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Chemistry In Pictures

Chemistry in Pictures: Juicing coal

by Manny I. Fox Morone
June 15, 2023


A shiny black chunk of coke with roundish irregular marks in it showing where volatile chemicals escaped out of it as it solidified.
Credit: Christina Thompson

This lustrous carbon coke is what was left of a lump of coal after Christina Thompson was done with it. Thompson, a PhD student at the University of Kentucky, works on ways of converting humble coal to high-performance materials such as carbon fiber and graphite. To make this chunk of carbon coke, her first step was liquefaction, in which she mixed the coal with a petroleum-derived solvent and extracted a solution full of volatile compounds from the bulk material. When Thompson heated the solution at about 400 °C, the volatile chemicals vaporized and escaped from the material, leaving behind these eerie bubbles in the coke as it solidified.

Thompson will finally heat this coke to 2,500 °C to make graphite and test the final material as an anode in lithium-ion batteries. For this project, she used so-called waste coal, which is a by-product of mining that is usually discarded into impoundments because its energy value is too low; these impoundments can pose environmental and safety hazards.

Submitted by Christina Thompson

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