SHERIDAN — A Department of Energy grant that will receive more than $1 million in federal funding aims to develop an emissions-free process to produce carbon fiber using coal. The grant’s prime recipient, Sheridan-based Ramaco Carbon, will work with TerraPower, a nuclear innovation company in Bellevue, Washington, to develop the process, which could result in significant environmental benefits.
According to Randall Atkins, CEO of Ramaco Carbon, a prime environmental benefit of the project is developing higher-value uses for coal, beyond its use in power plants.
“Our company operates under a simple mantra: ‘Coal is too valuable to burn,’” Atkins said in a press release. “Through our research we are seeking higher technology uses for the carbon from coal, which will increase its value and lower the environmental footprint from its use. Every bit of coal that’s used to create an advanced product or material like carbon fiber is moving us toward a greener future, and a stronger American economy.”
Since 2015, TerraPower has been developing processes to use the heat from nuclear reactors to improve chemical and industrial processes currently dependent on fossil fuels.
“We are excited to see Secretary Perry and the Department of Energy continue to invest in new technologies to transform the country’s use of fossil fuels and to use nuclear energy in innovative ways,” explained TerraPower Chief Executive Officer Chris Levesque. “TerraPower’s work with Ramaco Carbon will develop processes to convert coal into needed commercial products without the release of carbon into the atmosphere.”
Josh Walter, project manager for Integrated Energy Systems and innovation engineer at TerraPower, explained that using carbon dioxide-free heat from nuclear can displace the emission-intensive processes used to transform biomass and fossil resources into usable products.
“Think of coal itself as a giant molecule, and if you heat it up it breaks into smaller parts,” Walter said in the press release. “Right now, a lot of carbon fiber is made from poly acrylonitrile (PAN), a petrochemical product. We believe we can create carbon fiber precursor using elements of coal instead, extracted by heating it with a non-CO2 emitting form of energy. In the future, that might be nuclear energy. However, we can very likely get started, albeit at smaller scales, with renewable energy, today.”
Beyond developing an emissions-free process for creating carbon fiber precursor from coal, the project also aims to lower the cost of carbon fiber, presenting other benefits to the environment. Walter noted that carbon fiber is mostly found in expensive vehicles, such as race cars and sailboats. More affordable carbon fiber could transform transportation options with much lighter and more fuel-efficient vehicles from cars to airplanes, ultimately reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
“The major environmental grievance about coal concerns its use as a fuel to make power,” Atkins said. “There are many alternative ways that the carbon found in coal can be deployed that do not involve burning it. As this project will demonstrate, coal can ultimately help reduce CO2 emissions through its use as the ‘building block’ for advanced materials like carbon fiber.”