The creation of metals is an often forgotten but critical business involved in most modern innovations. And since startup fever is all over innovative techniques, startups are starting to spread to those slower-moving industries that can support the "disruptors." Infinium is one such startup. They've found a cheap and environmentally-clean way to make the rare earth metals neodymium and dysprosium. And these metals are important because they make magnets that are integral in the generators found in wind turbines and electric car motors.
The polluting problem is in the process of taking metal oxides (metal bound to oxygen, among other elements) and isolating the pure metal by placing the oxides in molten salt while an electric current runs through the mixture. The problem is that this process releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide. So what the researchers at Infinium have done is replace the carbon electrode, which creates the electric current and the CO2, with a ceramic material made of zirconium oxide, to obviate the carbon emissions.
This same process works for a lot of other metals too, such as aluminum, magnesium, titanium and silicon—and Infinium plans to roll out aluminum and magnesium in two years. Apparently they will be able to reduce processing costs of these latter two by 30-50 percent. This could have a huge impact on any industry depending on these metals.
For now, however, they are after the more lucrative metals like neodymium and dysprosium. Their plant opens this September and the first customer is the U.S. government. The hope is to produce 10 metric tons per year.
Of course this new process doesn't remove all environmental concerns. There are still all kinds of pollution generated from global mining. But the removal of carbon from the metal production process has been what Donald Sadoway, an MIT professor of materials science, told MIT Tech Review, is a "dream" of the metals industry.