Coal-based Bricks & Blocks (CBBs): Process Development to Prototype Fabrication Coupled with Techno-Economic Analysis and Market Survey

J.W. Heim II, R.L. Vander Wal
The Pennsylvania State University,
United States

Keywords: bricks, blocks, coal, plastic, construction, composite


The decline of coal use for energy production provides an abundance of local feedstock for new innovative uses and value-added products. Expanding the U.S. coal-value chain to manufacture high-value carbon products can strengthen the nation’s energy and mineral security, enhance the U.S. national defense security, increase the United States’ economic prosperity, while achieving U.S. environmental objectives. The primary project goal is a relatively light-weight composite product with superior (or comparable) compressive strength. Both virgin and, where available, post-consumer recycled thermoplastic versions are tested for each thermoplastic species. A useful attribute of thermoplastics as binders is that they can be heated to their melting point, cooled, and reheated again without significant degradation. A key advantage of thermoset coal-based bricks and blocks (CBBs) is that they require only mixing and molding. CBB advantages include low cost, availability, binding ability and processability. CBBs weigh about 50% less than clay bricks and can be manufactured with an interlocking design to promote ease of use for the novice builder. CBB formulation is evaluated according to a design-of-experiments (DoE) approach. DoE variables are a) relative weight fractions of binder, b) relative proportions of large versus small (milled) anthracite size fractions, and c) additive percentage. Fabrication methods include hot-press molding and extrusion, the latter being the most commercially viable. CBBs are tested for compressive strength, modulus of rupture (by flexure test) and water absorption per ASTM C67, with density determined by the Archimedes drainage method. Fractured interfaces are examined by SEM (Scanning Electron Microscopy) to resolve fracture dynamics and interior microstructure uniformity. Differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) is used to compare plastic transition temperatures i.e., glass and melting temperatures to contrast virgin with post-consumer recycled thermoplastics and optimize their usage. These results are used in the DoE analysis to identify the binder and relative weight percentages for optimum strength, density, and porosity. Overall, CBBs possess strength comparable to clay-based bricks but are non-permeable and hydrophobic, and hence resistant to degradation by freeze-fracturing, corrosion, and efflorescence. The strongest composites have been made with the following binders (in order of strength): thermoset, high-density polyethylene crosslink resin, high-density polyethylene, nylon 6/6, and polypropylene. Results from a techno-economic analysis (TEA) show economy of scale for CBBs by modularization and reveal the binder as the cost driver for material costs. Ideally, the incorporation of post-consumer recycled thermoplastic will decrease material acquisition costs and increase product sustainability. Notably, CBBs do not require the high temperature calcination needed to produce cement, nor do they require firing in the 1600-2400 °F range for three days using natural gas, as do clay brick equivalents. Instead, CBBs are heated to a modest