A 'Rare' Opportunity
Most readers make stuff from metals or make equipment to make that stuff. So, let’s look at what and where we get some of the more unusual metals, most of which are scarce and costly. I’m specifically talking about rare earth (RE) metals, which are used in catalysts, electronics, lasers, magnets, medical devices and batteries.
You probably haven’t thought about it, but consider that a coal-ash pond or well brine waters typically contain three times the value in RE metals compared to the thermal energy value of the extracted fuel. In 2016, the U.S. consumed over 800 million tons of coal. Ash is stored in ponds and landfills and is a hazardous liability. Since 2011, China has supplied over 96% of U.S. and 85% of RE world demand.
Lately, China has threatened severance of RE supplies to the U.S., as highlighted in China’s 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020). Most greenies have no clue that many high-end wind turbines each require up to 4,400 pounds of neodymium-based magnet materials. Now consider lithium used in car batteries, where demand is expected to reach 570,000 tons annually by 2025. Lithium production is traditionally done via solar evaporation of those coal sludge ponds or well brine waters and is both time-consuming and very inefficient. When the desired RE or lithium is finally concentrated in the waste water, metal extraction is required via separate processing.
The Department of Energy has been looking at ways to enhance these metal-extraction means at its five National Energy Technology Laboratory sites. Suppose you learned that a Canadian company is far ahead of DOE work and has developed technology that reduces the time it takes to create the solute from the waters that contain enhanced contents of the desired metals by 99%. An American company that can do this is seeking partners to first demonstrate on a non-laboratory scale and then assist in the licensed commercialization of it, through whatever means makes sense to the agreeing parties. Here is a short descriptor.
The achievement here is the production of ionic metal solutes of reagent-grade purity directly from the petro-brines (1,000,000 wells in the U.S. alone), mine-water runoff and coal ash in wet and dry impoundments (1.5 billion tons stockpiled in the U.S. from the last 120 years of coal use). The trick is to use a long-lasting, electrically conductive ceramic electrode that is configured in a way to channelize a fast-flowing, desired ion-containing liquid through a “mass transfer membrane,” or electrolytic capillary polymer membrane. An external electric field blocks solvation complexes but preferentially admits and directionally transports desired metal ions.
What this is saying is that multiple layers of a fibrous, soft, inert film with appropriate micro-channels immersed in an ion-rich water can selectively concentrate metal material five orders of magnitude in 48 hours. Mass transport through this membrane operating at higher currents and voltages without corrosion can produce high concentrations of selected RE metals or other metal products.
What is remarkable about this process is that it promises to be inexpensive to make and use. The benefit for U.S. industry is for mega-tonnages of metal-rich liquid solutes that can be efficiently processed to metals at low capital cost and low energy consumption, providing sources of sorely needed industrial metals such as REs and lithium.
The American company owning intellectual property for this remarkable process is seeking other participants in the real-world scale of metals recovery from industrial-waste pond sites and on a demonstration basis at the outset. The technology owner’s interest is in seeing a full-scale demonstration followed by multiple operating extraction sites. One large American conglomerate has expressed interest and intends to provide a demonstration covering the few metals of interest to their industrial sector to be followed by appropriate production.
This topic is summarized here for the benefit of readers, whose response to firstname.lastname@example.org will result in direct referral to members of the intellectual-property owner and development team. Inquiries are welcome. You are not going to see something like this again for a long time.