With the world moving away from burning coal to generate power, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said he is looking forward to alternative uses for a natural resource that has long been economically important to the state.
The U.S. Department of Energy rolled out a $56.5 million program in late 2019 to fund research into new uses for coal while Consol Energy Inc. recently entered the coal-to-products space by acquiring a 25% interest in CFOAM Corp., a newly formed company developing products for various markets, including composite tooling and energy absorbing.
Turning coal into carbon fiber may present a new opportunity for West Virginia, Justice said Jan. 8 in his 2020 West Virginia State of the State Address. Justice pointed to the work of Ramaco Carbon LLC, an affiliate of metallurgical coal producer Ramaco Resources Inc., to turn coal into carbon-based products such as automotive parts.
"All of us think, well, we can't burn any more coal because the world is rebelling in every way, shape, form and fashion against that," Justice said. "Ramaco would tell you that coal — now get this — that coal is too expensive to burn. You're wasting an opportunity when you burn it. I thought they were crazy when I was talking about that."
The governor also announced that Ramaco Carbon agreed to open a new facility in West Virginia to research the use of coal as a precursor for advanced carbon products and materials. It will be the second research facility developed by the company, which is also developing a project in Wyoming to research carbon-based products made from coal.
The process could use up to an estimated 125 million tons of coal, Justice said. In 2018, the U.S. produced about 756.2 million tons of coal and West Virginia produced about 95.4 million tons of coal, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.
Secular decline chipped away at the U.S. coal market for years, but a rise in overseas demand briefly provided an outlet for coal producers until recently. In the past several months, that support from exports deteriorated, pressuring many coal producers to pull back on production or even file for bankruptcy reorganization.
"It's dog fight tough," Justice said. "The coal market, the thermal market was at $78 a ton, and now it's $35. There is no way. We just can't hardly compete and it's really tough. The metallurgical market was at $210 a ton; today, it's $85. It's tough. But we got to keep trying to find solutions and ways to absolutely ensure that our coal miners are going to have their jobs."