The team will send the first batch of pitch, derived from coal from Utah’s SUFCO mine, to the University of Kentucky in July. Pitch from other regional coals will be derived and tested continually over the next few years to determine which may have a greater propensity for producing a large pitch fraction or a very high-quality pitch.

As pitch production continues, researchers will also test various approaches to create as many co-products as possible to make carbon fiber from coal economically attractive. The vapors that remain after the pitch has been collected can also be condensed into a range of gaseous and liquid hydrocarbon products that include hydrogen, methane, ethane and other light hydrocarbon gases, liquid paraffins, akyl-benzenes and phenols.

One issue faced by the team concerns lingering inorganic content. Coal has 10 to 40 percent inorganic content that is left behind as residual ash, and small amounts could end up in the tar after the hydrocarbons have been processed. This creates challenges, especially compared to processing carbon fiber from petroleum, which has only trace amounts of inorganics, Eddings notes, that are “relatively small and generally much easier to deal with than the rock-like material, aluminosilicates, iron pyrites and those kinds of things that you find in coal. “

Nonetheless, Eddings sees these inorganic materials and solid carbon residues as another source of co-products that can offset carbon fiber production costs. Residual carbon “char” or “coke” is already typically sold as metallurgical coke for steel processing, while residual ash could also be used as a source for rare earth materials.

Eddings notes that although companies such as Mitsubishi are producing carbon composite products derived from coal, it is a tiny percentage of the market. Ultimately, he hopes that this research will contribute to innovations needed to sell coal-pitch derived carbon fiber at $5 per pound – the price widely seen as the key to breaking into the automotive industry.

“That would be the dream,” says Eddings. “That would have a significant positive impact on many of these coal communities who will have found a new, high-tech use for this great and very large U.S. resource.”

Suiting Up for the Red Planet

Project: Z-2 space suit

School: University of Delaware

Location: Newark, Del.

Principal Investigator: Jack Gillespie

When NASA prepared to travel to the moon in the 1960s, it required space suits for astronauts that could endure 83 percent less gravity than earth and no significant atmosphere. ILC Dover Inc. supplied space suits for NASA’s Apollo program. More than 50 years later, the company continues to provide space suits – with much more stringent requirements. They must withstand conditions on Mars.