There are few environmental upsides to burning coal—the practice is dirty, it increases greenhouse gas emissions, and it's detrimental to human health. But for now, at least, we're stuck with coal; it will be a long time until we can fully wean ourselves off the stuff. In the meantime, why not do something useful with coal waste?
Nikhil Gupta, a professor at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University in Brooklyn, has figured out how to manufacture car parts out of fly ash, a ceramic-based byproduct of coal production—and China's largest source of solid industrial waste. The waste product, which usually ends up in landfills (or in accident-prone storage facilities), can be mixed with metals like magnesium and aluminum to create a lightweight substance that is just as strong as the metals by themselves.
According to Gupta, making car parts—like engine covers or mounts—out of the metal-fly ash mix could save fuel (lightweight vehicles use less fuel) as well as cash, since aluminum currently costs about $2 a pound and fly ash is free. Gupta has also simulated what would happen if his fly-ash components were smashed in a car accident at 60 mph. They held up fine.
The coal byproduct is useful for a lot more than just vehicle components. CalStar, a manufacturer of fly ash brick, is already piloting its bricks in the real world. Another initiative from Blue World Crete is testing a durable, weather-resistant, and cheap coating for damaged concrete structures.
None of this is an argument for building more coal plants and pumping out fly ash. But as long as we're reliant on coal, we should make sure that we don't waste any part of it.
[Image: Pradeep Rohatgi of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee]