Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Join host Paul Shapiro as he talks with some of the leading start-up entrepreneurs and titans of industry alike using their businesses to help solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Sep 1, 2020

Think about how much metal you use in your life. Your phone. Your canned drinks. Your car.

Well, for every ounce of metal in our lives, there are several ounces of often-toxic sludge left behind from the extraction process at the mine. In other words, in a car there might be a ton of aluminum, and to get that aluminum for that one car, there’s enough red mud--the industry term for the waste product of mining--to fill a swimming pool. In fact, our metal mining produces such huge volumes of these so-called tailings ponds at mining sites that there’s enough of it to cover all of California in a foot-deep pool of sludge.

Sure, plastic straws may get the attention, producing tens of thousands of tons of waste per year. But the mining industry produces tens of billions of tons of hazardous waste each year.

Now, these days if you follow the sustainable food world you hear a lot about upcycling in the food industry. We’ve even featured companies on this podcast using agricultural byproducts to make new and valuable goods. So, two young students thought, why not do the same with tailings ponds at mining sites?

After all, there’s still a lot of titanium, aluminum, iron, silica, and more importantly, rare earth metals, left behind in these ponds simply because they’re difficult to extract. But difficulty hasn’t stopped Nick Myers and Thomas Villalon from experimenting and finding a way to extract value from these ponds of mining waste. 

After successfully experimenting for months in their backyard with materials given to them by a refinery, Nick and Thomas went on to found their start-up, got accepted to the prestigious Techstars accelerator, won a quarter-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation, have filed for provisional patents on their process, and have now raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from investors. In short, they’re ready to get to work.

It’s an inspiring tale showing how some innovative folks who see solutions where others see problems can really make a positive difference in the world. I think you’ll be as impressed by Nick and Thomas as I am, so sit back and enjoy hearing the story of Phoenix Tailings as told by its cofounders.

Discussed in this episode: