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What to Do with Tons of Coal Ash? Vitrify Some of It, Sell the Rest

Words by Jim Pierobon
Energy & Environment
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Anyone thinking that myriad new laws and activist campaigns trying to shut down coal-fired power plants will do away with the black scourge forever, think again.

Every large coal plant is leaving behind millions of tons of ash that needs to be safely contained lest it leach into nearby farmlands, rivers, lakes and other public water sources. It is the world’s second largest waste stream.

A partnership between eosMYCO, a Charlotte, North Carolina, startup, and Areva, the global nuclear and environmental services firm, sees an opportunity amid all that ash: extracting and re-purposing selected minerals for construction and manufacturing materials while entombing what’s left in glass.

EosMYCO and Areva are busy engineering a pilot-scale “waste-to-value” solution for the ash. It aims, for the first time, to physically transform all of North Carolina’s 140 millions of tons of coal ash in less than a decade into an inert, aggregate product. If the partnership succeeds, it could save utilities, and their ratepayers, billions of dollars while permanently eliminating the utilities’ liability.

Sound too good to be true? Perhaps. But with 3.5 billion tons of coal ash in the U.S. that by law now need to be managed, someone or something is bound to pounce on this opportunity. With a proven technology, some estimates put the opportunity at between $50 billion and $70 billion globally.

The plan is relatively straightforward. The partners' process will extract useful minerals such as alumina, titanium and other minerals, including “rare earth” metals. Then it will vitrify the silica which is left to create the aggregate for construction and other projects that use a lot of concrete. All this is supposed to happen in a mobile treatment facility that can go to where the ash is presently situated.

The rare earth metals left over can be ingredients in magnets, batteries, catalytic converters and other high-tech products. Because China is the world’s dominant supplier of rare earths, a U.S. supplier of even a small amount of rare earth metals could face a promising future, especially if the mining process is a byproduct of something else that makes money, as eosMYCO and Areva plan to do starting in 2017.

Because coal plants needed mined coal transported to them via rail lines and barges, those logistics can be reversed to help sell and ship the vitrified aggregates.

Ryan Rutledge is the first brain behind eosMYCO. After finishing his Master’s degree in environmental remediation at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he said he got the idea while researching mycologically-sourced (hence the name) bioremediation technologies.

Rutledge proceeded to win the 2013 Charlotte Venture Challenge Pitch Day and was awarded first place at 2014 Charlotte Venture Challenge. EosNANO, as his enterprise was called earlier, was recognized as a semi-finalist in the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce's “PowerUp” competition, and then selected to be a member of the local Ventureprise business incubator.

All this drew interest from two “innovation scouts” at Areva. Soon after the eosMYCO partnership – many details of which are subject to a non-disclosure agreement – was born.

The partnership is set to build a pilot-scale remediation vehicle to deploy the proprietary process in 2016. If negotiations with two investment funds go well, the technology and vehicles will scale up to meet the demands of North Carolina's coal ash. Other states and utilities, e.g. Georgia Power, Alabama Power and Dominion Virginia Power, may be next in line.

“We are actively working to have boots on the ground by 2017,” Rutledge said.

Image credits: 1) Southern Environmental Law Center 2) eosMYCO

Jim Pierobon

Clean energy advocate, strategic marketer and story teller with 15+ years supervisory experience and a proven track record achieving strategic and program objectives for energy, utility, technology and other clients in their marketplaces and policy arenas while engaging their priority stakeholders and target audiences. I'm always on the lookout for innovative policies, people, technologies and businesses that are demonstrating how sustainability can be both healthy and profitable. Catch my blog posts at TheEnergyFix.com. I've also written for The New York Times, Houston Chronicle, The Huffington Post and TheEnergyCollective.com.

Read more stories by Jim Pierobon