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CAER, ORNL Research Partnership to Turn Coal Into High-value Carbon Fiber

August 20, 2020

The collaboration will allow two of the world’s leading carbon fiber research and development organizations to maximize their respective expertise in the field.

By Dave Melanson, CAER


The University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are teaming up on a $10 million project to transform coal into high-value carbon fibers and composites. The project was funded by the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy.

This project, titled “C4WARD: Coal Conversion for Carbon Fibers and Composites,” seeks to develop the fundamental and translational science and engineering necessary to create energy-efficient and cost-effective processes for manufacturing carbon fibers with tunable properties. It will address challenges associated with coal processing, variability in coal feedstocks, and carbon fiber manufacturing scale up from laboratory to semi-production scale.

Coal-to-carbon fiber research shows great promise to positively impact the nation’s sluggish coal industry. In 2019, U.S. coal production, consumption and employment reached their lowest levels in 40 years. These trends are likely to persist as coal continues to lose market share to natural gas and renewable generation in the electric power sector. Recent studies suggest that U.S. coal utilization for coal-to-products applications has the potential to reach utilization levels on the same order of magnitude as that of steam coal.

“The researchers at UK CAER continue pushing the boundaries of innovation in support of Kentucky’s coal miners and the families who rely on them. I was proud to support UK’s team as they research coal manufacturing and its potential for good-paying Kentucky jobs,” said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Since I joined the Senate, I’ve constantly fought for Kentucky’s coal communities. To further that mission, I used my role as Senate majority leader to help bring this cutting-edge opportunity to our Commonwealth. I’d like to congratulate UK CAER on this national recognition, and I look forward their continued contributions to Kentucky.”

The market for carbon fibers, however, continues to grow, driven by increased use in aerospace and defense applications as well as lightweighting of automobiles. New market growth in other high-volume applications — such as thermal insulation for buildings and materials for construction and infrastructure — also show great promise. The market for carbon fibers is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 12% through 2024.  

The collaboration will allow two of the world’s leading carbon fiber research and development organizations to maximize their respective expertise in the field.

CAER’s Materials Technologies Group, guided by Director Rodney Andrews and Associate Director Matt Weisenberger, will lead the effort to convert a variety of coal feedstocks into carbon fibers and composites. CAER is a global leader in developing carbon fiber from a variety of sources and is home to the largest carbon fiber spinline facility at any academic institution in North America.

CAER will be working with ORNL to optimize coal-derived pitch processing for carbon fiber and composites development. CAER will produce laboratory-scale quantities of carbon fiber to develop structure-property relationships between the feed coal material and the resultant carbon fiber to develop processing-structure-properties relationships. ORNL will collaborate with CAER in this phase of the project by using their expertise in chemistry and high-performance computing to correlate the molecular structure of coal with its processability, identifying optimum pitch compositions to fabricate carbon fibers with tunable properties.

“The University of Kentucky looks forward to working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory on this important project,” said University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto. “By leveraging our expertise and collaborating with forward-thinking partners, we can advance coal conversion and reenergize the market. As Kentucky’s land-grant institution, UK has a responsibility to encourage economic prosperity through innovation and discovery, and this is an ideal opportunity to pursue those missions. We would not be celebrating this exciting project without the strong and consistent support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Senator McConnell was an early and fervent supporter of this work, and we appreciate his commitment to ensuring CAER remains a global leader in energy research and development.”

CAER and ORNL will also collaborate to develop process conditions for scaling up fiber production at the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility (CFTF) at ORNL, DOE’s only designated user facility for carbon fiber innovation. The CFTF, a 42,000-square foot facility, provides a platform for identifying high-potential, low-cost raw materials including textile, lignin, polymer and hydrocarbon-based precursors. Using the CFTF, ORNL is developing optimal mechanical properties for carbon fiber material, focusing on structure property and process optimization.

The facility is capable of custom unit operation configuration and has a capacity of up to 25 tons per year, allowing industry to validate conversion of its carbon fiber precursors at semi-production scale.

ORNL will also lead efforts in materials characterization, technoeconomic analysis and technology-to-market portions of the project.

"ORNL is looking forward to contributing its expertise and unique facilities to this valuable partnership in order to push the boundaries of what is possible in materials science and advanced manufacturing,” said ORNL Deputy for Projects Moe Khaleel. "By collaborating with the University of Kentucky, we will move breakthroughs to the marketplace to strengthen our economic and national security.”

“Adding value to Kentucky’s and the nation’s economy has long been a hallmark of our research and outreach at the UK Center for Applied Energy Research,” Andrews said. “This coal-to-carbon fiber project allows us to continue that tradition in new and exciting ways and alongside a partner in Oak Ridge National Laboratory that is known across the globe for their innovation, discovery, and technology transfer programs. On behalf of CAER, I thank Senator McConnell for championing this work and important CAER research programs throughout his career.”

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://energy.gov/science.