That Comes from Coal

Coal is a Building Block of Modern Life.

Aside from its obvious use to generate electricity, coal and coal-derived compounds are necessary for producing many essential products we use every day. From steel and cement to components of water filtration and fertilizers, thousands of products are produced with the assistance of coal—either for its carbon, as an upstream material, or as a source of heat in the manufacturing process.

Today, innovators are taking advantage of coal’s unique chemistry to develop high-performance materials for aerospace, military, battery storage, construction, and other high-technology applications.

What Comes from Coal?

The answers may surprise you.

The Future

Today, researchers and innovators are taking the contributions of coal higher than ever before. Coal and coal-derived components are becoming crucial building blocks in the creation of exciting, new technologies that will reduce coal waste and create new jobs. By expanding coal’s value chain, these novel and emerging applications will help power humanity forward in ways we never thought possible. 

Carbon Foam

Carbon foam is an enabling component in several high-tech products and research initiatives. When derived directly from coal, the carbon foam can be easily machined into complex shapes and exhibits an attractive combination of properties–including low density, heat and fire resistance, corrosion resistance, blast and sound absorption, and electromagnetic shielding capabilities–making it suitable for a range of applications in aerospace, military, and other industrial and commercial product markets. Even today, certain components of some of our highest-performance aircraft are manufactured using carbon foam tools made from coal.

For reference:

Battery Materials

To help build renewable energy storage capacity, coal-derived carbon materials are being tested for use in making battery components. This work includes innovating alternatives for graphite, the primary component in lithium-ion battery anodes. Demand for graphite is projected to triple by 2030, and 98% of processed battery anode-grade graphite currently comes from China.

For reference:
X-Batt: SiOC-Coal Composites
Jacqueline Holman, S&P Global: Graphite supply a concern in meeting growing battery demand
IER: ​​Graphite, Dominated by China, Requires the Largest Production Increase of Any Battery Mineral

Building Materials

Due to its abundance and affordability, as well as attractive properties like resistance to mold, mildew, and fire, coal is being developed as an ingredient for building materials of the future, ranging from deck boards to roofing tiles to lightweight concrete to construction panels. These initiatives are aimed at providing more sustainable alternatives to conventional materials, like wood, steel, and concrete, to meet the world’s staggering need for new infrastructure and construction, including two billion new homes expected to be built by the end of this century.

For reference:
Builder: Global Demand For 2 Billion New Homes in 80 Years Will Drive Innovation
Ohio University: OHIO Engineering researcher and team receive $2 million to create coal composites
MIT Climate Grand Challenges: Carbon>Building

3D Printing

Coal and waste coal are being researched for use in making 3D printable filament materials, which can in turn be used to create a myriad of carbon structures and shapes for applications like building and construction, tooling, and manufacturing parts. Again, its abundance, low cost, and sustainability profile make coal a material of great interest in this application. 

For reference: 
Ohio University: U.S. Department of Energy selects two OHIO projects to develop advanced carbon-based materials

Carbon Fiber 

Carbon fibers are extremely strong, extremely lightweight threads of carbon molecules that create a very durable, fabric-like material. With an atomic structure similar to graphite, carbon fibers bring so much strength for their weight that they’re used in countless products from sporting goods to bicycles to airplane wings. New technologies are being developed to enable coal and coal waste to be used as the primary feedstock for producing this high-performance material. 

For reference:
Dave Melanson, University of Kentucky: UK researchers develop novel method to turn coal waste into carbon fiber

Essential Coal

As an abundant and affordable source of energy, coal has laid the foundation for an incredible number of industries to thrive—from providing reliable electricity to making essential items accessible. Are you taking the contributions of coal for granted?

Powering Advancements in Sustainability

The Coal Hard Truth About Carbon-Free Energy

Coal is—and will continue to be—a major contributor to sustainable technologies. Not only will the creation and usage of battery-powered technologies, including electric vehicles, require a need for more electricity, but many materials needed to build our envisioned clean-energy infrastructure also are currently created with the help of coal.


Wind Turbines

Wind Turbines

Steel and Iron are used to make wind turbines, and concrete is used to create the base of the windmill. Metallurgical coal is a key component in the production of steel and iron, and coal is commonly used to provide the energy to produce cement, the key ingredient in concrete. Fly ash derived from coal is often used as an ingredient in concrete as well.

Robert Wilson, Energy Central: Can You Make a Wind Turbine Without Fossil Fuels?
Aissa Bouaissi et. al.: Fly Ash as a Cementitious Material for Concrete

Solar Panels

Solar Panels

The silicon used to make solar panels is derived from a manufacturing process that generally depends on coal or other fossil fuels, both as a source of carbon needed to convert quartz ore (silica rocks) into elemental silicon and as a source of the very large amounts of energy required in the process. 

Babu Chalamala, Ph.D., Sandia National Laboratories: Manufacturing of Silicon Materials for Microelectronics and Solar PV
Thomas A. Troszak, NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence: The hidden costs of solar photovoltaic power

Electric Vehicles

Electric Vehicles

Steel, widely manufactured using metallurgical coal, will likely remain an essential material for frames, body components, and even battery enclosures for electric vehicles. Moreover, coal is currently the focus of research aimed at producing battery components and lightweight, high-performance materials that are expected to rapidly grow in demand with the widespread adoption of EVs.

American Iron and Steel Institute: Steel Industry Role in the Future of Electrified Vehicles
Sam Kirk, WBOY: Company says it’s built first-ever EV battery using coal