SiTration uses silicon wafers to recover critical minerals from mining waste

Brendan Smith didn’t set out to be in the critical minerals business. At first, he thought his high-tech filters would be good at desalination. But it was difficult to beat existing systems, so he and his adviser, MIT professor Jeffrey Grossman, quickly ruled it out. After a few years «where we were kind of on purpose,» they found themselves in a completely different industry: mining.

The production of critical minerals is not a pretty business. Take copper, for example: the world uses about 25 million tonnes of copper per year, and more buildings, electronics and electric vehicles mean that demand growth is expected 24% in the next decade. Every ton of copper ore collected leaves its surroundings behind 100-150 tons from waste.

That’s a lot of waste, so much so that some mines have run out of room for tailings, which contain toxic chemicals and byproducts that remain after valuable minerals are removed.

«If you don’t have the land to build more ponds like this, you don’t have a lot of options,» Smith told TechCrunch. Moreover, since these lakes are open to the weather, rain and snow turn what could be a solvable problem into a never-ending one.

For many mine operators, waste handling is an expensive part of the business. But Smith and Grossman’s company, SiTration, has a different proposition: Use their equipment to treat wastewater and collect more minerals in the process.

«If you can do it at a low cost, effectively — which we can do — you can offset some of the remediation costs or even make a little profit from that operation,» he said.

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The key, Smith said, is silicon. SiTration’s filters are built on the same style of wafers used to make computer chips and solar panels, although they use a cheaper type of silicon. To turn the tiles into filters, Smith and Grossman tweaked an existing chemical treatment to carve tiny pores into them. The resulting material is more durable than existing membranes and, depending on what it filters, should last at least three years, Smith said.

In the finished system, the company stacks a series of tiles on top of each other and allows the flow of liquid. For a larger mining site, the company would use about as much silicon as a medium-sized solar farm, Smith said.

Because silicon is a semiconductor, SiTration can send an electrical current through the filters to make them even more effective for a range of minerals, including platinum, lithium, cobalt and nickel.

Although SiTration starts with mining waste, including a pilot project with Rio Tinto, also presents its filtration systems to battery recycling companies and metal refiners. In the case of metal refining, Smith said his company’s filters eliminate the need for heat while reducing chemical use by up to 95%.

SiTration’s core technology remains the same for every industry it sells to, Smith said. «We can deliver the same box to more partners and customers.»

To help build more boxes, the company has raised an $11.8 million seed round led by 2150 with participation from Azolla Ventures, BHP Ventures, E14 Fund, Extantia and Orion Industrial Ventures.

In the coming years, the company plans to implement its filtration systems with partners in various industries. Depending on the size of the business using them, Smith said, «it could represent a very early demonstration for a very high-volume mining partner or fairly close to a commercial demonstration for a platinum group metals refiner.»

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