EnVitrum Turns Trash Glass into Green Building Material

Envitrum tiles2Bricks and glassware date back to the earliest civilizations, and the raw materials and basic technologies haven’t changed much over six millennia. Now, two UW Engineering graduate students have exercised techno creativity to rethink both bricks and glass, driven by a goal to develop a useful product from vast heaps of low-grade glass that ends up in landfills.

UW graduate students Grant Marchelli and Renuka Prabhakar paired up in a Mechanical Engineering lab about three years ago to pursue a shared interest in environmental sustainability. They decided to make bricks from finely crushed, mixed colored glass “cullet” that was too contaminated with impurities and waste particles to be recycled into new bottles. Marchelli and Prabhakar found an ingenious way to turn this material into glass bricks that are lighter and stronger than red clay bricks and require far less energy to manufacture. Cost savings and sustainability could be big market advantages as more architectural firms and construction companies are “going green.”

Eager entrepreneurs, Marchelli and Prabhakar established a company, EnVitrum (Latin for “out of glass”) in 2009. Marchelli, team leader on the technology side, is completing his mechanical engineering doctoral work focused on ceramic and glass processing. After owning and running independent auto and technical repair businesses earlier in her career, Prabhakar returned to the UW, completed her MS in manufacturing technology and materials, and is embarking on doctoral work while also concentrating on the business side of EnVitrum.

Envitrum tiles1C4C Coaches a Winner
In April 2010 the duo participated in the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge, with Prabhakar pitching a business plan and Marchelli demonstrating a “living wall” of plants moisturized by water wicked through their permeable glass bricks. They bested 18 other student teams from colleges statewide to win the $10,000 grand prize. A few weeks later they won $2,500 for the best clean tech idea in the UW Business Plan Competition. With newfound visibility, they turned to C4C for assistance in protecting their intellectual property and funding the next key stages of material development and testing.

“They have a cool product and an interesting story,” said Ryan Buckmaster, C4C technology manager. “They developed their innovation on their own, rather than as part of a faculty research team, and have taken advantage of all C4C has to offer.”

C4C patent agents helped them file US and international patents. A core IP component, and the biggest hurdle in forming bricks from waste glass, was developing the binding agent to enable micron-sized glass particles to adhere during firing at low temperatures.

“We wanted our entire process to be as environmentally friendly as possible and this philosophy extended to the “ingredients” we use for our binding agents. This unique blend of materials keeps the glass particles together prior to firing and is the core of our process,” Marchelli said of their secret binding agent.

They use a cold isostatic pressing process in which bricks are formed in a mold, then removed and fired for approximately eight hours. Energy usage is about 80 percent lower than for standard clay bricks fired for up to 48 hours in high-temperature industrial furnaces. They also have investigated brick coatings to prevent excess water absorption and expand the material’s versatility.

Funding for Scale-Up
C4C Gap Funding Manager Jeanette Ennis has helped Marchelli and Prabhakar apply for funding. With a $50,000 C4C Commercialization Gap Fund grant they purchased a furnace to fire bricks in consistent, precise shapes and scale up production to demonstrate commercial potential. The UW Mechanical Engineering department provided laboratory space for the team, and a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award for $150,000 in 2012 enabled testing of the material’s strength and microstructure. Results have exceeded expectations, with compressive strength double or triple building industry standards. The team is pursuing third-party verification through American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) certified laboratories. EnVitrum recently applied for Phase II SBIR funding to test the extrusion production process.

Big Market Potential
Marchelli and Prabhakar are aiming for a family of products for coated and uncoated brick and panels. “EnVitrum’s material is suitable for a variety of applications including replacements for ceramic tile, flooring, countertops, siding, and pavers,” Prabhakar said. “Based on industry growth rates, our addressable market could top $30 billion by the end of 2013.”

The Seattle office of an international architectural firm, Perkins+Will (which redesigned the UW HUB), appreciates their environmentally friendly materials and will display product capabilities in their downtown office this fall. Lars Johansson, a C4C entrepreneur in residence, helped Marchelli and Prabhakar refine their business plan and position EnVitrum for funding by angel investors.

“If they interest a few reputable firms in the region and secure showcase projects, EnVitrum has a good chance to demonstrate market demand, license their technology to construction material manufacturers, and become a successful business,” Johansson said.

“Working with C4C has been great,” Prabhakar said. “Ryan and the C4C staff are excited about our technology. They are always willing to help us and they get straight to the point about what we need to do. We’ve learned a lot and enjoyed the experience.”

Their next goal is to raise funding to build a small facility to manufacture prototypes, and they hope to convert trash heap glass into an amazing new green product that could help transform one of mankind’s oldest industries.