The pitch can then be spun into carbon fibers used to produce a composite material that is strong and light. Most carbon-fiber composite material is made from a derivative of petroleum known as polyacrylonitrile, but that process is expensive.

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, Eddings says.

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

Using funds from a new Utah grant, Eddings and his team will analyze the makeup of Utah coal—which has its own unique properties from coal in other regions—to determine how well it can be used for pitch-based carbon-fiber material.

Researchers will produce different variants of pitch and then deliver them to Matthew Weisenberger and his team at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research, who are subcontractors in the project and experts at spinning pitch into carbon fibers. Engineers will research the best ways of producing pitch with as little CO2 as possible.