Grantee with Midas touch speaks at NIEHS
By Eddy Ball
As his company develops equipment for extracting metals from toxic acid rock drainage (ARD), with the potential for turning hazardous waste water into copper, zinc, and other valuable metals or useful compounds such as iron sulfate, NIEHS grantee Patrick James, Ph.D., has taken to heart the environmental concept of sustainability.
As James told his audience during a talk at NIEHS March 9, “Our paradigm is to treat ARD as a resource, not a waste.” If the equipment ultimately performs as expected — and early results are very promising — James’ company, Blue Planet Strategies, LLC (BPS), could become instrumental in cleanup efforts at orphaned legacy mines, extend the profitable life of mines in the U.S., and possibly make James and his partners wealthy men.
The host of James’ talk was NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) Health Scientist Administrator Heather Henry, Ph.D. Most of the people in James’ audience were NIEHS grant administrators managing opportunities with the NIH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBTT) program . Funded by a set-aside portion of an agency’s extramural budget, the program fosters research and development projects that further the agency’s mission and show a potential for commercialization.
SBIR funds startup
SBIR funding would help get the prototype off the ground, the developers reasoned, but it would still need private sector demand to fully develop extraction potential. “If it’s not economically viable,” James explained, “it’s not going to get out the door.” So developers set about enhancing a proprietary method for extraction, using a single-electrode, two-step electrowinning/electroplating procedure that would cost less to operate than the value of materials it reclaimed from wastewater.
Because of regulatory and legal concerns, Blue Planet decided to use samples from operating mines that were similar in composition to waste water at the Summitville Superfund site . That approach would simultaneously demonstrate the procedure’s potential for toxic metal remediation and its value for the private sector.
The equipment was originally developed around copper extraction. Recent upgrades have greatly expanded its range of utility, and initial tests on ARD targeted iron sulfate recovery, because iron is a common ARD contaminant present in large amounts, but is not of sufficient value, in itself, to warrant recovery of the metal, James explained.
In initial efforts, the cost of production was $350 per ton, while market value of the extracted ferrous sulfate was $700 per ton. Ferrous sulfate is a high-value product widely used in a variety of industrial processes, including textile manufacturing, water treatment, printing, and agriculture.
James said he hopes to reduce production cost to around $200 per ton as the equipment is scaled to increase the treatment volume to as much as 2,000 gallons per minute.
The private sector has a compelling interest in the extraction technique for turning what is currently waste into additional revenue and extending the lives of existing mines in the U.S., where the purest ores are quickly becoming depleted. “Because of high closure costs, nobody wants to shut down mines,” James explained. Furthermore, getting permits for new mines takes years, and the costs are also enormous.
“So they’re very, very interested,” James said. Augmenting existing processing facilities with BPS technology will enable the use of vast quantities of waste quality ore for copper production, while consuming about half as much energy as conventional processing. The augmentation would be economically viable, as long as copper stays above $2 per pound. The process could double the life as well as the production capacity of existing mines, thus reducing the need for imported ore and new mine development.
James is hoping that with a proven prototype, his new technology will find its place in Superfund cleanup, once legal and regulatory issues are worked out. As an entrepreneur, he is also striving to achieve a healthy return on his company’s investment of time, ingenuity, and capital.