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Two U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratories, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), are working with the University of Kentucky and the Pennsylvania State University to further the research and development of coal-derived carbon fibers.

This research, valued at $10 million, will investigate all aspects of coal-derived carbon fiber production—from computational chemistry and pitch processing to the final spinning and heat treatment process of the fibers. The aim is to produce fibers with superior properties at a lower cost than currently available.

Through this effort, ORNL researchers will work to understand the chemistry and processing conditions required to produce different grades of coal-derived carbon fiber. NETL, ORNL, and the university teams will work closely to diversify U.S. coal use in domestic manufacturing, while making coal and coal-based products more attractive for export.

Because of competition from low-priced natural gas and incentivized renewable energy, the market for coal in the electric power generation sector is decreasing. However, coal-to-products opportunities can develop new markets for coal, which have the potential to offset this decrease.

For example, the market for carbon fibers is estimated to see an annual growth rate of 12 percent through 2024, driven largely by increased use in aerospace and defense applications and in light-weighting of vehicle structures. Additional market growth is also possible in other high-volume applications, such as thermal insulation for buildings and materials for construction and infrastructure.

“NETL’s demonstration of coal-based graphene to reinforce concrete and engineered plastics, along with other examples from the Advanced Coal Processing Program, shows that coal has a major role in the future, beyond electricity generation,” said NETL’s Technology Manager Joseph Stoffa. “We welcome the contributions of ORNL in this endeavor and look forward to the projects these Congressional appropriations will fund.”

The $10 million that ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility will receive comes as a part of $30 million in fiscal year 2020 Congressional appropriations to support DOE’s Advanced Coal Processing Program. This program supports the development of technologies that can utilize coal for purposes outside the traditional thermal and metallurgical markets.

Of the $10 million funding, $4.5 million will support University of Kentucky research to determine how coal tar pitch, the carbon fiber precursor, can be tailored and optimized for the specific type of desired fiber. Additionally, $80,000 will go to the Pennsylvania State University for material characterization.

For more information about the laboratories, visit the ORNL website and the NETL website.