Focus on fly ash: a useful resource, not a toxic waste

Concrete sidewalk. Good use for fly ashDo you know how to annoy an engineer or scientist who works with fly ash (coal ash)? Call it a toxic waste.

Environmentalists scorn climate change deniers’ resistance to science. Too many of them ignore other science. If facts don’t conform to ideology, they must be discarded.

Part of that resistance shows their reflexive disdain for industry. Unless, that is, it’s the organic food industry or renewable energy industries, etc. They don’t recognize those “good things” as industries.

Ignorance about coal ash in an online forum

Fly ash lagoon path

Path around an ash lagoon: The fence prevents access to the ‘dangerous’ lagoons, created by the deposition of ash slurry from the Longannet power station. The path provides a circular walk around the area.

I posted an article I found about recent research on coal ash by scientists at North Carolina A&T University on a forum.

They encapsulated coal ash in polyurethane. In that form it can be safely stored without building a landfill. Or it becomes another way to use coal ash as a building material.

Someone responded that he couldn’t envision daycare centers in buildings made of “thorium-uranium-plastic.”

I responded that the building industry has used coal ash safely for decades.

He said that being surrounded by plastic-diluted coal ash didn’t seem safe intuitively. He referred to assurances from the lead paint or pesticide industries.

He didn’t read the article very carefully. It concerns academic research unknown to industry. I challenged him to find useful articles and post them himself.

He answered, “I’m not interested in investing my time in safer facilitation of coal use, since it’s my opinion all of it should stay in the ground“—emphasis his.

That’s what the coal industry thought when the Clean Air Act mandated scrubbers to keep fly ash out of the atmosphere. They put it in a hole in the ground and added water to keep it from blowing away. The heavier bottom ash went to the same pits.

If all he can think about is thorium and uranium, why would it be any safer to move the ash from the pits to a dry landfill?

Coal ash indeed contains radioactive elements and other toxic substances. So does dirt. The abstract of a 2011 master’s thesis at Oregon State University notes,

The byproducts of coal power contain many of the same radioactive nuclides that are found in the local environment just in higher concentrations. With so much of this ash being stockpiled, the amount of radioactive material in one location can be staggering.

Beneficial fly ash uses

fly ash bricks

Fly ash bricks

The building and road construction industries have long used coal ash, particularly fly ash. That ash is no longer stockpiled in one location.

Building materials using ash include wallboard, bricks, and roofing materials.

Road construction incorporates ash into concrete or uses it for structural fills and embankments.

These industries can’t absorb all the ash power plants generate. The pits hold the excess.

The EPA began to investigate the safety of these materials only in 2013. But it concluded that using coal ash is appropriate.

Environmental releases of toxic substances from building materials with coal ash are the same or less than those from comparable products without coal ash.

A survey of beneficial uses of coal ash worldwide notes that thermal or chemical treatment of fly ash safely contains the toxins. For example, in concrete, fly ash reacts with lime, resulting in a glassy matrix that will not leach. The heat of firing of coal ash bricks produces a similar matrix.

Traditional brick making from fired clay produces high emissions of greenhouse gasses. Companies in the US and India have devised methods of making bricks with fly ash that do not require firing. Therefore, they have a much lower carbon footprint. In addition, the Indian method completely replaces clay and the need to disturb topsoil to obtain it.

These processes have much greater environmental benefit than simply keeping fly ash out of pits. They have lower emissions. Toxins don’t leach. Critics nonetheless complain about the dangers using coal ash as a construction material.

So far as I have found, they do not cite any scientific studies to justify their concern. Their rhetoric very often suggests that they care more about punishing the utilities than solving problems.

Research that explores novel, non-traditional coal ash uses remains hidden in academia. It’s too bad that opinionated ignoramuses won’t read what little information is easily available. But they don’t hesitate to speak or write as if they had some authority.

Please share this post with people who need to read it.

Photo credits:
Concrete sidewalk. Photo by Famartin. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Coal ash lagoon path. © Copyright M J Richardson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.
Fly ash bricks. Photo by Thamizhpparithi Maari. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.


Focus on fly ash: a useful resource, not a toxic waste — 2 Comments

  1. I get what you’re saying, but I think that it is to little to late. While the coal industry was trying to hedge their bets a number of new and very exciting ways of generating electricity have popped up.
    Photoswitching and Solid State Generators are pretty cool, but I am looking to latest iterations of LENR. I advocate for LENR and continually as local, state and federal agencies to open their eyes and provide appropriate cross training for many folks in the Fossil Fuel industry. My supportive links are below. @pmaher_art Spaceplanes from NASA Checkout page 83. This addresses LENRIA and the current structure of involved parties I believe that this is the DOD report to the HASC concerning utility of LENR in Military.

  2. LENR stands for Low Energy Nuclear Reactions, (or sometimes Lattice Enabled Nanoscale Reactions). I haven’t looked into it, but I’m not sure I know what you mean when you say that what I’m saying is a little too late. We have a big problem with half a century of fly ash stored in ponds. We have another big problem with people so scared of toxic content that is toxic only in large concentrations, including the dry landfills they want to move it to.

    We have those problems even if we stop generating electricity from fossil fuels tomorrow. The only viable solution, it seems to me, is to view the ash as a resource for making something useful rather than as a waste to dispose of. LENR may or may not be a good alternative for generating electricity. It won’t solve our ash problems.

    But thank you for taking the time to leave such a detailed and thoughtful comment.

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