- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The University of Utah is launching a $1.6 million project to determine the feasibility of turning coal into carbon fiber, a material used in manufacturing of skis, cars and planes.

University chemical engineering Professor Eric Eddings announced the effort on Wednesday, saying finding a new way to use coal would be a boon for the environment and the economy.

“If we can find an economical way to use coal to produce carbon fibers and have enough useful products so there can be a market for it, then they have that new direction,” Eddings said. “And it’s more carbon friendly than just burning coal in a power plant.”

Eddings said the trick will be to determine if coal mined in Utah will work to manufacture carbon fibers, thus providing a new market for the struggling industry.

Demand for U.S. coal has dropped significantly in recent years as utilities move toward energy sources that don’t emit as much carbon dioxide, which is a factor behind global warming. Utah coal production dropped to 17 million tons in 2014. The state has seen the closure of the Deer Creek Mine and the idling of the West Ridge Mine, leading to a loss of more than 400 jobs.

Carbon County Commissioner Jae Potter said Utah’s coal-rich counties are working to diversify their economy and find new outlets for coal.

“Coal is the primary element that has helped to build this nation,” Potter said. “I often tell my constituents, ‘Put on your smiley face. Coal is not going away.’ “

The University of Utah project is a partnership with the University of Kentucky and is backed by $790,000 in grants from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

The University of Utah will explore ways to convert Utah coal to the thick black liquid called pitch, and University of Kentucky researchers will determine how that pitch can be processed into fibers.

President Barack Obama’s administration is committed to helping communities that relied on fossil fuels transition to economic diversity, said Jay Williams, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development. He announced a total of $7.7 million in grants from the U.S. Economic Development Administration in support of 14 research projects.

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