China has a tight grip on the rare earth elements supply chain. The country was responsible for 80% of rare earth imports in 2019, per the U.S. Geological Survey, and works in mining, processing and refining these materials into metals that are used in products like electric cars, computers, smartphones and more.
The Biden administration is taking steps to break the U.S.’s dependence on China for these materials. But companies in Massachusetts are also getting in on the action.
Woburn-based Phoenix Tailings has opened a new rare earth metal refinery in Somerville. The company claims this is the first rare earth metal refinery in the U.S., and can help reduce the need to ship U.S.-mined material to China for processing and refining. The company also said its processes produce zero toxic byproducts and zero direct carbon emissions.
“As we shift away from oil and coal and natural gas, we’re not eliminating our dependence on natural resources. We’re just shifting from carbon-based resources to metal-based resources,” said Anthony Balladon, Phoenix Tailings’ co-founder and vice president of partnership.
Phoenix Tailings’ approach relies on “tailings,” otherwise known as mining waste.
“When you have traditional mining, about 5% goes as the ore that is being targeted. The rest gets thrown away in these massive landfills. We see it as a massive opportunity because most of the heavy work of finding these resources, digging it up, doing the initial grinding and crushing has already been done,” Balladon said.
Historically, Balladon said, materials mined in the U.S. were sent away to Chinese refineries to extract rare earth metals. But these refineries weren’t very environmentally conscious.
“It’s all done using very hazardous chemicals, extremely polluting from a carbon emissions standpoint. And we said, ‘There has to be a better way to do it,’” Balladon said.
Phoenix Tailings launched in 2019 after some of the co-founders built the first prototype of their technology in a backyard in Cambridge. They were able to take waste from aluminum production and make a little bit of iron and rare earth concentrate, Balladon said.
Rare earth elements are difficult to extract from tailings, Balladon said, and chemicals and high temperatures are usually needed to separate the different components. Phoenix Tailings is using a proprietary process involving non-hazardous materials to do this work.
The company is currently producing the rare earth metals neodymium and dysprosium, which are used in high-strength magnets and nuclear reactors. Balladon said the company demonstrated product viability at pilot scale in its R&D facility. Its new Somerville site will produce 120 tons per year at full capacity.
Phoenix Tailings has raised $12 million in private capital and about $2.5 million in government funding, Balladon said.
Balladon said the company opened its refinery in Massachusetts because of the concentration of universities and material science companies, as well as the state’s forward thinking on environmental policy.
Phoenix Tailings has 18 full-time employees, but Balladon said they’ll start to grow that number as the Somerville refinery gets up and running. Ultimately, the startup wants to open other sites and use a hub-and-spoke model for expansion.
“Think of it as you have an upstream process that operates on site at the tailing site which produces a rare earth concentrate, which is 98% rare earth material, which we then ship to the facility,” Balladon said. “So, you have a centralized refinery, and then multiple tailings reprocessing sites.”