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NETL Experts Talk Coal-to-Product Technology at Ramaco Research Rodeo Event

NETL researchers with expertise in converting coal into innovative advanced materials and products are sharing their insights with research colleagues from private industry, other national laboratories and academia at the Ramaco Research Rodeo (R3) in Sheridan, Wyoming.

Ramaco Carbon is a vertically integrated coal technology company that combines coal resources with advanced research and modern manufacturing techniques to develop new products from coal — including carbon-fiber parts for vehicles and airplanes, carbon-based building materials, medical technology devices and more. For the past two years, the company has sponsored a research showcase known as R3.

NETL, which launched a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with Ramaco in 2018 designed to discover ways to use coal to manufacture high-value products, has been a participant in the R3 event.

Ramaco’s Chairman and CEO Randall Atkins likes to ask: “What if coal was too valuable to burn?” R3 is designed to focus on research that will help answer that question. He described the work as a search for possibilities that expand the commercial use of coal’s carbon and chemical properties. The forum is to exchange ideas, foster collaborations, and help move the coal-to-products field forward.

In addition to NETL, R3 participants are attending from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ohio University, the University of Kentucky, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Western Research Institute, the University of Illinois at Chicago and West Virginia University.

NETL began developing innovative ideas for creating commercially viable technologies that use domestic coal as a manufacturing feedstock when it launched its Manufacturing High-Value Carbon Products from Domestic Coal Initiative, which sets the vision and tone for research activities in its intra- and extra-mural research programs.

NETL’s Christopher Matranga, who works in the organization’s Materials Engineering and Manufacturing directorate and is participating in this year’s R3 event, said, “Manufacturing high-value carbon materials from coal would create new revenue streams for the industry and establish manufacturing technologies with reduced costs and energy consumption. At NETL, we are focusing on using coal to make carbon nanomaterials, such as graphene, which can be used directly, or which can be used as an additive in composites and coatings to improve performance.”

He added that one of the exciting aspects of the research is that coal-based manufacturing can be applied to so many products that previously were not part of the coal value chain — textiles, pigments, paints, cosmetics, specialty plastics, and more.

A big NETL accomplishment came in the form of a tiny dot — a graphene quantum dot. Graphene quantum dots are small fluorescent nanoparticles with sheet-like structures that are one carbon atom thick and a few hundred atoms in diameter. The unique size of these materials imparts optical and electronic properties to coal-based derivatives. The chemical composition and small size of these graphene quantum dots also helps them to bond with composite materials, interact with the composite, and impart unique properties to the composite.

In the energy field, graphene quantum dots are useful in applications such as catalysis, electronics, light emitting diodes (LEDs), and sensors because of their optical and electronic properties. Graphene quantum dots absorb light of different colors, which makes them useful for photocatalysis. In solar cells, graphene quantum dots can be used as a photosensitizer to efficiently enhance photoelectric conversion.

At NETL, researchers have successfully processed anthracite, bituminous, and sub-bituminous coal samples from regional partners in Wyoming, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania to manufacture small graphene quantum dots suspended in water. NETL researchers are now evaluating the use of these materials as additives for cements and plastics. 

Research at NETL is also illustrating how coal can make a difference in the price of nanomaterials.

“We started with a coal feedstock costing about one penny,” Matranga explained. “With just a few hours of processing we converted this penny’s worth of coal into 1 liter of graphene quantum dots in water, which has a current market value of approximately $50,000. The work shows how coal-based feedstocks can be used to reduce the manufacturing costs of high-performance nanomaterials.”

NETL is a DOE national laboratory that produces technological solutions for America’s energy challenges. From developing creative innovations and efficient energy systems that make coal more competitive, to advancing technologies that enhance oil and natural gas extraction and transmission processes, NETL research is providing breakthroughs and discoveries that support home-grown energy initiatives, stimulate a growing economy, and improve the health, safety, and security of all Americans. Highly skilled men and women at three NETL research sites — Albany, Oregon, Morgantown, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — conduct a broad range of research activities that support DOE’s mission to advance the national, economic, and energy security of the United States.