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Coal-Based 3D Printing Materials Funded by $7M in U.S. DoE Grants

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Rather than abandon them altogether, U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) and its Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM) continue to support fossil fuels. In this case, however, they’re not being used to generate energy, but filaments and resins. The FECM announced nearly $7 million in funding for seven projects that aim to create additive manufacturing (AM) feedstock from coal, as well as research and development for coal-derived graphite.

As the Biden administration seeks to transition the country toward net-neutral carbon emissions by 2035, the FECM is looking for non-energy applications for coal. In turn, the National Energy Technology Laboratory’s (NETL) Carbon Ore Processing Program is overseeing the projects to create laboratory- and pilot-scale R&D for coal waste-derived products.

The Department of Fossil Energy. Image courtesy of DoE.

The projects will use coal waste like tailing and ash to create 3D printing filaments and resins, as well as graphite for the production of batteries, fuel cells, and other battery storage devices. For instance, Baker Hughes Energy Transition LLC in Houston will develop PEEK filament that includes coal derivatives. Ohio University aims to 3D print “carbonized structures”. Semplastics EHC , in Oviedo, Florida, will be creating filaments from coal waste used for 3D printing high-temperature plastics and ceramic composites. University of Delaware is making graphene filaments from coal.

Outside of 3D printing, Ohio University plans to create energy storage devices using coal, while Touchstone Research Laboratory in West Virginia aims to mold graphite products. The University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center is developing fast-charging lithium-ion battery anodes from coal and coal waste.

This is an interesting development, alongside Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s goal of creating 3D printing materials from coal. It parallels efforts by global oil companies to invest more in chemicals, as governments shift to renewable energy, in an effort to protect their profits. The DOE is now supporting coal companies as they make the same attempts. Coal production peaked in the U.S. in 2008 and dropped 40 percent from that point by 2019. Since 2015, numerous coal mining companies have filed for bankruptcy, including the first, second, third and fourth largest. As one of the world’s largest oil field services companies Baker Hughes, then, may be making the right choice in applying for this DOE grant.

It’s also no surprise that the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, would be in favor of the program, given the role that coal has played in his state of West Virginia.

“West Virginia coal has powered the American economy for decades, and today’s funding announcement will advance efforts to use coal-waste in developing valuable products, supporting our environmental objectives and the coal value chain. West Virginia’s abundant coal resources have proven attributes that make it a prime feed-stock for high-end valuable products and we need to ensure we are investing the resources needed to harness the full value of this important natural resource in the cleanest and most efficient way possible. Doing so has the potential to provide new economic opportunities and revitalize traditional energy producing communities who have been hit the hardest by the energy transition,” Manchin said.

U.S. Representative from West Virginia David B. McKinley and U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito chimed in with similar remarks championing the program.

“Developing a market for coal-based products is vital for the future of our coal communities, and can provide a vital lifeline for miners and their families,” said U.S. Representative David B. McKinley, P.E. “I’m especially proud to see Touchstone on the leading edge of this work. Their research has exciting potential in everything from aerospace to building materials. This funding is vital to continue their important work.”

Ohio and North Dakota, too, have had important coal sectors, justifying the support of U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown and U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer.

“Ohio is leading the way on industrial energy efficiency,” said Brown. “These federal funds will allow us to continue to invest in cutting edge energy technology, so that we’re creating local jobs and improving our economy in a responsible and sustainable way, while developing the next generation of innovative technology.”

“The Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota is working to find innovative ways to help North Dakota’s lignite coal producers meet the increasing demands for lithium-ion batteries,” said  Cramer. “I’m grateful their work to support this vital sector of our energy industry is receiving the backing of the Department of Energy with today’s award.”

These projects follow a recent announcement by the FECM to fund work in direct air capture, an underdeveloped and unproven technology. While it’s clear that fossil fuels need to stay in the ground in terms of energy usage, extracting them for feedstock is another topic. Not only must we consider the return on energy investment related to developing materials, but the environmental impact of mining. Because, as it stands, human land use is causing another ecological crisis often overlooked compared to global warming. Biodiversity is rapidly declining due to industrial-scale extraction and agriculture, suggesting that mining coal for material use may pose its own risks for life on earth.

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