February 16, 2006

Professor Carl Kirby and his van
painted with "yellow boy" paint pigment.

LEWISBURG, Pa. - For more than a decade, Carl Kirby has been involved in the research and cleanup of the polluted drainage coming from Pennsylvania's abandoned coal mines.

Kirby, an associate professor of geology and assistant dean of arts and sciences at Bucknell University, thought long and hard about the orange-red and slime-like pollutant that forms in nearby streams and waterways.

"Yellow boy," as the pollutant is known, coats rocks in waterways and chokes out most normal living things in the streams. In states like Pennsylvania, where there is an abundance of abandoned coal mines, stream and ecosystem pollution by acid mine drainage is a major problem.

"Few aquatic organisms survive in mine drainage due to either low pH and high metal concentrations or coating of bottom substrates by iron hydroxides," said Kirby.

Kirby, also a geochemist, had an idea.

If paint manufacturers used iron oxide to make paint, couldn't "yellow boy," an iron hydroxide compound, be readily used for the same purpose? Paint manufacturers have to mine or make synthetic iron oxide to produce paint. Because "yellow boy" is abundant and essentially free, it also contains an "economic incentive" for industry to use it.

To promote the idea, Kirby decided to paint his 1982 Volkswagen Vanagon with "yellow boy" as the only pigment in the paint he prepared.

A North Carolina company prepped and painted the vehicle with the reddish-stain product. The vehicle was sprayed with eight coats of the "yellow boy" paint, then sealed with clear coat, and buffed. The result is a shiny red-brown that seems to glow in daylight.

For Kirby, it's a one-of-a-kind drive. "I'm probably driving the only vehicle in the world painted with mine drainage sediment," said Kirby.

By painting his van with "yellow boy," Kirby hoped to spark a practical and commercial interest in converting a pollution problem due to coal mining into a practical product, while, at the same helping to clean up abandoned mine sites.

Hedin Environmental, a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm that specializes in remedying the effects of coal mining and acid mine drainage, is shipping iron hydroxides from mine drainage on a pilot scale to a paint pigment company. The paints and coatings, cement-based products, plastics, paper, and mulch that use the mine sediment are touted as "green" products, Kirby said.

Kirby would like to see a widespread use of the "yellow boy" paint pigment in the future, but said, "I'm a geochemist. My job here is to do research and to teach. I'm here to promote the concept and I'm happy to leave it to others such as Hedin Environmental to push it farther."

Kirby said he hoped that some of the profits will eventually contribute to the treatment of acid mine drainage. That treatment is not cheap.

In the former Bear Valley mining area near Shamokin, Pa., where Kirby collected pails of iron hydroxide to screen, mix and clean for the paint pigment to paint his van, Kirby said the next treatment will cost more than a half million dollars. "My biggest hope is to subsidize other treatment sites" through the use and sale of "yellow boy" product, he said.

He has even used the mine drainage sediment to dye "Yellow Boy" logo T-shirts that he sells. Proceeds go to the McKenna Environmental Remediation Fund which supports environmental projects conducted by Bucknell students.

More information about Kirby's research is at http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/kirby/ 

Story posted Feb. 16, 2006

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