Canada-based startup pH7 Technologies has developed a new chemical process solution that can extract precious and critical metals, mainly platinum-group metals (PGM) from both primary and secondary sources. By utilizing an emerging branch of close-loop metallurgy called SolvoMetallurgy, pH7 provides an environmentally sustainable alternative to smelters and acid-based extraction methods.
In an interview with DIGITIMES Asia, pH7 founder and CEO Mohammad Doostmohamadi stated that the company has already built a commercially available recycling platform for spent catalysts. Their next step is to not only scale up their daily capacity but also build a pilot plant for e-waste metal extraction by 2024. They have an interest in expanding to the Taiwanese market due to Taiwan's strong electronics manufacturing sector.
Founded in 2020, pH7 Technologies is a clean tech company based out of Vancouver, Canada. It currently has over 20 employees. According to company COO Chris Adlparvar, the company completed its series A financing round in March 2023, with the goal of increasing their production capacity to five metric tons of raw input per day. The company was able to raise US$16 million, surpassing the original goal of US$12 million.
Challenges of metal extraction
pH7 prides itself as a "clean tech company" because traditionally, metal extraction is a sector that's far from being environmentally friendly. Metal extraction involves getting the precious metals from primary (mining ores, concentrates, tailings…etc.) or secondary (end-of-life chips, PCBs, e-waste, spent catalyst…etc.) sources. Traditional extraction methods are mainly smelting and acid-base solutions. The high temperatures required for smelting and the off-gassing of acid-based solutions meant that both methods produce a lot of greenhouse gases.
Doostmohamadi stated that the core of pH7's SolvoMetallurgy technology is its chemistry. They've developed and implemented a closed-loop system that can extract metals without generating any wastewater, effluent, or off-gassing, thus making their solution "both economical and environmentally sustainable."
pH7 can achieve that result because its medium does not participate in the chemical reaction; it merely hosts it. Because the medium doesn't get directly involved in the chemical reaction, most of the chemistry can be reused. According to Doostmohamadi, consumables only account for less than 2% of the overall chemistry, meaning that 98% of the medium can be reused infinitely.
Another way pH7's method avoids waste is by being very targeted. Instead of burning and melting everything down just to be able to extract the metals, pH7's solution only extracts the targeted metals. If they were to extract 100 grams of precious metal from 1 ton of material, their chemical solution only dissolves the targeted metal and leaves the remaining material untouched, which results in less waste.
pH7's main business model is that it receives end-of-life materials from its customers (mostly OEMs), extracts the metal from the materials, and gives back the metals along with a passport that proves the metal came from 100% recycling sources and has gone through a green process. This is how pH7 adds value for OEMs.
pH7 uses a Processing-as-a-Service model and charges a processing fee per ton of material as well as a certain percentage of the extracted metal, according to Doostmohamadi. In addition, pH7 also can work with partners in a variety of ways, from a centralized plant operated by pH7 itself to a joint venture to license the technology to its partners.
Right now, pH7 has two platforms. The first is a recycling platform focused on spent catalysts from vehicles and refineries. The platform consists of a pilot plant and a small, commercialized plant. The main metals they are extracting are PGMs like platinum, palladium, rhodium, iridium, and more. Currently, the pilot plant is capable of processing up to 500 kg of raw materials per day. They're currently starting construction of a second plant to be ready by Q1 2024.
The second platform has to do with electronic waste. The company has conducted a lot of trials on both the lab scale and the prototype scale in their lab in Vancouver, Canada. The samples they used were from North American and Middle Eastern recyclers. They are developing a pilot plant and expect it will go live by next year (2024). The e-waste platform can extract up to 99% of the gold, silver, copper, tin, platinum, and palladium in printed circuit boards.
Copper and hydrogen
Besides the platforms mentioned above, pH7 also has two more up-and-coming platforms that can further expand their business. They are the copper and hydrogen platforms, both expanded applications of pH7's existing extraction and recycling technology.
For copper, pH7 is focused on copper mining raw materials that are problematic for current methodologies. For copper ores, there is a cutoff grade representing the percentage of copper in ores. Ores above this cutoff grade are the only ones that can be economically extracted and sold on the market. In addition, the extraction process involves smelters, which aren't exactly environmentally friendly.
pH7's technology allows the company to do two things: extract the copper in a clean way and increase the overall supply of copper because it allows access to materials that aren't extractable now. The cutoff grade right now for copper ores is about 0.25%-0.3%. With pH7's technology, that grade can be lowered to 0.1% or even 0.05%.
Besides extracting from ores, the company is also capable of extracting copper from end-of-life electronic materials and using that copper to produce 99.9% copper cathodes that can be reused in the same products the electronic waste came from.
As with hydrogen, on the one hand, the company's recycled PGMs can be reused in hydrogen membranes and hydrogen electrolyzes. On the other hand, the company is also producing hydrogen during its copper extraction process. That hydrogen can be collected to make fuel cells that can be used to power trucks or produce electricity.
Reaching new markets
Regarding this partnership with CTA, Adlparvar pointed out that they want to break into the Taiwanese market because "Taiwan is one of the leading developers of all of the different materials they recycle", as well as the importance Taiwan placed on recycling in general. He believes that with pH7's high quantity, environmental friendliness, and cost-effectiveness, they can be a very good and inexpensive partner for Taiwan's strong OEM and PCB manufacturing sectors.
Photo: pH7 founder and CEO Mohammad Doostmohamadi Credit: pH7 Technologies