Research, Technology & Innovation
The global reach of Florida innovations
Cleaning Up a Dirty Word
Entrepreneur BILL EASTER
In Orlando, of all places, at UCF’s business incubator, a small company has a plan to reimagine coal — America’s most abundant fossil fuel. It’s cheap, light and very much out of favor. “When people think of coal, they think of a four-letter word,” says Bill Easter.
Easter has an engineering company called Semplastics that makes plastic components used in semiconductor chip manufacturing. In 2013, it spawned X-Mat, an advanced materials division, based on a low-cost, inorganic resin-based technology. Two years later, scientists and engineers began experimenting with coal dust as a filler to lower cost and increase performance.
Easter knows coal. The Texas native spent part of his youth in coal-rich West Virginia.
In one formulation, X-Mat takes raw coal, pulverized to dust, and mixes it with proprietary resins. The resulting ceramic is non-toxic, light, strong and doesn’t burn. The company has seven patents and 15 pending.
It’s received $7.5 million in federal grants and contracts to develop coal and coal waste into usable materials such as batteries and — front and center now for Easter — as a building material.
Easter says coal-core composite tiles can transform the roofing industry. For strength, it beats concrete roof tiles as well as ones made from Vermont slate and Santa Fe red clay.
X-Mat has federal grants to develop bricks, blocks, facades and panels using its coal-resin technology and a grant to design a house built from the coal-derived materials. Easter is aiming for West Virginia. He has a grant to open a pilot manufacturing line there. “If I put a coal plant here, everyone would hate me,” Easter says, “Up there I’m a hero.”
Of course, today’s promising tech can be tomorrow’s bust. The state early this century saw itself as a coming player in semiconductors with a Cirent, later Agere, factory in Central Florida. The state provided millions in incentives. The factory wound up closed and torn down. Easter philosophizes, in an interview, on how to tell a visionary entrepreneur from a mistaken one. “The only way you can tell is to come back in five years,” he says.
Nonetheless, given that public policy shuns coal as a power source in the U.S. — FPL in June tore down its last coal power plant in Florida — X-Mat and Easter create hope for mining-state economies.
“As incongruous as it is, a Florida company is helping out with this,” Easter says. “It’s very strange in some ways.”