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Photo essay: OHIO professors combine engineering and the arts to convert toxic waste into paint

Colleen Carow and Pete Shooner | Sep 23, 2016

Photo essay: OHIO professors combine engineering and the arts to convert toxic waste into paint

Colleen Carow and Pete Shooner | Sep 23, 2016

Two Ohio University professors – one an engineer and one an artist – gave a curious CNN film crew an in-depth look last week at their collaborative project to transform toxic mine drainage into works of art.

Associate Professor of Civil Engineering Guy Riefler, who specializes in environmental engineering, developed a process to turn the toxic sludge found in numerous Southeast Ohio streams contaminated by the region’s countless abandoned coal mines into paint pigments.

Enter Professor of Art John Sabraw, who chairs the Painting and Drawing program. Using Riefler’s pigments, Sabraw creates artist-grade paints that he then uses in his own series titled “Toxic Art.” The duo hopes to expand their process to a commercial scale, in which proceeds from paint sales fund the water remediation itself.

Follow the team from stream to studio though the photo essay below, and discover how these professors combine science and the arts into a powerful environmental tool to create for good.

All photos by Ashley Stottlemyer unless otherwise noted.

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Ten miles northwest of Corning, Ohio, a visiting CNN/Weather Channel crew sets up for filming onsite as Bat Gate mine releases acid mine drainage into the headwaters of Sunday Creek.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Riefler collects sludge from Sunday Creek.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Decked out in his personal protective equipment – full-length hip waders and nitrile gloves – Riefler surveys the creekside after collecting water and sludge in a five-gallon “carboy” jug.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Ready for use in a future Sabraw work, a section of burlap rests in the Bat Gate mine seep. Sabraw experiments with leaving various materials at the site, including aluminum sheets that he uses as a surface for painting, for later projects.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
At the Russ College’s Environmental Engineering Lab in Stocker Center, Riefler and first-year civil engineering master’s student John Timmons work alongside an array of shaker flasks used to measure the rate of iron oxidation. Each flask is filled with a solution comprising iron and a unique bacterial inoculation that oxides the iron, with the goal of finding a bacterial culture that can be used to treat water quickly at an onsite treatment plant.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Working to dry the acid mine drainage sludge, Riefler prepares the apparatus used to dewater the acid mine drainage sludge. 
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Riefler and the CNN/Weather Channel team discuss the dewatering apparatus, which suctions water off the top of the settled sludge, into the beaker. Handcrafted paint company Gamblin Artist’s Oil Colors of Portland, Oregon, will produce a commercial test batch within the next few months.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Sludge slips down the sides of a glass reactor.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Settled about four inches thick in a two-by-three-foot plastic tote, the dewatered sludge begins to congeal before Riefler delivers it to Sabraw.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Already dewatered, the acid mine drainage sludge begins to dry in its plastic container.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Drawn to graduate school at the Russ College by Riefler’s research team, Timmons plans to isolate, culture and sequence the DNA of locally collected iron-oxidizing bacteria that can be used to accelerate the treatment process.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Moving one step closer to creating paint, Sabraw and Ceramic Technician Brian Dieterle lift a tray of cooled pigment from drying racks at the sculpture studio, where it was fired in the kiln at 932 degrees Fahrenheit to remove remaining moisture and change the color to this deep burgundy.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Sabraw and Riefler with a test slice of the pigment in its compacted form, after firing in the kiln.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Compacted pigment after being fired.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Sabraw collects roasted pigment in preparation for creating paint.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Sabraw adds binder to the pigment with a glass muller to create paint. Photo by Louise O'Rourke.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Focusing on natural phenomena, the earth’s ecosystem as a whole, and our role within that, Sabraw incorporates ever more sustainable practices in his studio work, life and when possible, public engagements. His art is featured in numerous collections including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Honolulu; the Elmhurst Museum, Illinois; Columbus Science Center; Emprise Bank; and Accenture Corp. Sabraw is represented in Chicago by Thomas McCormick. Photo courtesy of the School of Art + Design.
 

Riefler-Sabraw Toxic Art
Detail of Sabraw’s paintings using the acid mine drainage pigment, which can be created in hues of red and yellow. Photo by John Sabraw.