Excess methane gas and nuisance clay transform into high-end ceramic tiles
Redstone’s Coal Basin recently received money to study excess methane gas seeping from the coal mines. However, Chris Caskey, founder of Particular Tile and the Delta Brick & Climate Company, has long been interested in what the potentially hazardous methane could do.
He’s a scientist-turned-entrepreneur and holds a doctorate in applied chemistry from Colorado School of Mines. Prior to learning ceramics manufacturing, he was a research assistant professor in chemical engineering at School of Mines.
“I sat on a stakeholder group, and they would meet to discuss what to do with methane gas from old coal mines in the area, focusing on Somerset and Paonia,” he said. “We looked at active and abandoned coal mines. That group had the idea to use the energy contained in the methane to power some ceramics manufacturing.”
Ceramics is clay plus heat. The heat would be fueled by the excess methane gas trapped at the mining sites. And then there is the clay.
“We have nuisance clay from clogging our irrigation on the Western Slope. The methane working group, which included coal miners, concerned farmers, conservationists, and public officials identified the excess sediment flowing into a Paonia reservoir in Colorado’s North Fork Valley as a potential opportunity in 2017,” Caskey said.
The reservoir stores essential water used to irrigate farms, ranches, and vineyards downstream. Sediment accumulation over decades caused capacity loss in the reservoir and threatened the water supply for an agricultural-based community.
He took this clay and went to the National Brick Research Center at Clemson University.
“I brought my bag of red clay and they said it was good. They told me the machines to buy to make the ceramics and it snowballed from here,” he added.
As a contract scientist at National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a materials science consultant, and a mountaineering guide in his prior career, he was able to combine all those resources to develop Delta Brick & Climate Company that debuted in 2019.
In 2022, he officially launched his tile brand dedicated to customized and sustainable ceramic tile, Particular Tile. Headquartered in Montrose, the 2,000-square-foot-factory space is now a showroom and open to the public.
The tiles are made from a red clay sediment, very similar to Spring Valley or Red Hill outside Carbondale.
“We’re super passionate about the clay we gather. It exemplifies the American West. These tiles mean something about heritage. We hope we are paying respect to the energy of the clay through the products we create,” said Nancy Ihlenfeldt, director of brand, marketing & sales at Particular Tile.
The re-creation of the two Western Slope products is high-end terra cotta tile that is hand-sculpted and made to order, and in demand around the Roaring Fork Valley.
“We’ve got great partners in the area, including the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), who are awesome collaborators on methane issues. Our number one clientele geographic is the Roaring Fork Valley. We do projects all over — Denver, Rochester, South Korea — but the Roaring Fork Valley has been our greatest outlet,” said Caskey.
The decorative tile can be found in bathrooms and focal points such as hearths and backsplashes.
“We do both commercial and residential projects. We did a café space in Paonia and just finished a home (area) with our hexagon floor tiles,” added Ihlenfeldt.
Decorative Materials in Basalt has been carrying the line since the get-go.
“Two years ago, we toured Chris’ factory as a company. It’s so intimate and amazing. He walked us through the whole process — from the buckets used to remove silt from the reservoir, to how they extrude and cut each individual tile and how they glaze the tile,” said Jackie Lapid, design consultant for Decorative Materials.
She added, “We brought in a bunch of their tiles to present to designers, architects, and homeowners, and people have fallen in love with the handcrafted nature of the tile, the environmental factors, and the two-hour locality to the project.”
Her team just completed a seven-bathroom home in Aspen in which Particular Tile is on the floor of every single bathroom with a unique color and pattern.
“Their custom capability is exceptional for the size of the operation,” she said.
Her colleague from their Edwards’ office also recently completed a kitchen remodel in Vail using Caskey’s tiles.
It’s not just homeowners and designers that have taken notice of the intricate process, sustainability, and originality; Patagonia wrote about Caskey and his company in their workwear stories.
“The Patagonia article connected us to a lot of like-minded people that share our passion for the environment and also for beauty. We were flooded with inquiries from all over the country, some of whom wanted to work with us on tile installations, and some who just wanted to let us know that they believed in what we were doing. The Patagonia audience is very gracious and supportive,” said Ihlenfeldt.
Along with her, Caskey, and a handful of contractors, Nina Steigele, director of operations, is in charge of making every tile that Particular Tile creates.
“We’re a small community; even our legacy from heritage brands in Italy, it was always a small community of truly handmade tile artisans. Most tile is now pretty automated; we’re as hands-on, eco-friendly, and unique as it comes,” said Caskey.
There is no local competitor for re-captured, methane-heated, reclaimed-clay tile, so there’s no comparison for the true demand. Nonetheless, the sustainability and originality of the tile is proving to be a more popular choice.
Caskey currently sits on the board of the Colorado Electric Transmission Authority. He was previously board chair for the Western Slope Conservation Center based in Paonia.