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NETL Collaboration Unlocking High-Value Products from Carbon Ore

In an NETL-supported project, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the University of Kentucky (UK) are investigating ways to use carbon ore to create high-value products like carbon fiber composites for the aerospace, automotive, wind energy markets and more. The research is also helping achieve a key Biden Administration priority of environmental justice by paving the way for new clean manufacturing industries and good-paying jobs in American coal communities.

“The ORNL-UK research team is using advanced multi-scale characterization techniques and high-performance computer modeling to unlock the science needed to enable competitive industrialization of carbon ore-derived carbon fibers and composites,” said NETL’s Chuck Miller, who manages the project.

Carbon ore is an abundant natural resource traditionally used for thermal and metallurgical applications, but researchers across the nation are exploring its use as a feedstock for creating value-added products. Carbon fibers, for example, are used in building products, aerospace and automotive parts, rotating parts, sporting goods, and many other applications.

The project is addressing challenges associated with carbon ore processing, variability in carbon ore feedstocks, and scaling up carbon fiber manufacturing from the laboratory bench- to semi-production-scale at ORNL's 42,000 square foot Carbon Fiber Technology Facility (CFTF). The facility, which was established in 2013, is DOE’s only designated user facility for carbon fiber innovation.

“Because the team has been able to understand the structure and reactivity of different carbon ores, they’ve developed efficient conversion methods,” Miller said. “For example, they made significant progress in understanding the effect of carbon ore and solvent type on the solvent extraction process to obtain spinnable pitches, which are the precursors to the carbon fibers. Melt-blown fibers from these pitches have now been produced at both the lab bench-scale and at the CFTF.”

By using computational chemistry, machine learning and advanced characterization tools, the team hopes to
establish processing-structure-properties relationships for carbon ores and carbon ore-derived pitch at the molecular and mesoscale levels. This will accelerate the development of processes for fabricating carbon ore-derived products with specific properties and performance (e.g., structural fibers or fibers for thermal management applications).

“This project is generating troves of high-quality data,” Miller said. “And, all of this important information is being uploaded to DOE’s Energy Data eXchange platform, which means that it will be securely archived and available to build upon for future breakthroughs in the carbon fiber industry.”

NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.