At Paonia Dam, innovative project turns clay into bricks

 At the Paonia Dam, years of mud and debris have built up, creating a thick clay that is filling up the reservoir. [Courtesy image]

At the Paonia Dam, years of mud and debris have built up, creating a thick clay that is filling up the reservoir. [Courtesy image]

By Eric Goold, KVNF 

Ever since there were coal mines in the North Fork Valley, there has been the problem of what to do with methane byproduct that continues to pour into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, at the Paonia Dam, another problem threatens the climate of the North Fork Valley. Years and years of mud and silt have built up against the dam, creating a thick clay that is rapidly filling up the reservoir.

Now, an innovative scientist and the North Fork Coal Methane Working Group have come up with a possible solution to both problems.

Chris Caskey is a scientist and entrepreneur in Denver. He has pitched the idea of using the methane gas from the coal mines in the Valley to fire ovens that can be used to make bricks out of the clay from the Paonia Reservoir.

He spoke with KVNF News recently and talked about his participation and how the project got started.

Quote: “The actual brick project came about through the North Fork Coal Methane Group which is something that was organized by Delta and Gunnison Counties. Tons of credit to the county commissioners as well as administrator Robbie LeValley putting this group together. It’s a bunch of stakeholders brought together to address the question of natural gas that’s leaking out of the coal mines. Since the coal is saturated with natural gas so as they mine and after they mine it comes out. It’s a big source of pollution and it’s a wasted resource so the counties brought the stakeholders together to say, 'is there anything we can do with this that would be useful? And if not, you know, what are our options for mitigation?' So, there’s a number of reasons it doesn’t make sense financially to try to clean this gas up and put it in a pipeline. It also doesn’t make sense financially to turn it into electricity unless you have a buyer who’s willing to pay a premium for that electricity. To mitigate the pollution what you really need to do is burn it, and turn the natural gas into CO2 and water. CO2 is also a pollutant but it’s much less potent as a greenhouse gas than natural gas, natural gas slash methane.” 

Turning clay into bricks requires a great deal of heat, which makes the burning of the methane ideal for these purposes. The first step in the process was for Caskey to determine if the clay in the reservoir made good bricks.

Quote: “We’re fortunate that the sediment in Paonia Reservoir is a high quality clay. And, firing clay into bricks or bowls or pottery or tiles or something like that, that’s a very energy intensive process. You have to take the clay up to, up above a thousand Celsius, really close to two thousand Fahrenheit to get the clay to mature into a brick. But there’s plenty of energy to do that. And myself being a material scientist, I said let’s explore that a little bit further. Got a couple of buckets full of mud from Paonia Reservoir and took them back to the lab to turn them into bricks. And that worked out. We are making some, what appear to be decent quality bricks and I’m confident that they can pass whatever ASTM standards are required, and then we’re just starting to look at the markets. We’re solving two problems, right, the methane problem and the mud problem. But it doesn’t become a good idea until you’re also solving the customers’ problem and that there’s actually someone out there who wants to purchase these materials and use them.”

Caskey believes that the idea to use methane byproduct from coal mines to provide the heat to make bricks out of reservoir sediment is unique.

As he mentioned, finding a market for the bricks is a major hurdle the idea needs to get over. Further, the bricks have only been made on a small, laboratory scale. For it to be in any way profitable, the process would have to be taken to a much larger scale.

Quote: “We have made them at a pretty small scale. My kiln can fit one brick at a time and it takes 12 hours to heat up. I hold it at temperature for 24 hours and another 12 hours to cool down. So I can make one brick every two days, which is not a factory by any means. But I do think we can build a pilot plant in the North Fork. A small like one-ton-per-day-type factory. A big, modern factory is about a million bricks per week and that would take some real time to get to that scale. But I think we could make a small modern factory, or a small pilot factory, in the next year or so.”

Caskey, owner of the Delta Brick & Climate Company, will next apply for grant money to fund an operation that can produce the bricks on a small scale in the North Fork Valley.

For Western Slope Resources Reporting, I’m Eric Goold.


Katie Klingsporn