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Mining People Magazine


by Debra McCown Thomas

Staff Writer / Field Reporter


Globally coal use is still

rising in response to

rising world demand.

f you listen to a certain political narrative that’s rolling

around on the airwaves and the Internet these days, you’d

think that coal has gone the way of the dinosaur. That it’s

dead, extinct, and gone.

Of course, that narrative disregards the fact that US mines

produced an estimated 684 million tons of coal last year – and

that scores of coal-fired power plants are currently putting

electricity onto the US grid.

Yes, those numbers represent a significant decrease compared

to a decade ago; in 2009, total coal production in the US was

more than 1 billion tons, and the projected 2019 number is the

lowest it’s been since 1978 – more than 40 years ago.

This trend is not a surprise. It’s occurred at the convergence of

several factors: aging power plants, a natural gas boom that’s

brought low prices and previously unheard-of stability to coal’s

top competing fuel, anti-coal policies, and a much-repeated

environmental narrative that paints coal with a negative brush.

Globally, however, coal use is still rising in response to rising

world demand. According to the International Energy Agency,

the latest global coal production numbers show a significant

high in recent years; globally, coal production today is nearly

double what it was 20 years ago.

Some anticipate that, as developing countries continue to grow

and industrialize, the need for infrastructure and affordable

energy – traditional uses of coal – will continue to drive demand.

But there’s also another factor that’s come on the scene: a

whole new set of technologies that will help to drive demand for

coal in the future.

In short, the shrinking US market for thermal coal is not the end

of the story – not even close.

Around the world, coal remains an important fuel for electricity

generation. The need to build more infrastructure globally

means the world also needs a lot of steel – and therefore a lot

of coal. Some of the world’s best metallurgical coal is mined in

the United States. But that’s not the end of the story either.

In addition to electricity and steel production, there’s also a

whole new category of uses for coal that’s only just starting to

be explored.

I’ve written a few stories in

Mining People

about alternative

uses for coal over the years – from a major chemical plant

in Tennessee that has long used coal as a feed stock, to the

potential for extracting rare earth elements from coal as a

byproduct of processing, to the possibility of using coal as a

raw material to produce carbon fibers.

Rare earth elements are a big ingredient in the components of

equipment for generating and storing renewable energy, and

lightweight carbon fibers are a great material for improving

energy efficiency in transportation. Ironically, in order to build

more renewable energy capacity and reduce energy use in

transportation, the US may have to mine more coal.

And the 21st-century technologies that are starting to use

coal now are likely just the tip of the iceberg; there are more

concepts and technologies emerging that may prove significant

in the future. In both the eastern and western coal-producing

regions of the United States, there is work underway on current

and future technologies using carbon.

For example, there’s a company in Wyoming that’s working

on carbon products and advanced materials for use in areas

like drones, medical equipment and transportation. Among the

things they hope to manufacture there: carbon fiber, graphene,

graphite, carbon nano tubes, carbon dots, carbon-based

resins, carbon-based building products, medical products, and

activated carbon.

In Virginia, meanwhile, the use of carbon-based materials to

produce electronic components – in place of silicon – is being

studied along with the potential for the same carbon allotrope,

graphene, to be used in next-generation building materials.

Both of these projects have involved infusions of government

money, and in both regions – the Powder River Basin and

Central Appalachia – they’re throwing around the phrase

“carbon valley” to describe the way they hope their efforts

will revolutionize society. They compare their potential to

California’s “silicon valley,” an area between San Jose and Palo

Alto that became known as an innovation hub and economic

Coal Has a Future in Technology