There are plenty of articles to be found about the shrinking fortunes of coal. Most of them are very similar in that they support President Biden’s desire for cleaner and more sustainable energy systems, decry coal’s horribly polluting past as a fossil fuel and generally cheer its imminent departure (unless they are contemplating the concurrent fortunes of those who make a living mining it… and those articles tend to be fewer in number).
For the record, I concur with those articles that the days of burning coal should be numbered, and a very small number at that. But this is a foregone conclusion; and I’m surprised that so few people are thinking beyond the concept of burning coal. Happily, I’ve discovered that folks at the U.S. Department of Energy get it, and are trying to introduce coal’s future, its pivot-point from national embarrassment to beloved commodity, to the nation.
If, like me, you’ve been paying attention to news related to materials, manufacturing and modern science, you’re constantly being introduced to new material compounds and fabrication techniques that are giving us newer, or stronger, or lighter, or more efficient materials and compounds. Many of those new materials exist thanks to advances in working with Fullerenes, those highly organized molecular chains that we’re finding new ways to combine with existing materials, to make those materials better. And as it happens, fullerenes are made of carbon, the stuff we get out of—you guessed it—coal.
The DOE is hip. With the more efficient and less polluting energy options we already have and are developing further today, they’ve realized that carbon is no longer useful as a cheap and dirty energy source… but it’s becoming increasingly important as a manufacturing material. Carbon molecules, in the form of fullerenes, can be used to make or improve all sorts of materials, from major manufacturing machinery to everyday household items. All that carbon can come straight from coal; it can also be captured from atmospheric pollutants and reused, making a way to create carbon sinks and sequester all that extra carbon into objects, getting it out of the atmosphere. Those objects can be recycled, broken down and reused for other elements, or simply added into existing materials to hold it until it’s ready to recycle again.
And when we talk about new and better materials, that includes better batteries and battery technology, needed for our growing solar, wind and electric car industries and their need to improve battery range and quick-charging systems. Carbon and fullerenes are already improving these systems, and as we learn more about how to apply them, we can expect to see even better and longer-lasting batteries and charging systems, as well as better materials, hopefully not so far down the road.
The goal is a better world, built with lighter, stronger, more flexible and versatile materials all around us; an improved world with things around us that can outperform older materials and amaze us on a daily basis. And incidentally, one that has less carbon in the air, giving us a healthier, not-so-quickly-warming world.
This isn’t an easy pivot point for coal, especially as many of these carbon-using fabrication and manufacturing methods are still at the bleeding edge stage of development. But the relatively near future points to an improved manufacturing path for all that carbon… and therefore, all that coal. This actually bodes well for all those coal mines, and its coal workers, who will have a new reason to mine that black stuff. As manufacturing with coal goes up, demand will increase and jobs will multiply, and areas that depend on coal mining for their own wealth, can continue to prosper off of their natural resource.
There is still coal’s big, swollen, ugly-purple Achilles’ heel to deal with: Mining the stuff is still dirty and dangerous to human health. One would hope that an industry with such promise (and profit) going forward will sink some of that promise into making the whole industry healthier for its workers. Maybe the government will have to force it on them. Either way, the industry and the people will benefit long-term, so, win-win.
So, instead of cheering for coal’s downfall, we should be working on giving coal its pivot-point from dirty power supply to highly useful manufacturing material, as soon as possible.