Meet Three Guys Who’re Trying to Revolutionize a Dirty Industry.
A remarkable transformation of matter is happening in a windowless laboratory at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Small black pellets that look like rodent turds are turning into shiny globs of metallic magnesium.
It is the work of three young scientist-entrepreneurs, who’re trying to reinvent the production of this lightweight metal, which is an essential component for making cars more fuel efficient.
Current methods of magnesium production are highly polluting and energy intensive. Aaron Palumbo, Scott Rowe, and Boris Chubukov say they can change that. They’re the founders of Big Blue Technologies, which has spun out from CU’s engineering department.
Palumbo, the company’s CEO, is only 29, but this is his third start-up. The first involved high tech shopping carts. The second entailed clean power projects. Both failed.
This time Palumbo and his partners have serious backing, a $3.6 million grant from the U.S. government.
The black pellets are actually a blend of coke — the refinery byproduct not the soft drink — and magnesium oxide. Palumbo and his colleagues dump them into a blue electric furnace, where they’re subjected to tightly controlled cycles of heat and pressure. Soon the furnace yields magnesium, which is used in everything from auto parts to smartphones.
“We’re trying to reimagine and reinvigorate the U.S. metals industry,” says 31 year-old Rowe, a CU PhD candidate.
It is late morning in a cluttered office beside their lab in the basement of CU’s Engineering Center. Everyone in the room is young, male, slightly bearded, and dressed as if for a barbeque. An old Pat Benatar calendar hangs on the wall.
Rowe opens a deck of PowerPoint slides, the ten minute pitch he gives to would-be investors. “I’m the old man in the group so I guess that’s why I make the pitch,” he says. “Age inspires confidence. Right?”
Rowe talks about bygone days of U.S. industrial metals, clicking to a black and white image of a Pennsylvania steel mill. “That site is now a casino,” he says.
He gets to the crux of his pitch. He and his partners say they’ve discovered a pollution-slashing and low-cost method for making magnesium, with one patent application filed and two more on the way. Their value proposition is revealed in bar graphs projecting low production costs and high profit margins.
For now, though, their magnesium revolution is tenuous, living solely within spreadsheets and a lab not much larger than a suburban living room. What do they need to make a leap into the real world? For starters, about $5 million. That’s what they say it’ll take to build a mini-magnesium factory.
Evidently their technology already works at the lab scale — you can hold the metal they’ve made. The process is based on techniques pioneered in the 1930s by an Austrian chemical engineer named Fritz Hansgirg, who during World War II helped the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser build a magnesium plant in California. Hansgirg was detained under suspicion of Nazi sympathies and expelled from U.S. industry. His magnesium process was also soon discredited. The Kaiser plant was a flop and shut down after the war. Since then Hansgirg’s method of magnesium production–carbothermal reduction– has been commercially irrelevant. Wikipedia describes carbothermal magnesium production as unfeasible.
“We think we’ve figured out why it failed in the past and have engineered a new system to make it work,” says Palumbo. The trick is to efficiently cool, condense and collect hot magnesium vapor generated within the furnace. “That’s our special sauce,” he says.
The work has been funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which invests in longshot technologies in strategically important fields. Palumbo collaborated with his PhD advisor, CU professor Alan Weimer, in writing the DOE grant proposal.
Magnesium is by far the lightest structural metal, with a strength to weight ratio more than four times greater than steel. Lifting a block of it is like picking up an empty carton of milk that you’d expected to be full. For a moment the brain does not believe how little weight the arm and hand are reporting.
The Federal government has mandated an automobile fleet fuel economy of 55 miles per gallon by 2025. Better engines alone won’t get us there. Cars also need to weigh less. Increasing their magnesium content — which can be done without sacrificing safety — is one way to do that. It’s why ARPA-E is handing out millions, hoping to drive down the cost of magnesium, which is presently about seven times higher than steel.
“The majority of global magnesium production is done in China using a high emissions coal fired process called the Pidgeon Process,” says James Klausner, an ARPA-E program director. “ARPA-E is seeking alternative methods for magnesium production with low cost, low energy consumption, and low emissions that can be produced locally to enable rapid adoption for vehicle light-weighting.”
The U.S. makes only about 7% of the world’s magnesium, and all of that comes from a single plant on the western shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. That plant’s byproducts include chlorine gas and sulfuric acid, and it’s a Superfund site, although its operations are still thought to be less energy intensive than those of Chinese producers.
Suspected chlorine gas bubbles from the end of a submerged pipe at the U.S. Magnesium plant in Utah. Credit: U.S. EPA
A dried up waste lagoon neat the U.S. Magnesium. Credit: U.S. EPA
U.S Magnesium plant, the only source of domestic production. Credit: U.S. EPA
Palumbo and Rowe say their technology could yield fewer than half the greenhouse gases compared to the Utah plant and one sixth the emissions of the China-dominated Pidgeon Process. They will accomplish this, the pitch goes, with a production cost 20 percent below that of Chinese producers and nearly 40 percent below the Utah plant.
Big Blue Technologies is not the only fresh player on this stage. A handful of start-up magnesium companies from Nevada to Quebec are also trying to reinvent the industry, similarly luring investors with boasts of technical breakthroughs for lowering cost and pollution.
“What keeps me up at night?” asks Palumbo. “We haven’t secured funding and we’re a year from running out of DOE money.”
In other words, he’s confronting a problem that is so acute among capital intensive start-ups that it has a proper name: the Technological Valley of Death. This is the dreaded zone between promising laboratory results and pilot-scale plant operation. According to one estimate four of five new technologies die here.
Palumbo’s team has a lot of work to do in the coming months: build a larger production system in the lab; construct a solar energy simulator that could one day help displace the power consumed in the electric furnace; find an investor with $5 million.
“Yeah,” Palumbo says tentatively. “We’ve got some leads.”
He looks around at the lab equipment, the blue furnace, the metal samples, and the other twenty-somethings who work here. He’s trying to bust into an industry where the basic technology hasn’t shifted in generations, where annual capital budgets are tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. “We don’t have a lot of time,” he says. “But I’m confident in our technology.”
So is he considering changing the Wikipedia page that calls his technique unfeasible? He hesitates for a moment before saying no, not just yet.
Disclosure: A private business of which I am a shareholder has supplied equipment to U.S. Magnesium. Read more.
Originally published at west.energy on January 14, 2016.