Engineers from the University of Utah are launching a $1.6 million project to research cost-effective, eco-friendly methods of turning coal-derived pitch into carbon fiber composite materials. The University says the research will also work with the Utah Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Initiative (UAMMI) to analyze the converted materials’ market potential.

Utah is considered a hotspot for advanced materials manufacturing, with more than 30 companies that manufacture or use carbon fiber composites in their products. It’s also a major producer of coal, making 17.9 million tons of coal valued at $600 million in 2014.

“There’s an abundance of coal and we would like to find an alternative use for it. It is a huge natural resource in the U.S., and we have a whole coal-mining community that is desperate for a new direction,” said University of Utah chemical engineering professor Eric Eddings, who is leading the research team. “If we can find an economical way to use coal to produce carbon fibers and have enough useful products so there can be a market for it, then they have that new direction. And it’s more carbon-friendly than just burning coal in a power plant.”

As the university explains, when coal is heated, it produces hydrocarbon materials that are burned as fuel when exposed to oxygen. But if coal is heated in the absence of oxygen, those hydrocarbons can be captured, modified and turned into an asphalt-like material known as pitch.

The pitch can then be spun into carbon fibers used to produce a composite material that is strong and light. The university says the new coal-based carbon fiber could serve as an alternative to traditional carbon fiber made with polyacrylonitrile (PAN).

While burning coal for power generation produces carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released into the atmosphere, processing coal for carbon fiber produces “substantially” less CO2, Eddings says.

“We’re taking the carbon and turning it into carbon fiber, so that’s effectively isolating it from going into the environment,” he says.