Friday, January 31, 2020

Ramaco Carbon: High Performance Vehicles Become Available if It is Produced From Coal

West Virginia's coal industry is performing better than it did during its lowest point in generations in 2015 and 2016. But with domestic competition from natural gas and the volatile nature of foreign markets, experts say coal's future is unpredictable.

West Virginia, one of the states most reliant on coal, will soon be home to a research facility to transform coal into carbon products. Ramaco Carbon, a Wyoming-based carbon technology company, will be opening the research facility in Charleston, the state's capital. Both the company and West Virginia officials have high hopes for how much this technology could impact the coal industry and the country's top coal producers, though others say it's too early to know if this new research will yield significant results, and environmental groups oppose the coal industry's expansion.

"West Virginia is truly blessed with an abundance of natural resources and our coal is as good and as plentiful as it gets," Republican Gov. Jim Justice said in his State of the State Address Jan. 9. "We absolutely need to continue doing all we can to harness the power of coal in every way possible and having this facility to test new ways to convert this dynamic resource is a great opportunity for all," he said.

But the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, an environmental group based in Huntington, West Virginia, wants Justice to focus instead on more sustainable economic boosters such as wind and solar energy, according to Robin Blakeman, a project coordinator for the organization.

"There's been thousands of miles of streams already impacted by these (coal) mines," Blakeman says. "The coal industry has already extracted what is easy to reach," she says, explaining that mountaintop removal mining is harmful to the environment and could cause deforestation on a large scale.

Randall Atkins, chairman and chief executive officer of Ramaco Carbon, says his company's research will take place in existing lab space at West Virginia Technology Center, ideally starting in late February or March. The company's first research center is still under construction in Sheridan, Wyoming.

As vice chair of the National Coal Council, which provides federal guidance on the coal industry, Atkins chaired a report to U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in May. The report detailed the importance of using coal to create products, including coal to carbon products.

"(Advancing new markets for coal) can also provide a needed socio-economic boost by creating new, alternative, higher tech demand for the nation's coal production and facilitate a carbon manufacturing 'renaissance' in coal states and communities hard-hit by the past decades' decline in coal production and use," the report says.

Ramaco's Director of Research Chris Yurchick explains that coal can be turned into various products, from carbon fibers to carbon foams. Carbon fiber is currently only used for high performance vehicles, but he says it could become available for all cars if it is produced from coal.

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"The goal would be to make it a much lower price point," Yurchick says, adding that carbon fiber is also used for airplanes, building materials and sporting goods such as golf clubs.

These domestic coal-to-products applications have the potential to be as important to the industry as coal power generation, according to the NCC report.

But Brian Lego, a research professor at West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, says the impact of coal-to-products is still "highly speculative" since the research is still in its beginning stages.
In terms of the outlook for coal in the energy sector, Lego says he thinks other countries will continue to purchase coal from the U.S. since it's a cheaper source of fuel than natural gas, nuclear and renewables (not including hydropower) at this time. But relying on these countries' markets is unpredictable, he adds. Other countries' increased demand for coal in 2017 and 2018 is what caused a temporary boom in the industry, according to Lego. Prior to that, West Virginia's coal industry experienced a major decline, hitting a low point in 2015 and 2016.

Steel will always require coal, so Lego says there will always be some demand for coal.

According to Atkins, coal-to-product research is especially timely now in part because of legislation that passed through the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources late last year and is expected to be co-sponsored in the House this spring.

The bill establishes more federal interest, not only from the Department of Energy but also the Department of Commerce and the Department of Agriculture, in coal-to-product research efforts.

"So I think it's very timely to start making a much broader thrust toward this type of research," Atkins says.

Source: US News


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