Coal is used predominantly for power generation, steel and chemicals production. The chemicals are obtained from coal tar pitch and by gasification to produce methanol to olefins. The coal to chemicals industry was overtaken in the 1950s by petroleum feedstocks which offered simpler and cheaper production methods, since challenged by fluctuating oil prices. The markets for products derived from coal tar pitch, such as dyes, preservatives and fungicides, are growing slowly but are mature, while coal gasification to chemicals has seen recent expansion in China against a background of growing environmental challenges.
A number of new carbon-based industries and technologies are emerging in energy storage, aerospace and composite materials to take advantage of the particular properties of carbon. The declining use of coal power generation in western economies may release this resource for other purposes. The topics covered by this report include: rare earth element extraction from coal, activated carbon products, carbon electrodes, carbon fibre and composite production; carbon nanotubes and graphene; and the production of humates agrichemicals from lignite.
Electrification and the growth in renewable energy technologies is leading to an anticipated increase in demand for rare earth elements and new recovery technologies are under development to extract directly these minerals from coal. There is growth in demand for activated carbon used in water purification, mercury adsorption and potentially carbon capture. The electrodes market is mature but a surge in graphite costs may lead to enhanced use of coal products for steel, silicon and aluminium production. Products that might be described as ‘high value – low volume’ include carbon nanotubes and the promising use of graphene, both may be sourced from coal feedstocks and are the basis of new composite materials.
The emergence of new technologies using coal as a feedstock is linked to the development of green energy generation, electrification, energy storage, carbon sequestration and low emission energy generation that complement the Paris Accord on greenhouse gas emissions.