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Finding New Value in Coal
Research Materials Engineer Peter Hsieh preparing coal ash samples

Director’s Corner

by Brian Anderson, Ph.D.

When people think of coal, they might think of an outmoded fuel from the past and a notorious contributor to climate change. But NETL research is challenging these ideas. The Lab’s research has enabled advances in carbon capture and storage technologies that allow power generation from coal with vastly reduced emissions of carbon dioxide. Coal also offers a resource to create tomorrow’s advanced materials. Our nation’s coal resources are vast, and NETL research is finding innovative ways to sustainably put this important resource to work for America.  

Throughout June, NETL is featuring our leading-edge work in discovering ways to turn coal into valuable products. For example: 

•    Advanced coal-based nanomaterials created by NETL have been used by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to fabricate a paradigm-shifting computer memory device with improved energy consumption, processing speeds, durability and reduced manufacturing costs. The partnership is opening new commercialization opportunities for coal in high-tech industries and rapidly accelerating fields like artificial intelligence and big data. 

•    NETL researchers have made significant progress in using coal-based graphene as a cement additive to compensate for the weaknesses of conventional concrete mixtures such as susceptibility to chemical corrosion from the salts used for deicing roads and deterioration from the freeze-thaw cycles and other limitations that result in costly, lengthy repairs. Furthermore, NETL’s graphene material is sourced from domestic coal resources, making it cheaper to produce into carbon nano-materials than conventional graphene sources and potentially leading to more demand for U.S. coal. 

•    NETL is advancing technology called microwave-assisted dry reforming of methane that could transform carbon dioxide (CO2) from a waste gas that contributes to climate change to a high-value feedstock used in the production of fuels, pharmaceuticals, plastics, fertilizers and a range of consumer goods. In their recently published study, researchers reported making important strides in dry reforming, a process that reacts CO2, instead of steam or oxygen, with methane to yield the mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide known as synthesis gas or syngas, a chemical building block for many products. 

From our perspective, the future of coal looks bright, offering solutions in unexpected areas, thanks to pioneering work of NETL scientists and engineers. Transforming coal into valuable products could be a game-changer in improving the economies in our nation’s coal-rich regions and underscoring our nation’s energy security. It’s just one more way NETL is developing technology solutions to our nation’s energy challenges.