Researchers Develop New Construction Material From Coal Ash Waste

According to Wade Brown, a chemist, the substance could serve as a wood replacement for things like railroad ties and utility poles.

📅   Fri August 25, 2017 - National Edition
Emily Buenzle


“The goal is environmental: getting rid of a waste – coal ash – and not cutting down trees so we replace wood,” said Brown. “It has grain like real wood. It's colored to be the same as wood. So if you picked up a piece of our decking, you would not know it wasn't wood unless you were quite expert at this.”
“The goal is environmental: getting rid of a waste – coal ash – and not cutting down trees so we replace wood,” said Brown. “It has grain like real wood. It's colored to be the same as wood. So if you picked up a piece of our decking, you would not know it wasn't wood unless you were quite expert at this.”

A composite material made from plastic and coal ash could replace wood in construction. Although “fly ash” has been used to make concrete for some time, researchers at North Carolina A&T University have combined wet, rough coal ash, typically found in ponds and landfills, with plastic to create a material that is uncannily similar to wood, WUNC reported. Until now, coal ash has been unusable, as it typically spills hazardous chemicals into waterways.

According to Wade Brown, a chemist, the substance could serve as a wood replacement for things like railroad ties and utility poles.

“The goal is environmental: getting rid of a waste – coal ash – and not cutting down trees so we replace wood,” said Brown. “It has grain like real wood. It's colored to be the same as wood. So if you picked up a piece of our decking, you would not know it wasn't wood unless you were quite expert at this.”

What's more, the composite beams are cheaper than wood, as the material holds up better, and coal ash waste is free, Brown said. Coal ash waste also isn't about to run out anytime soon. According to Brown, there are hundreds of millions of tons of it in ponds and landfills across North America, and other countries are building coal-fire power plants, WUNC reported.

"There's plenty of ash. It'll take several generations if we used all of it quickly,” Brown said. “The amount of ash isn't a problem.”

A&T Engineering Professor Kunigal Shivakumar said he believes the material will be used for utility poles and railroad ties within two years. Regarding the material's durability, Shivakumar said it:

  • Doesn't burn
  • Doesn't rot
  • Doesn't attract bugs
  • Doesn't need chemical treatment the way wood does, and
  • Will likely last 25 years as a utility pole.
  • Shivakumar would like to prove that a beam could last up to 60 years. Currently researchers are performing UV exposure and durability testing. They are optimistic that they will find a high-volume manufacturer soon, WUNC reported.