The Art of Science: Turning Pollution into Pigment

John Sabraw, Chroma S1 12, 2013, Mixed media on aluminum composite panel
John Sabraw, Chroma S1 12, 2013, Mixed media on aluminum composite panel

Need proof that you can make art out of almost anything? Artist John Sabraw creates beautiful paintings using the byproducts of acid mine drainage. Sabraw, an artist and professor at Ohio University, works together with OU chemists and engineers to turn the toxic runoff from abandoned mines into pigments, which he then makes into paints and uses to create his artwork.

Ohio has miles of abandoned coal mines filled with metal dust. The mines eventually fill with water, which becomes acidic as the oxygen in it reacts with sulfide minerals in the rock, and picks up high concentrations of iron and aluminum. This water then spills out into streams, polluting them and killing wildlife.

An environmental engineering professor at OU, Guy Riefler, worked with some students to develop a novel approach to this problem – to take this toxic runoff and turn it into paint. This is not as crazy as it sounds – many commercial red and yellow paints are made from ferric oxyhydroxides, one of the major components of the polluted water. Riefler and his students worked on processing and refining the runoff into pigment (there’s a video here that goes through the main steps). Then they approached Sabraw, who had experience in making paints from scratch, to be a product tester.

The rest is not so much history as, well, science and art. Sabraw created a range of both oil and water-based paints from the runoff and now uses them to make all of his paintings, which have been featured in numerous gallery shows. You can see his work in an upcoming show at Chicago’s McCormick Gallery from March 6- April 25, 2015 or at his website.

Riefler and Sabraw are continuing to work on the paints, and hope to create a viable commercial line, with proceeds going to clean up polluted streams in Ohio.

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