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Spinning coal into a future of manufacturing

SALT LAKE CITY — Jay Williams remembers well the paralysis that gripped Youngstown, Ohio, in the 1970s when steel mill after steel mill shut down.

"The similarities between steel towns and coal towns are uncanny. In September of 1977, people can tell you where they were, what they were doing when Youngstown Sheet & Tube announced its closure," Williams said.

"Five thousand jobs lost in the next few months; 40,000 jobs lost in the next five to 10 years," he said. "It was a paralysis. It was an emotional blow that really caused the community to lock up and become immobilized for 30 years."

Williams, who went on to become the mayor of his hometown and is now U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, said coal-dependent communities like those in Emery, Carbon and Sevier counties can strive to avoid that same fate with help from the federal government and enough innovation.

"It is the administration's commitment to help those communities that have relied on fossil fuels — whether it is coal mining, the timber industry, whether it is coal-fired power plants — to transition and become much more economically diverse as our country's economic energy profile has changed," he said at a news conference Wednesday. "There is an understanding that there has to be assistance and investment from the federal government."

To that end, Williams announced a new federal grant of $790,000 to the University of Utah to test the feasibility of transforming coal into a carbon fiber material used in an array of manufacturing that includes skis, automobiles and aircraft.

The funding, part of $28 million directed toward coal-impacted communities through the Obama administration's POWER initiative, was announced at the university's Industrial Combustion and Gasification Research Facility, 870 S. 500 West.

Eric Eddings, a professor of chemical engineering who leads the research team, said the $1.6 million project aims to find cost-effective and carbon-friendly ways to convert coal into a material that can be spun into carbon fiber for use in the manufacturing of products.

Mitsubishi's Sakaide Plant in Japan uses the coal-derived pitch, producing a high-performance carbon fiber used to make robot hands, disc brakes and solar observation satellites.

Utah's multi-faceted project that taps expertise at BYU, Utah State University and the support of the Utah Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Initiative will test Utah coal to determine its suitability for transformation into carbon fibers.

Eddings said carbon fibers are an engineering and manufacturing delight because of their unique properties, including being lighter weight, strong and their thermal conductivity.

The trick is to determine if coal mined in Utah will work, and thus provide a new market for the struggling industry.

Utah has witnessed the closure of the Deer Creek Mine and the idling of the West Ridge Mine, leading to a loss of more than 400 jobs.

As environmental regulations continue to clamp down on emissions from coal-fired power plants and reserves become depleted, the state's coal-rich country is trying to diversify its economy, plus find new destinies for coal in the decades to come.

"Coal is the primary element that has helped to build this nation," said Carbon County Commissioner Jae Potter. "I often tell my constituents, 'Put on your smiley face. Coal is not going away.'"

Once Utah researchers have analyzed local coal for its suitability for carbon fiber materials and produced the asphalt material called "pitch," it will be shipped off to the University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research, a subcontractor on the project with expertise in spinning pitch into carbon fibers.

About 90 percent of all carbon fiber production comes from a polymer resin after it is superheated. It is used in high-tech and daily applications, including civil and military aircraft, missiles, solid-propellant rocket motors, fishing rods and high-tech bicycles.

The U.S. Department of Energy is working to reduce carbon fiber production costs by 50 percent and has a processing line capable of producing 25 tons of carbon fiber per year.

In Utah, there are more than 30 companies that manufacture or use carbon fiber composites in products — from aerospace and defense to outdoor recreational equipment and prosthetics.

"Utah has a historic role that we have played in the composite industry," said Ben Hart, managing director of urban and rural business services at the Governor's Office of Economic Development. "Today, again, we write another significant chapter."

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