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Engineers revive green, low-energy magnesium manufacturing process

Amit Katwala

(Credit: iStock)
(Credit: iStock)

A new version of a World War II-era process for making magnesium requires less energy and produces less pollution.

The process, developed by engineers at the University of Colorado Boulder, requires half the energy and produces a fraction of the pollution compared to today’s leading methods for producing magnesium, the metal which is used in everything from aircraft to fireworks.

The most common form of production involves combining magnesium ore with silicon and heating it to around 1200 degrees Celsius to extract the magnesium in small batches.

Aaron Palumbo, Scott Rowe and Boris Chubkov at Boulder swapped silicon out for cheap and abundant carbon, and addressed other flaws in the production process. They were able to extract magnesium continuously rather than in batches, and eliminated the solid waste that’s usually formed.

The group received funding from the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, and a spinoff company called Big Blue Technologies is working to translate the laboratory innovations into a commercial enterprise. “I'm doing it in the lab; I'm seeing the product and seeing the results,” said Chubukov, who is one of Big Blue Technologies' co-founders. “I know the potential is really there.”

The founders of Big Blue Technologies believe their technology could tip the scales back in the favour of the United States, which supplied the majority of the world’s magnesium until the late 1990s, but has been eclipsed by China.

“In our economic projections, if you built a plant in the U.S., with current energy prices and fair, first-world labor wages and benefits, we could still produce magnesium cheaper than Chinese product,” Palumbo said. “The U.S. can only begin to ‘bring back manufacturing jobs’ if there is abundant access to cheap raw materials and if we continue to lead in innovative developments for process technology.”




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