Surface and bulk characterization of an ultrafine South African coal fly ash with reference to polymer applications
South African coal-fired power stations produce about 25 million tons of fly ash per annum, of which only approximately 5% is currently reused. A growing concern about pollution and increasing landfill costs stimulates research into new ways to utilize coal fly ash for economically beneficial applications. Fly ash particles may be used as inorganic filler in polymers, an application which generally requires the modification of their surface properties. In order to design experiments that will result in controlled changes in surface chemistry and morphology, a detailed knowledge of the bulk chemical and mineralogical compositions of untreated fly ash particles, as well as their morphology and surface properties, is needed. In this paper, a combination of complementary bulk and surface techniques was explored to assess the physicochemical properties of a classified, ultrafine coal fly ash sample, and the findings were discussed in the context of polymer application as fillers. The sample was categorized as a Class F fly ash (XRF). Sixty-two percent of the sample was an amorphous glass phase, with mullite and quartz being the main identified crystalline phases (XRD, FTIR). Quantitative carbon and sulfur analysis reported a total bulk carbon and sulfur content of 0.37% and 0.16% respectively. The spatial distribution of the phases was determined by 2D mapping of Raman spectra, while TGA showed a very low weight loss for temperatures ranging between 25 and 1000 °C. Individual fly ash particles were characterized by a monomodal size distribution (PSD) of spherical particles with smooth surfaces (SEM, TEM, AFM), and a mean particle size of 4.6 μm (PSD). The BET active surface area of this sample was 1.52 m2/g and the chemical composition of the fly ash surface (AES, XPS) was significantly different from the bulk composition and varied considerably between spheres. Many properties of the sample (e.g. spherical morphology, small particle size, thermal stability) appeared to be suitable for its applicability as filler in polymers, although the wide variation in surface composition between individual particles may challenge the development of a suitable surface modification technique. The observation that the bulk and surface compositions of the particles were so intrinsically different, strongly suggested that surface characterization is important when considering compatibility between matrices when applying fly ash as filler in polymers.