Albuquerque, New Mexico - It's black as coal, green at both ends.

But it isn't coal. It's Lithocoal, a new product causing a stir in the art world.

The synthetic charcoal was invented in Albuquerque by a 22-year-old artist seeking a new look in lithography.

Lithocoal draws like charcoal, smooth and smudgy. But there is no need for aerosol fixatives to preserve the picture - fixatives that include benzene, acetone and other toxic chemicals.

Lithocoal fixes, meaning it no longer smudges, with heat - 30 seconds at 107°C in a conventional oven.

Unlike brittle charcoal for which artists pay $2 (R12) a stick, environmentally friendly Lithocoal retails for $1,75 apiece. It's made from a plastic powder that was industrial waste before Joseph D'Uva and partner Robert Houston got their fingerprints all over it.

"We're recycling 100 percent of this material; we have no waste. We don't use any water in our process," says Houston. "It's green on both ends - green because of what we use, and also because of what you're not going to use."

With help from graduate business students at the University of New Mexico, the partners formed D'Uva Fine Artists Materials Inc., filed patents, secured international contracts, designed and built the machinery in their production line, packaged, shipped and promoted their product starting last February.

D'Uva was studying at Albuquerque's Tamarind Institute when he created Lithocoal from a powder used there for lithography, a print-making technique. The powder was thrown away by a plastic-coating company.

D'Uva wondered: What if someone made a stick of this?

"I was doing a lot of research at Tamarind, just kind of playing around with stuff," D'Uva, now 25, said from the University of Iowa where he is pursuing a master's degree in art. "I wanted this very 'charcoal' look (for lithography), and I wanted to apply it the way charcoal would be applied."

He puttered with the smudgy soot, finally coming up with his patented process. He went to Houston, a sculptor at UNM, to help make forms to mould more sticks.

When they ran out of litho plates for testing prototypes, they used drawing paper. The stick drew and smudged just like charcoal.

"We looked at each other and said 'Omigod'," D'Uva recalls.

Lithocoal fixes to just about anything - frosted glass, metal, stone, cloth, wood, ceramics.

D'Uva and Houston took the project to Armand Winfield, a research professor at UNM specialising in plastics and in creating businesses. Winfield guided them through the intricacies of patent law, helped line up international contracts and seek investors.

Now, eight months later, Lithocoal is sold in England, Australia, Canada and the United States.

"The response to Lithocoal so far has been tremendous," reports Viv Arthur, who co-runs a British mobile art supplier, Art Van Go, which sold 300 boxes in six weeks.

Houston has produced 40 000 sticks so far, of which 36 000 have been shipped. He expects production to hit 75 000 by February, ending the first year.

The US art materials market is estimated at $1,3-billion a year, Houston said, "and our (10-year) sales goal is $10-million to $12-million annual".

In the United States, Lithocoal is marketed by one of the nation's largest art distributors, McPhersons, based in the San Francisco area. McPherson's president Frank Stapleton acknowledges it's always a tough challenge for a new product, but of Lithocoal he said: "I think it's pretty cool, actually. It's so different. Once you tell the whole story, the possibilities open up and people's eyes definitely open wide."

Stapleton says he stocked thousands of Lithocoal boxes in about 250 stores.

Rachel Popowcer, who teaches drawing at UNM, had Houston do a class demonstration. "I think it's amazing," she said of Lithocoal, which she plans to use on under-drawings for her paintings.

"Spray fix really makes me ill," she added.

Several students planned to buy. Student Vincent Fusconi said he would use Lithocoal on his current class project.

"I'm very intrigued with it," Fusconi said. "I'll probably use it as a charcoal substitute. It feels identical to vine (branch) charcoal."

He added: "It's nice to see one man's waste become another man's treasure."

Would there be objections from art purists?

Ellen Landis, curator of art at the Albuquerque Museum, didn't think so.

"There are new products all the time. Look at acrylics," she said. "I don't see a problem with it."

At Tamarind, lithography shop manager Bill Lagattuta said it will be used more for charcoal drawing than for lithography.

"I think it's good for a lot of things, and the drawing part is really great," Lagattuta said.

Winfield, the company's mentor at UNM, is impressed with the way his young artists became businessmen, especially Houston, just 30.

"He's an amazing young man. He handles himself very, very well. He knew he needed help in business and in the development of the product," Winfield said, "so he looked for help. That's my business, helping people take a concept from inception into the marketplace."

They unveiled Lithocoal at trade shows in England and America. It was one of the hits of the National Art Materials Trade Association Show in Chicago last April, said George Bussinger, an Ohio art materials retailer and NAMTA board member. It's featured at the Art Methods and Materials Show this month in Pasadena, California.

Next month, D'Uva Fine Artists Materials plans to introduce a 10-colour line of synthetic pastels made from the same material. - Sapa-AP