The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has tapped the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, or IACMI – The Composites Institute, to develop and deploy new technologies for manufacturing coal-derived products using coal resources near distressed South Appalachian coal communities.
The $1.5 million grant awarded to IACMI will assist in the development of technologies to extract and produce critical minerals from both coal and coal ash in the South Appalachian Basin of east Tennessee, northwest Georgia and northern Alabama. Production of critical materials essential for clean energy projects, such as electric vehicle batteries, resilient buildings and infrastructure, can create jobs in coal and power plant communities.
The two-year Southern Appalachian initiative is part of 13 projects totaling $19 million recently announced by DOE in traditionally fossil fuel-producing communities across the country to support production of rare earth elements and critical minerals vital to the manufacturing of batteries, magnets, and other components important to the clean energy economy. Facing persistent shortages in domestic supply, the U.S. has been forced to rely on imported materials, leaving clean energy technology production at greater risk of disruption.
“This IACMI project will assess the Southern Appalachian Basin’s coal resources and identify strategies for developing technologies to cost-effectively produce valuable non-fuel, carbon-based products from coal resources,” said John Hopkins, IACMI Chief Executive Officer. “Project success in the South Appalachian Basin could revitalize distressed South Appalachian coal communities, reduce reliance on foreign imports, and create good-paying advanced manufacturing jobs producing coal-derived products.”
Hopkins said rare earth elements are present in varying degrees in some coal waste. These elements have potential product applications in the automobile industry, particularly in the emergence of electric vehicle manufacturing. The southeast is home to a strong base of automotive manufacturers and suppliers who are transitioning assembly plants to electric transportation. Vehicle electrification is anticipated to drive unprecedented growth in the demand for carbon fibers and critical materials, both of which can be potentially made from coal at a lower cost than conventional materials.
Coal-derived products can also be factored into the development of a more resilient infrastructure that can withstand natural events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods that frequently occur in the Southeastern United States.
IACMI’s diverse and experienced member network, including founding members and core innovation partners the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT), and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), positions the Institute to lead critical project components accounting for economics analysis, market demand, technology, supply chains, infrastructure, workforce and national security.
Initial product priorities include methods to extract critical materials from the region’s high volume of coal ash, as well as carbon fibers and graphite made from coal. The project is guided by Charles Sims, Director of the Energy and Environment program at UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and associate professor in the Department of Economics in UT’s Haslam College of Business.
For this project, IACMI will leverage a consortium network, including UT, ORNL, Southern Company, State Geological Surveys of Alabama and Tennessee, University of Alabama, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Roane State Community College, and several other stakeholders that are informally supporting the project.