Max and Carroll Ladt are doing what they can to take the lumps out of the coal business.

Ladt and his son Carroll are putting to work a process that will convert coal "fines," the dustlike residue of coal mining and processing, into an efficient fuel that can be used as a substitute for oil and natural gas in industrial boilers and furnaces.

Their Paducah, Ky.-based company, Convenient Energy Inc. (Cenergy), is building a $9-million, commercial-scale plant in Louisville, which will produce some 250,000 tons of the new fuel every year.

Although the facility won't go on line until early winter of this year, the Ladts already have commitments from industrial users -- principally chemical and construction companies -- for about three-quarters of the plant's scheduled output.

One reason these customers have been so quick to sign on is that Cenergy's product is cheap -- at least 25% less per Btu than oil and natural gas. "It's a good process because it will utilize what is normally a waste product," notes Mark McDaniel, assistant to the secretary of Kentucky's state energy agency. "And, if you're utilizing a waste product, you should be able to produce this energy at a lower cost."

Cenergy's system will work like this: Coal fines are transported by truck, rail, or river barge to the Louisville plant, where they undergo initial "beneficiation" to reduce the impurities. Then the coal fines are dried and pulverized. "It looks like black talcum powder," Carroll Ladt says of the finished product. Next the coal particles are loaded into a specially designed tractor-trailer truck. The fuel is delivered to the plant where it will be burned, and the trailer is connected to that facility's burner system. When it is empty, a new trailer is hooked up, and the spent tank is returned to Cenergy's plant for refilling.

"What we're trying to do," explains Carroll Ladt, "is make coal as convenient to use as oil and natural gas."