Mining creates more than 200 billion tons of waste yearly, which equals 7% of global carbon emissions. Boston-area startup Phoenix Tailings is helping to solve this problem by extracting materials for wind turbines and electric car batteries from mining waste.
The company takes rare earth metals such as nickel, iron, and neodymium from mining “tailings,” the sludge left behind when rocks are crushed. Phoenix Tailings is the only firm in the U.S. offering neodymium, a key component for making magnets.
“It’s about figuring out how we can extract the most from the waste that has already been mined,” says Anthony Balladon, the company’s co-founder. “It has already been dug out of the ground. How can we make the most of what we’ve already done rather than dig up new holes somewhere else?”
For many sites, the mining process excludes anything other than its original intent: silver, gold, or nickel. They are not set up to look for rare materials. That’s where Phoenix Tailings steps in and uses a traditional water-based mining process to find the proverbial “gold” — in this case, numerous metals and minerals.
The process also eliminates hazardous byproducts and, by using electricity, uses renewable energy. The newly-captured materials are in high demand, especially from car manufacturers who have struggled with pandemic-trigger supply chain issues and are looking for new domestic resources.
There’s also interest from mining operators who want Phoenix Tailings to remove their waste, large amounts of which have been sitting for decades.
The company’s method can also be repeated in European mining operations, opening a new supply-chain-game-changing hub previously only available in places like China and Myanmar.
“We’ve seen a big shift from large manufacturers to shift some of their supply chains away from a single source like China or Russia,” said Balladon. “There’s geopolitical aspects to this, of course, but from a purely business standpoint, people are very much realizing that you need to have secondary and even tertiary sources of a lot of your critical supplies.”
Thanks to recent funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the company is now working on a carbon-negative way to retrieve nickel from the tailings. It’s a critical component in batteries used in electric vehicles.
“There’s the potential to satisfy a significant portion of the future rare-earth metal demand just from recovery from tailings,” Balladon added. “You would augment that with some of the traditional mines that are up and running in California, that operate at the highest level of environmental standards around the world.”
“We’re looking at ultimately how we access the metals that we need to power the shift to an electrified and decarbonized economy,” he said.