We all know that processing of ores-metal oxides in order to convert them into the metals we use on a daily basis, is a very dirty job. Not only the process is associated with a release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases, but it is also very expensive.
Of course, no one can expect that the scientific and engineering communities would just let this be. The guys behind the start-up Infinum, a spin-off of Boston University, are finally ready to hit the market with their brand new production method of the good old metals, but this time made in a new and improved, much cheaper and cleaner way.
In order to “greenify” the process of turning ore into metals, the guys looked into ways to replace the carbon electrodes that are part of a bigger system, which usually runs electricity through molten salt, placed in a bath, which also contains the raw materials. The new approach uses a special ceramic material, which does the same job as the electrodes, minus the emissions. In addition, the team replaced the molten salts as well, so that they do not react with key oxides in the process of making metals.
The technology was found to work perfectly well not only for making the well known magnesium and aluminium, but also the much more expensive and highly desired rare earth metals. Of course, the makers went directly for the latter, as these currently sell at a much higher rate, but the guys are not neglecting the possibility to bring some cleaner and cheaper regular metals to the market soon.
The makers claim that they are able to produce around half a ton of rare earth metals per year with their first machine, which is being put in operation this month. Later on this year, however, they will start using a second one, which will be capable of making much more, and bring sufficient profit.
Although the process cannot be seen as the ultimate solution to the incredible damage that mining does to the environment, it still contributes to cleaner production. The only small problem that the guys might face is to ensure that the ceramic electrodes that are made during the small-scale testing, would be just as good once the production increases.
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