July 25th, 2004


Pliny Fisk III: The Search for Low-Impact Building Materials and Techniques


Practical Visionaries Solving Today's Environmental Problems
By Steve Lerner

Chapter One: Pliny Fisk III: The Search for Low-Impact Building Materials and Techniques

There is a hint of the mad scientist about Pliny Fisk III. Take his teacup experiment. Had you first seen him on the day he discovered a substitute for concrete you might have dismissed him as a wacky chemistry professor. Picture Fisk, an animated fifty-one-year-old, with steel-rimmed glasses, a walrus mustache, and shoulder-length hair receding on top, stirring a couple of spoonfuls of water into a teacup filled with fly ash from a coal-fired power plant.

Back in his kitchen (or "earth lab" as he calls it) Fisk's teacup of ash soup set up nicely. "In twenty minutes the fly ash turned into something you couldn't break with your hands, so we took it seriously and made a proper mix and tested it," he recalls. The result was a substance so hard that it broke his compression tester. This experimental material later tested out at 6000 psi (pounds per square inch), about twice the strength of Portland cement. Eventually Fisk came up with a recipe for his alternative cement that he now makes out of 97 percent recycled-content materials: fly ash and bottom ash from aluminum smelters mixed with a dash of citric acid, borate, and (unfortunately, he adds) a chemical in the chlorine family for which he is seeking a substitute. Fisk promptly registered this new substance under the name AshCrete.

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