Coal conversion into useful and novel products is a rapidly growing industry that now competes with oil and gas derivatives and contributes to the deployment of advanced technologies that include the shift to renewable power. Chemical and graphitic products are of considerably higher value than coal combusted for electricity. The most significant coal-derived products include pitch and gasification chemicals, critical elements, activated carbon, pitch carbon fibre, electrode materials and nanomaterials.
The conversion of coal to chemicals and fuels is undergoing a significant expansion with new plants under construction. The advantage of coal as a feedstock is its relatively low cost and abundance. Many plants utilise coal gasification technologies involving a methanol intermediate but are also designed to produce liquid fuels and hydrogen. This can be consumed by industry but may form the basis of a hydrogen economy. The scale of the coal chemical industry will have a meaningful impact on global coal demand but faces commercial and environmental challenges.
The main application of carbon fibre is as a strong, lightweight material for aerospace applications. New large-scale use is anticipated for electric vehicles, and the use of carbon materials in batteries is a major topic of research to prevent electrode deterioration and reduce cost. New technically superior carbon materials are available for the construction sector. There are additional routes to synthesise nanomaterials derived from coal including a range of graphene products from quantum dots to sheets, and nanodiamonds that have potential use in medicine. Nanocarbon applications cover solar cells, displays, barrier materials, supercapacitors, inks, advanced filtration, and even an alternative to silicon for memory chips. Numerous applications for coal are emerging for 3D printer resins; joule heating anti-ice installations; material additives to provide high-strength properties; and even as an agent in crude oil recovery.
The extensive range of products and the feasibility of using coal as the feedstock to make them has led to new research and development programmes and commercial fabrication facilities around the world. Coal is now viewed as more than a source of heat; the potential to make specialist products is of increasing import and as the industry develops coal-derived products will replace some conventional materials.