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Innovative product is a win for ag, environment

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Photo by Pat Sunderland Chris Caskey displays a prototype of a brick comprised of sediment from Paonia Reservoir. While this brick was fired in a pottery kiln, his business concept utilizes heat generated by burning coal mine methane.

Sediment from the Muddy River has piled up in the Paonia Reservoir, reducing active storage capacity and the amount of irrigation water available for agricultural producers in the North Fork Valley.

At the same time, industry leaders and environmentalists are looking for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal mines through the recovery and use of methane.

In a true win-win for agriculture, the environment and the economy, Chris Caskey has come up with a plan to turn Paonia Reservoir sediment into bricks using captured methane gas.

This innovative project earned Caskey a spot in the business accelerator known as the ICELab@Western. He and four other entrepreneurs will "pitch" their ideas at the second annual Trout Tank on Monday, Nov. 13, at the Egyptian Theater in Delta from 6 to 8 p.m.

Caskey attended graduate school at the Colorado School of Mines and worked for a chemical consulting firm and at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory before starting his own business. Although his venture was not successful, he learned a lot. He returned to Mines as research assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering. He was most recently involved in research into carbon dioxide capture and storage, to prevent the release of harmful gases into the atmosphere from fossil fuel power plants and other sources.

While vacationing in the North Fork, and pursuing his love of hiking, he happened to meet the executive director of the Western Slope Conservation Center and began volunteering with the environmental organization. As often happens, Caskey said he kept taking on more responsbilities until he ended up on the board. A resident of Denver, he serves as WSCC's Front Range representative, networking with legislators as the opportunity arises.

When the North Fork Coal Mine Methane Working Group was formed and WSCC was invited to the table, WSCC looked to Caskey for his expertise in chemistry and greenhouse gas management to help the group in its goal to develop a comprehensive strategy for the capture and utilization of coal mine methane. The vision is to create economic activity and help stabilize operations at the remaining coal mine.

"As a climate scientist, I'm not as worried where our energy comes from, I care about the chemistry of the atmosphere," said Caskey. "Methane is much worse than CO2 when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere, so if we just burn methane and turn it into CO2, that's a better option."

With the goal of capturing and burning as much methane as possible, using the heat for a beneficial purpose, he began brainstorming ideas.

He came up with a lot of ideas, but one really stood out. "We have the Paonia Reservoir filling up with mud and that mud happens to be high quality clay," he said. "What if we take that mud and try to solve two problems at once?"

That's where the Delta Brick & Climate Company comes in. The historic structures in Delta prove that brick making has been a successful venture. Caskey capitalized on that historic tie when he modified the original name of Delta Brick & Tile Company, which was no longer trademarked, and established Delta Brick & Climate Company.

Through ICELab, Caskey hopes to get a small pilot plant off the ground. To avoid transportation costs, that plant would logically be situated in the North Fork Valley, where it would also create jobs.

Caskey has created his prototypes by hand, taking the bricks to the art center in Grand Junction and firing them in a standard pottery kiln. He tested the finished product at the National Brick Research Center, so he knows the Paonia Reservoir mud will work. There's solid science behind the capture of methane, plus the possibility of selling greenhouse gas offsets. "That's a reasonable business in and of itself," he said.

Caskey said there's enough sediment in Paonia Reservoir to make five billion bricks -- more than he'll ever be able to sell. The long-term solution is getting the sediment downstream, but in the meantime he sees only the upside for agriculture, for job creation and for the climate with his bricks and tiles.

He has already visited a potential client in Moab, who would use the tiles in window sills, to absorb heat in the day and push it into the building during the night.

ICELab is federally funded through an Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant. The grant was written to provide economic development support for Gunnison and Delta counties, and is intended to offset the negative impact of mine closures in our communities.

Caskey is appreciative for the EDA grant, and the county officials who support its goals. He said the future of Delta Brick and Climate Company rests with grants such as the one that is helping pay his rent, and with private investment he hopes to attract through Trout Tank.

Photo by Pat Sunderland Sand, silt and clay — the essential components of brick — can be found in mancos shale (top brick) as well as the sediment that’s built up in Paonia Reservoir (bottom brick).
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