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Developing New Uses for American Coal
Coal Manufacturing

Director’s Corner

by Brian Anderson, Ph.D.

Innovation sometimes comes in unexpected forms, like discovering surprising alternative uses for commonplace items. For example, WD40 can be used to revive spark plugs; ketchup can be used to efficiently clean silver jewelry. At NETL, we are working on some impressive, innovative uses for common coal and most have nothing to do with burning it.

Beneficiation is a term used to describe the treatment of a raw material like coal to improve physical or chemical properties so it can be used for new applications. Coal beneficiation at NETL focuses on both enhancing the value of coal as a feedstock and developing new high-value products derived from coal.

NETL’s Coal Beneficiation Program and a dynamic new collaborative effort with universities and sister national laboratories known as the Consortium on Coal-based Carbon Materials Manufacturing (COAL MAT) are leading the way in innovating ways to manufacture carbon products like carbon fiber, and carbon additives for cements and structural composites directly from coal instead of using petrochemical or biomass feedstocks.

We are also making progress on ways to convert coal to high-value carbon nanomaterials that reduce manufacturing costs and energy consumption while improving the performance of electronics, batteries, solar cells, cements, plastics and other in-demand consumer products.

Our experts are also experimenting with upgrading the properties of raw coal to make it more environmentally attractive with new coal processing approaches.

We are collaborating with other researchers across America and opening new avenues of research through COAL MAT – a consortium involving coordinated research and technology development between NETL, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research, and Massachusetts Institute for Technology.

This brief summary is just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout October, we will be describing in more detail our efforts to find alternative uses for coal. It’s all part of NETL’s innovative nature, and it’s rewarding work that will have big implications for future generations.

Segway inventor Dean Kamen once observed that “Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem, and a big idea turn into an innovation.”

At NETL, we are developing new technologies and big ideas for application to ongoing energy issues. Innovation is a guaranteed outcome.