Researcher advocates for other uses for coal

Eric Eddings
Eric Eddings

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Coal isn’t just for burning in power plants, according to a Utah college professor researching other uses.

Coal also can serve as the raw material for a variety of products, including strong and lightweight carbon composites that could be used in automobiles and aircraft.

“What I’m proposing is a shift in our mindsets,” said Eric Eddings, a chemical engineering professor and associate dean for research at the college of engineering at the University of Utah.

That shift could help a mining industry that faces declining production that corresponds with the decreasing use of coal for electrical production, Eddings said in an energy briefing hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

One alternative could be to open processing plants near coal mines to turn coal into a variety of higher-value products, he said. “This is a great opportunity.”

The use of coal for power generation has decreased in recent years even as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have led to increased production and lower prices for natural gas, Eddings said. Utilities have switched from coal to natural gas because of the lower prices and reduced emissions of gas. Meanwhile, utilities are closing aging coal-fired power plants.

“It does make the future of coal-fired power generation less certain,” he said.

It’s possible, though, to use coal for other uses than fuel, Eddings said.

Coal also can be used in the processes to make steel as well as to make activated carbon to filter water. Rare earth minerals needed to manufacture smartphones, computers and solar panels are found in low concentrations in coal, he said.

In addition, coal could serve as a raw material to make the fibers that go into carbon composites. Those composites are five times stronger and five times lighter than steel, Eddings said, making them a useful component for automobiles, aircraft and other products.

The potential market is huge, he said. It’s a matter of finding ways to reduce the cost of processing to make coal more competitive as a feedstock for composites.

The University of Utah has teamed up with the University of Kentucky to research new uses for coal. But a federal research initiative would help speed that process, Eddings said.