UW start-up EnVitrum turns trash glass into bricks; wins Phase II NSF SBIR of $500K to scale production

Envitrum tiles2UW start-up EnVitrum has been awarded a phase II NSF SBIR of $500k for two years to perform development related to scaling up their environmentally friendly process for making ceramic products from waste glass.

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.

“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.

Envitrum tiles1They 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.

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.”

Read the complete Envitrum case study.