Photo by Mark Mahan

Kentucky University gets Funding to turn Coal into Carbon Fibre

The University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research has received a United States Department of Energy grant to transform coal tar pitch into carbon fibre for use in aerospace, automotive, sporting goods, and other high-performance materials.

The $1.8 million project sees researchers covert coal tar, a byproduct from coke production taken from the steel industry into mesophase pitch, a liquid crystal. This can then be spun and thermally converted to carbon fibre. If successful, this new carbon fibre product could increase the value of coal tar pitch by 5- to 55-times of its current value, and find application in high stiffness, low-weight composites in applications such as passenger cars and light-duty trucks.

This is an exciting project for our research team. Being able to efficiently upgrade a coal byproduct into high-value carbon fibre for composites would be a terrific benefit to Kentucky’s and the nation’s manufacturers. It would add significantly to the coal value chain, further establishing Kentucky as a global leader in carbon fibre research and development. Matt Weisenberger, Associate Director for Materials Technologies at UK CAER

The grant will support the development of simplified multifilament melt spinning of the mesophase pitch to produce ‘green’ (not yet carbonised) fibres, and subsequent continuous thermal processing, or oxidization, of those green fibres. The research team will then create woven preforms from the fibres for composites manufacture, as well as chopped carbon fibre for filled thermoplastics suitable for injection moulding.

Carbon Fiber Spinline. Photo by Mark Mahan

Home to the largest carbon fibre spin line facility at any academic institution in North America, UK CAER is a global leader in carbon fibre research, development, and innovation. Carbon fibre composite is a stiff, lightweight alternative to aluminium and has become increasingly important to the aerospace and automotive industries. CAER carbon fibre researchers are working on vehicle light-weighting projects, including hollow carbon fibre development for pressure vessels for on-board hydrogen storage.