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By Sam Alcorn
LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Bucknell University Associate Professor of Geology Carl Kirby paints a bright picture for Pennsylvania's acid mine drainage.

Literally. His Volkswagen van bears a coat of paint made from the stuff.

The mine drainage sediment -- commonly called "yellow boy" -- is, essentially, iron hydroxide, or rust.
Ecosystem pollution
The problem is that the pollutant oozes out of mine areas, contaminating waterways and shutting down most aquatic life. In states like Pennsylvania, where there has been an abundance of mining activity, it could cost as much as $15 billion to clean the stream and ecosystem pollution caused by mine drainage.

"The 'yellow boy' itself usually is not toxic, but it coats the bottoms of streams and covers up the substrates so organisms have a hard time making a living on it," said Kirby. "You can't get many plants or algae to grow on it and, therefore, you lack aquatic insects and often lack fish because the food chain has been disrupted."

But Kirby, who has long been interested in ways to convert environmental liabilities into economic advantages, wondered if the iron hydroxide mineral, which, chemically, is close to iron oxide, could be used as paint pigment. Iron oxide is a key ingredient in making paint.

'82 Volkswagen
To test his theory, Kirby collected some "yellow boy" not too far from the Bucknell campus and brewed up a batch of paint to cover his 1982 Volkswagen Vanagon camper. Eight spray coats later, he had the tone he wanted.

"It needed paint, among other things," he said of the van. "I went out to the Shamokin area and collected some 'yellow boy' iron hydroxide from a stream. I dried it, screened it, and ended up making the paint myself. It turned out, actually, to be quite an attractive color -- at least for an '82 Volkswagen. It's this deep rich, orange color."

He then added a "yellow boy" decal on the side that explains the chemical reaction. "I'm probably driving the only vehicle in the world painted with mine drainage sediment," said Kirby.

Green building product
According to Kirby, Hedin Environmental, a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm that specializes in remedying the effects of coal mining and acid mine drainage, has shipped hundreds of tons of mine drainage iron hydroxide to a company in Virginia that processes the sediment into paint pigment. The company, in turn, touts the paint as an environmentally friendly green building product.

"Anything you need iron for, you could potentially use the 'yellow boy' for that," said Kirby. "The question is, is it going to be cost effective to make anything particular type of iron product from it. I think the pigment has the greatest economic possibilities right now."

The sediment, he said, could even be used in sewage treatment.

Ferric hydroxide
"We add ferric chloride to sewage in order to get the particles of sewage to settle out to the bottom. Instead of buying ferric chloride, you could add ferric hydroxide, "yellow boy," because that's the ferric chloride makes when you put it in water," he said.

More information about professor Kirby is available at his Web page.

Contact: Office of Communications

Posted Sept. 21, 2007