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From coal waste to colour

A tube of Six Bells Burnt Ochre paint
The first paint colour in the range is called ‘Six Bells Red’, after the Six Bells Mine Water Treatment Scheme in Wales

Art and engineering come together at UCL to create a range of paints from waste generated by de-commissioned coal mines, working with former mining communities.

The UK government’s Coal Authority oversees water treatment at former coal mines across the country. This prevents iron solids from entering and polluting local water courses and drinking water aquifers. But the process also leaves behind 4,000 tonnes of ochre waste a year.

While studying for a PhD at the UCL Slade School of Fine Art, Onya McCausland saw the possibility of transforming this waste into ochre pigments for use in paint.

With knowledge exchange funding from UCL Innovation & Enterprise, Onya was able to develop a feasibility study and a business case for developing the paints. 

Onya has been supported on her journey by Dr Steven Schooling, Director of Physical Sciences, Engineering, Built Environment & Social Sciences at UCLB. UCLB is the commercialisation arm of UCL Innovation & Enterprise.

The first paint colour in the range is called ‘Six Bells Red’, after the Six Bells Mine Water Treatment Scheme in Wales. A hundred one-litre tins of wall paint and 1,000 tubes of artists’ oil paint were made available to buy via Turning Landscape CIC. Turning Landscape is a community interest company created to ensure that profit from paint sales is reinvested back into the local Welsh community. 

Public engagement

The partnership has also engaged with local communities from the start. For example, UCL and the Coal Authority have developed a public engagement project at the National Coal Mining Museum for England in Wakefield and the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The intention is to positively alter public perceptions of coal mining waste, so it’s seen as something with artistic and historic value.

More recently the project has engaged with Six Bells in South Wales. Fifty tins of Six Bells Red paint were given to local people and Gwent organisations to paint buildings, houses, doors, gates and walls. An iron plaque with a sitemap will be installed at the Six Bells site, marking it as the source of the paint. The plaque will be visible from the footpath at the far north end of the perimeter fence. 

The resultant partnership between UCL, the Coal Authority and artist materials supplier Michael Harding resulted in a unique line of wall paint and artists’ oil paints being brought to market.

Onya has also frequently used ochre pigment from former coal mines in her own work, which has been displayed around the UK at exhibitions. 

Steven said: “This has been an inspiring initiative which has seen the collaboration of a diverse group of experts in their various multi-disciplinary fields. Seeing the Six Bells community painting their environment with this unique paint is a culturally significant moment and a great tribute to UK mining history.

You can read the full case study on the UCL Innovation and Enterprise website

John Doe

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