But what if instead of burning it for fuel – we used it make stronger, flexible, lighter materials and more efficient electronics that would reduce our environmental footprint?
Scientists are working on these possibilities right now – imagining a solid carbon future based on the enormous coal reserves that exist around the world.
We’re already making a bunch of things like aircraft out of carbon fibre so it’s not a big stretch to see how coal could be the feedstock for all manner of new and improved materials in the future. Carbon fibre is made from layers of graphene – a one atom thick lattice of densely-packed carbon atoms – it’s incredibly strong, light weight and can be mixed with other materials like plastics and cement.
Researchers at MIT are also experimenting with layers of graphene and ferroelectric metals which could lead to faster and more efficient electronics processing capabilities and improved lithium-ion battery performance.
This sure sounds like a better use of coal than killing millions of innocent people through air pollution and displacing millions more through anthropogenic climate change.
Image: Carbon Fibre tube by John Rees CC BY 2.0