HOUGHTON, Mich.--America's electric-utility smokestacks trap about 50 million tons of fly ash every year, and there hasn't been a whole lot being done with it.
Until now. A licensing agreement recently executed between Michigan Technological University and Mineral Resource Technologies (MRT) of Atlanta, GA could make fly ash the latest natural resource of the industrial age, as well as garner the University millions of dollars in royalties over the next several years.
Dr. Jim Hwang, director of MTU's Institute of Materials Processing (IMP) has spent the last ten years studying fly ash, so named because it flies up chimneys (and is trapped in filters) instead of settling on the bottom (like the aptly named bottom ash). Hwang may be the sooty byproduct's biggest booster, envisioning it as a source of products ranging from activated charcoal to plastics filler.
His vision had not moved to market, however. Traditionally, fly ash had either been disposed of in landfills or used as a substitute for cement in concrete. Until recently, industry had no incentive to do much more.
Incentive has now been provided in the form of Federal Clean Air regulations. New rules designed to curb acid rain require coal-fired power plants-among the largest fly-ash producers-to reengineer their furnaces. A side effect has been a huge increase in the amount of carbon in the fly ash-and a lot more fly ash in general.
High-carbon fly ash makes for pretty sad concrete-it cracks, it's hard to work with, and it looks bad, Hwang said. And just as the electric-power industry was watching its single market for fly ash wither, it was faced with a lot more of the stuff to get rid of.
But one person's red tape is another's Christmas ribbon. Waiting in the wings have been Hwang, IMP, and Michigan Tech, who recently signed an agreement with MRT (a subsidiary of Phillips Brothers Chemicals headquartered in Fort Lee, NJ, the nation's largest manufacturer of specialty chemicals) to commercialize the recovery and processing of fly ash.
Together, the Institute of Materials Processing and MRT plan to build a fly-ash cleaning system as a prototype for a full-scale plant. The system would include Hwang's patented processes, which separate out fly ash's component parts: carbon, iron oxide, and cenophores-a low-density form of silicate.
In addition, MRT will pursue new markets for the cleaned-up ash, primarily as a replacement for cement, as well as filler for opaque plastics such as PVC, for ceramic insulators and liners, and for metal composites.
"The MTU scientists have made an important achievement in advancing and patenting this new carbon recovery technology," said MRT President Hugh Shannonhouse. "MRT is extremely excited to bring this technology to the marketplace because it will allow us to effectively transform coal ash from a 'waste byproduct that is landfilled' into a mineral filler product that can be recycled into concrete and other products, thereby reducing the solid waste stream and utilizing a valuable natural resource."
MRT intends to commercialize the technology by developing and operating facilities across the country that are designed to remove carbon from the fly ash.
The licensing agreement is expected to generate millions in royalties to Michigan Tech , according to Sandy Gayk, director of intellectual properties and trademark licensing, who was instrumental in successfully negotiating the agreement. "We are extremely pleased to have established a long-term partnership with MRT," she said. "They have the ability to commercialize this and future fly ash technology and that is a key element in this agreement."
Hwang believes this technology is the vanguard of a new brand of mining-the processing of industrial byproducts to form new materials.
"In the past, most of our raw materials were basically mined from natural resources," he said. "In doing this, we disturbed the Earth, and we were not looking at total efficiency. This technology will reduce the dependence on mining and will lead to a new generation of materials supplies."