Ohio University researchers will use a federal grant to find environmentally friendly uses for coal

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — A team of researchers at Ohio University is using a $2 million federal grant to study ways to take coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, and develop environmentally friendly uses for it.

Coal is loaded into a rail car at an open pit mine.
[Parilov | shutterstock.com]

These uses include graphite for making lithium-ion batteries and more energy-efficient wire for powerlines, along with other applications such as filaments for 3D printers.

“Everybody hates coal. I understand why burning coal isn’t a good thing, but it’s kind of made people back off from studying it,” said Dave Drabold, distinguished professor of physics at Ohio University. “So as my students and I dig into this, we find there’s some basic stuff that’s not known that you would have thought was known.”

Drabold has been investigating carbon, the main component of coal, since 1994, when he received his first grant from the National Science Foundation.

“I’m a theoretical physicist. I work on the theory of materials. I’ve worked constantly on so-called ‘amorphous materials,’ which means materials where the atoms are not regularly arranged as they are in crystals,” Drabold said.

Coal is one of these materials.

Drabold said he began studying its properties after being contacted by Jason Tremblay and Yayha Al-Majali of the Institute of Sustainable Energy and the Environment.

“Jason opened a whole new world of carbon-related problems that I didn’t know about,” Drabold said. “Jason and Yayha are doing remarkable work on the practical use of coal and its waste to make construction materials.”

Drabold’s contribution to the project is primarily theoretical, focused on analyzing the properties and atomic structure.

Coal is classified into four grades based on carbon and heat content: lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous and anthracite. Lignite, sometimes referred to as “brown coal,” is the lowest grade. Little more than compressed peat, lignite is low in carbon and produces less energy when burned than higher grades. On the other end of the spectrum is anthracite, which has the highest carbon content of any grade.

Athens County sits atop the Pittsburgh Coal Seam, the thickest and most extensive bed of bituminous in the Appalachian Basin. Historically mined to produce coke for steel mills and generate electricity, Ohio’s coal production peaked in 1970 at 55 million tons. After the Clean Air Act placed restrictions on sulfur dioxide emissions, many power plants switched to low-sulfur coal from Wyoming, Colorado and Montana or to natural gas. At present, Ohio produces around 1 percent of all the coal mined in the United States.

While the bituminous coal beneath Athens County is considered a higher-grade, it contains many impurities that impede its use in green applications, including oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur.

“I wish coal was just carbon, but it’s not. It has lots of impurities and those impurities play an important role when we’re trying to make realistic models of coal and understand its dynamics,” Drabold said.

Researchers at Ohio University have developed a multitude of coal-based materials, including PVC pipe, drywall components, decking and insulating foams, which are produced using coal slurry. There’s also talk of using it as a material for making filaments for 3D printers.

“The concept is you can 3D print a house out of coal, using filaments for 3D printers that are 70 to 80 percent coal,” Drabold explained. “You’re not using biomass, you’re not using trees, you’re not polluting in the process of doing it. You’re getting the mass that you need to make stuff out of from this coal rather than something else.”

Drabold said the “holy grail” of the research being conducted at Ohio University is figuring out how to turn coal into graphite that can be used as battery anodes in lithium-ion batteries. To do this, Drabold and his students are working on how to remove the impurities and alter its arrangement of carbon atoms from a jumbled mess into orderly graphite planes.

Drabold, Tremblay and doctoral students Rajendra Thapa, Chinoso Ugwumadu and Kishor Nepal made a breakthrough in June 2022 when they simulated the transformation of coal-like material into a new carbon solid  known as “amorphous graphite.”

“You need graphite, it’s the anode material for virtually every lithium-ion battery. It’s expensive, it’s coming from places that are not convenient for us to get it from,” Drabold said. “We’re far from being able to make graphite from coal, but we’re getting closer to understanding how to do that.”

Another potential use is in carbon metal composite wire, in which a layer of graphite is infused into copper or aluminum wiring. This increases the electrical conductivity of the wires while also reducing resistance and preventing energy from being lost to heat.

Drabold said the research being conducted at Ohio University has real-world applications and is not confined to the theoretical.

“Ohio University was chosen for this grant because it’s coming up with real, practical answers to solving important technological problems in this era where climate change is a concern,” Drabold said. “It’s not just wishful thinking. This is real stuff.”