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UW tests char bricks and other coal-derived building materials

Two sheds made of black brick rest on gravel behind a black cast-iron fence before a cloudy Wyoming sky.
Jeff Victor
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The University of Wyoming's Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion constructed two demonstration houses east of the High Bay Research Building.

A group at the University of Wyoming is hoping to show that building materials made from Wyoming coal are just as good, if not better, than traditional brick and mortar.

Just east of UW's High Bay Research Facility stand two nearly identical brick sheds. One of these demonstration houses was made using bricks that were derived from Wyoming coal using eco-friendly processes. The other house is a control, using traditional bricks and materials.

Over the next year, researchers from the university's Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion will see how the coal-derived house stands up to various environmental conditions.

As the demand for coal as an energy source drops, the center seeks to find new, more eco-friendly, uses for Wyoming's number one resource.

"Instead of destroying the coal, which is what we do when we make energy and fuel-type products, in this case, we're deliberately decomposing it using some proprietary process developed here at the university," said Richard Horner, the center’s director.

Horner said the char bricks are almost entirely carbon, which gives them mechanical strength and other unique properties. The char bricks are lighter than traditional bricks, and more porous, so they could lead to energy savings when it comes to transportation and when it comes to cooling and heating the house.

"If we've got air space, that's the best form of insulation in a building," Horner said. "When we have porosity, we also get the benefit of what's called osmotic forces, which means that in cold weather, the rain or the coldness tends to enter into the pores and shield the inside of the house and keep the heat in. And in the summer, we get the opposite effect. The pores become more open and we get more air conditioning going on through the brick itself, just using the properties of porosity."

Kim Lau is the graduate student behind the demonstration. She said after a year of performance testing, they'll add a wider variety of coal-based materials, such as insulation, to the char brick house. Then they can test a wider variety of building materials that could one day make it to market.

Mining coal releases methane into the atmosphere, one of the more potent greenhouse gasses contributing to climate change. The manufacture of char bricks, other building materials and other Wyoming coal-derived products doesn't change that.

But burning coal for energy releases carbon dioxide and a host of greenhouse gasses – and the new uses being developed by the Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion cut down on that.

There are other eco-friendly elements to many of the center's projects as well. The char bricks, for example, are cured under sunlight, avoiding the release of CO2 that would occur in firing up a kiln to make traditional bricks.

The char bricks are also recyclable. They can be pulverized and reformed into new bricks.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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