From Waste to Efficiency

(Business Lexington 4-20-2010) For decades, fly ash, one of the residues generated in the burning of coal, especially at coal-fired power plants, was released into Kentucky's skies. Today, by law, fly ash is captured in the chimneys of those plants. Some of the companies in Kentucky that collect that fly ash include Kentucky Utilities, Louisville Gas and Electric, Cincinnati Gas and Electric and Kentucky Power. 
"It is often viewed as a waste, and the utility will ship it to a nearby ash pond, sometimes across the street from the plant," said Brock Marrs, Ph.D., a University of Kentucky professor and vice president for research at NuForm Materials, a company that wants that fly ash for its hidden value — the high-grade ceramics contained within.
NuForm is centered on technology developed at UK. 
"We recycle high-quality ceramics from fly ash discarded at coal combustion utilities. The ceramics are naturally produced when you burn coal," Marrs explained. "The ceramics are mixed in with many other materials that are collectively known as fly ash. We separate all materials and specifically go after the high-purity, high-quality ceramics."
Ceramic particles are lighter and more cost effective than competing materials in the growing composite materials market. Ash-derived ceramics increase the hardness and stiffness of aluminum parts without adversely affecting the weight of the part. With rising fuel prices, the automotive and aerospace industries need energy and cost-effective materials that improve efficiency and fuel economy. Another environmental benefit of recycling fly ash is reducing the need for virgin materials to make products.
NuForm Materials is a 3-year-old start-up located in Sadieville, Ky. It has support from UK's Center for Applied Research and grants from the National Science Foundation and the Kentucky state government's matching grants program. The foundation award came through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, giving NuForm Materials nearly $500,000 for research and development over two years.
Marrs and Tom Robl, Ph.D., president and co-founder of NuForm Materials, attended an "Energy Boot Camp" hosted by Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation and conducted by the Center for Entrepreneurial Growth, which provided entrepreneurial training and mentoring. Marrs said that the training was essential for them. 
"We were a couple of engineers with no background in finance and commercialization of technology," Marrs said. They might not have gotten some of their funding had it not been for what they learned at the camp, according to Marrs.
NuForm focuses on several markets, one of which is aluminum. 
"We're adding ceramics to (aluminum) to make it harder and more wear resistant. It could be used in brake rotors, sprockets, engine parts, connecting rods. We're really targeting the automotive industry," said Marrs. "The idea is to make the part stronger, lightweight and less expensive. You receive energy efficiency benefits and raise the fuel economy of the car."
NuForm is one of dozens of recent start-ups nurtured and promoted by UK. President Lee Todd has pressed for the university to create high-tech companies to nudge the state's economy forward. 
"Dr. Todd comes from the world of business and isn't just an academic. He believes the university should be integrated into the community," said Robl. "In my opinion, he is very supportive."
Marrs agreed. 
"We work with the UK Office for Commercialization and Economic Development and Dean Harvey and his group," Marrs said. "We've gone through the licensing and feel that overall, UK supports us."
NuForm Materials is at a critical development stage. Robl said Nuform is in the "post-laboratory and test stage now, and we are developing ourselves into commercialization." 
He is working with a powdered metal company to use some of the ceramics NuForm Materials can develop. 
"We are making good progress," he said, but he added that the company is still seeking additional capital and new partnerships. "We've been working on this a long time, and yes, we want to see it happen. Everyone wants their work to go commercial."
NuForm Materials is continuously developing new applications for its proven process. It will do all of the research, development and testing before approaching potential customers to try to sell them on the idea of becoming partners and incorporating the ceramics into their automotive parts or insulating panels. 
"We do a lot of the R&D legwork," said Marrs. There are companies going through the product demonstration stage now.
NuForm also stays in touch with local utilities on the front end, Marrs said, because without fly ash, there are no ceramics.
"We have to make sure we have a steady supply of fly ash, which there seems to be an abundance of in Kentucky," he said.
So far, Nuform Materials has raised about three quarters of a million dollars in funding, according to its Web site. The company is burning that off at a rate of about $15,000 per month, so it seeks another $3 million in working capital. 
"We look to grow and to license out this technology," Marrs concluded.  
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