Two US 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 fibres.
This research, valued at US$10 million, will investigate all aspects of coal-derived carbon fibre production – from computational chemistry and pitch processing to the final spinning and heat treatment process of the fibres. The aim is to produce fibres 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 fibre. 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 incentivised 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 fibres is estimated to see an annual growth rate of 12 per cent through 2024, driven largely by increased use in aerospace and defence 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.
The $10 million that ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility will receive comes as a part of $30 million in the fiscal year 2020 Congressional appropriations to support DOE’s Advanced Coal Processing Program. This program supports the development of technologies that can utilise 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 fibre precursor, can be tailored and optimised for the specific type of desired fibre. Additionally, $80,000 will go to Pennsylvania State University for material characterisation.