“Green brick” turns waste into money

Freight Pipeline Company, a company in Columbia, Missouri, is manufacturer of the “green bricks” that were named one of 2007’s best inventions by both Time Magazine and Popular Science, says it’s seeking $1 million in venture funding. To date the company’s been funded primary by government research grants.

The bricks are used like conventional clay bricks – for building things from houses to factories. They’re called green because they are built from a toxic byproduct produced from coal-burning power plants. Instead of these toxins being released into the environment, or disposed of through costly means, they’re pumped into the bricks.

The waste product is called fly ash. It’s loaded with mercury, lead, and other toxic chemicals. Coal-burning power plants spend millions of dollars to dispose of the powdery byproduct. Until now, the estimated 70 million tons of byproduct has been buried in specially designed ponds and waste centers.

Henry Liu, the company’s president and founder, developed a way to recycling it into bricks – a process that not only provides a clean way to dispose of the waste, but which has been shown in tests to soak up mercury from the environment.

Plans for the first fly ash manufacturing facility are expected to be finalized in six months, with Associated Electric Cooperative, Inc. in Missouri. Completion of the facility is expected in July of 2009. Seven foreign countries have also licensed the technology for their own use.

Liu says he doesn’t have any competitors, but adds that it would be easy for conventional brick manufactures to use their facilities to produce fly ash bricks. He expects others to enter this arena and says he’s been in contact with a number of companies wanting to license the technology.

To produce the brick, fly ash is mixed with water and then compacted. Unlike clay bricks, these bricks aren’t heated with natural gas. This means less carbon is used, and thus the process is more environmentally friendly. The company says the lack of heating will reduce the cost of bricks by an estimated two cents a piece.

The development of the brick has come with challenges. Initially, the brick was not strong enough. Tests measuring how a brick stands up to cycles of freezing and thawing proved that the original brick could only last through eight cycles before falling apart. Industry safety standards require that bricks be able to withstand at least 50 freeze-thaw cycles in a laboratory. With the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation, Liu discovered that putting a drop of a chemical air entrainment agent into the fly ash material would allow the brick to stand up to more than 100 freeze-thaw cycles.

Although Liu’s invention serves many environmental needs, the reliance on fly ash doesn’t eliminate dependence on fossil fuels. As many leading environmentalists have said, there’s no such thing as “clean coal.” However, the brick does serve as a clean outlet for a toxic byproduct of existing coal power plants.

In an interview with VentureBeat, Liu said his company’s strategy is to develop technology using government research grants, then commercialize the technology with money from venture capitalists. Liu says he’s gotten quite a bit of interest from investment firms in California and across the country, although he wouldn’t disclose which firms. FPC is based in Columbia, Missouri and was founded in 2001.