Wired In: Trudy Kriven

Wired In: Trudy Kriven

Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a high-tech entrepreneur. This week, meet WALTRAUD (TRUDY) KRIVEN, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois who's CEO of KeaneTech LLC. Chalk her up as an idealist: "I want to create things that make life better for people." Her start-up is working to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and waste by creating versatile ceramic products at room temperature instead of in high-heat furnaces, which she has utilized in her lab.

What's your research group philosophy?

We try to create a stimulating and nurturing environment for each other, so that every person in the group can grow to his or her fullest potential, and discover the mysteries of our universe. We hope to make original and innovative contributions to science and engineering.

And your start-up's slogan?

KeaneTech LLC, as compared to "BoringTech LLC."

What are some of those interesting ideas?

Ceramics is the Wild West of chemistry. When you make ceramics, you have to heat them at very high temperatures for long times. But geopolymers are inorganic compounds that you make from dehydrated clay or waste material like fly ash or slag, and a silicate liquid. By high intensity mixing you get a solution, like "runny honey" that you can reinforce with basalt fibers or particulates such as sand. You pour it into a plastic mold and it sits at room temperature for about 24 hours. It looks like a ceramic, feels like a ceramic, breaks like a ceramic, but you didn't have to light a match. It's a very energy-saving way to make some ceramics.

Why is that beneficial?

It's a potential replacement for cements and a partial solution for global warming. One ton of Portland cement causes the release of about one ton of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Right now, 8 percent of the CO2 in the atmosphere comes from making cement. If you switch to geopolymers, we'd all be better off because it only produces 0.25 tons of carbon dioxide instead. Furthermore, geopolymers are twice as strong as cement in compression, three times as strong in flexure, and set to full strength in one day, as opposed to 28 days for cements. They also stick to some metals such as steel or brass, and since geopolymers are acid resistant, you can make corrosion-resistant rebars.

How did the company get started and who are your partners?

It was established in 2004. My company is a technology transition company — it transitions the technology that we develop at the UI in an attempt facilitate its commercialization. Right now, we're working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign. CERL has several potential applications for this material because it's fast-setting, and one can use basalt chopped fiber reinforcements There is also basalt on Mars which can be used to make geopolymers, so you could make geopolymer structures (such as igloos) on Mars, with the aid of a robotics machine.

A lot of people have become interested in geopolymers and started working to finance some of your work.

Yes, we now have a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the Army Corps of Engineers to develop some composite geopolymer materials.

And you have some partners.

I have a collaboration with Professor Sudarshan Krishnan in the Department of Architecture at the UI for research that could aid FEMA. We are designing rapidly deployable structures for disaster relief housing. For example, we plan to make a domed- or box-like shaped geopolymer composite structure that you just pull on it or erect it, and — hey presto! — you have a series of one-family huts or adjoining cubes that could be used to house many families. Another project is a deployable helicopter launch pad which could be folded up and moved around in trucks. If you had to drop supplies or food, you unfold the flat launch pad and the helicopter could land on it or take off. Then you fold it back up and drive it to the next place where it is needed. Right now we're at the tabletop model stage. When the professor gives us the full scale dimensions, we will make them out of geopolymer composites.

What else?

Another project is rapid road repairs. Every summer, (road repair season), we have a solution, for example for repairing a pothole in the road. We can pack a mixture of rocks and gravel in there, and continuously pour the geopolymer binder over it. The geopolymer will seep around the rocks and gravel, maybe six inches down. It could set in about two hours and the road is rapidly repaired. We have also been able to do 3-D printing of geopolymer composites, which then set at room temperature. For example, you could print a 3D mold for a screw or bolt. After the geopolymer composite has cured, you would pour molten metal into it, in the shape of a screw, for example. Then, since the metal shrinks faster than the ceramic on cooling, you could recover the metal part. This would save expensive investments in metal casting machinery, and enable you to make rapid prototypes of parts.

What have you learned from being an entrepreneur?

At first it is a bit daunting, and scary, but if you can contribute, you should try. That's what women do, you know, try to make the world better with peaceful, constructive solutions. The UI has a very helpful "start-up incubator" called Enterprise Works, which helps quite a few start-up companies, often founded or run by graduate students or postdocs, in collaboration with their professorial advisers. It is a very valuable asset and resource to this community, to nurture and guide start-up companies.

Eventually you'll be able to make all these products and become a gazillionaire?

That's not what's driving me. I'm trying to make life better for people with the knowledge we've accumulated. I doubt the gazillionaire bit.

TECH TIDBITS ... with TRUDY KRIVEN

Are you on Facebook? For my family.

Do you have any wearable electronics? Only my watch.

Book or e-reader? What are you reading? A book. I'm reading mostly technical material nowadays.

Favorite app? WhatsApp. That's part of how we share information with and keep track of our children.

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