The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded fuels engineers at the University of Utah major contracts to find new uses for coal in the synthetics and plastics industries and to improve technology for converting coal into liquid fuels.

Wendell H. Wiser, professor of fuels engineering, is the principal investigator in the two projects, each of which was funded for three years, for a total of more than $550,000.Wiser and Alex G. Oblad, distinguished professor of fuels engineering, are developing a process for directly converting coal to the kind of light hydrocarbons that constitute "starting" materials for a variety of synthetics and plastics.

Currently, these hydrocarbons are produced primarily from crude oil and account for more than 5 percent of the nation's total petroleum consumption.

Wiser's previous research identified several potentially good resources for conversion to light hydrocarbons. These resources include a bituminous coal mined in Utah, a sub-bituminous coal mined in Wyoming, lignite (brown coal) deposits in Texas and heavy petroleum residuum at petroleum refineries.

The current research is aimed at understanding the possible chemical pathways for converting coal directly into high yields of those valuable light hydrocarbons, Wiser said.

"We also need to develop a better understanding of the limits of the reaction parameters that can result in high yields, the functions of and development of optimum catalysts, and methods for recovering and regenerating the catalysts."

The technology, developed by Wiser and his graduate students, produces high yields of those hydrocarbon gases in a single-stage reactor operating under comparatively mild processing conditions.