Mining People Magazinewww.miningpeople.org
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
I’ve written a few stories in
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
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