UM chemistry Professor Ed Rosenberg holds a bottle containing metal-selective composites he invented that have created layers of nickel, copper, iron and cobalt.
UM technology launches Far East factories
that pull metal from polluted streams
Chemistry Professor Ed Rosenberg never suspected the work he does in his UM laboratory would result in a large factory being built in China.
The facility, located near Shanghai, uses technology developed by Rosenberg and a company he works with, Purity Systems Inc., to extract nickel and cobalt from two streams polluted by mining activity. The factory has been in operation for three years and recently expanded.
What’s it like seeing your research have such results?
“You can’t imagine how good it makes you feel,” Rosenberg says. “It’s just been a tremendous ride. Now if we could only get this to happen in Montana, that would be something.”
A strange synchronicity of events brought Rosenberg to Montana in the first place. A Brooklyn, N.Y., native with a Ph.D. from Cornell University, he was working at California State University, Northridge, when two Missoula entrepreneurs contacted him through a mutual acquaintance about testing a resin they had created to purify drinking water. The men, both UM grads, were real estate contractor George Torp and pathologist Phil Barney. They had formed a company called Purity Systems Inc. (PSI) to advance their idea, and they wanted Rosenberg to evaluate the material. He agreed.
“The twist to this whole story is that these guys came to me,” Rosenberg says. “This is an example where the local community took advantage, if you will, of the talents that were available. So Missoula venture capitalists basically started this, and they started with a very idealistic point of view.”
That was back in 1991. About that time, Rosenberg started getting Montana Magazine unsolicited in the mail, and he randomly received a letter from Montana’s governor urging him to move to Big Sky Country. Then a UM chemistry position opened up, and, because he always had an affection for small, scenic college towns, he made the jump to campus in 1993.
“It was meant to be – the hand of fate,” Rosenberg says with a bemused chuckle.
The early PSI resin worked but wasn’t truly adaptable to large-scale industrial chemistry, he says. Simple charcoal worked nearly as well at a fraction of the cost. So with his partners’ support, Rosenberg redirected the chemistry in a direction “where you can really make money.”
The result was a chemical resin that selectively captures metals that are dissolved in water. Valuable metals are extracted, and more innocuous metals pass through.
The resin resembles salt or sand, with particles that are about half a millimeter wide. Rosenberg says the resin starts out as amorphous silica, a very porous material. A chemical is used to bind a liquid polymer to the silica, and then small molecules are placed on the polymer to make it selective for a particular metal or group of metals.
“The process of doing that required a fair amount of research,” he says. “There are some little tricks we came up with.”
When Rosenberg first came to UM, he was mainly an organometallic chemist trying to understand and improve catalysts for the energy industry. He became involved with PSI at about the time the National Science Foundation generally shifted to funding research with more practical applications. He says switching his focus toward studying and improving the resin has allowed him to maintain nearly uninterrupted support from NSF since 1983. Such continuous support is rare among U.S. scientists.
Rosenberg says investors “threw good money after bad” in the early years of PSI. The first UM patents licensed to PSI were approved in 1997. Then after he became a minority partner in the company, their luck changed. Around 2000, an Australian mine-testing company called Ammtec became interested in the UM technology and eventually purchased a controlling interest in PSI. The original investors and Rosenberg finally got a payday for their investment and work.
“That’s when the project really started to take off,” he says, “because that company had the connections, the know-how and the equipment to make things happen.”
In 2002, PSI became one of the first tenants of MonTEC, a UM-affiliated business incubator located across the Clark Fork River from campus. Company research and development in cooperation with UM takes place at MonTEC. Caroline Hart, the lead PSI chemist there for the past 10 years, came out of Rosenberg’s lab. The company now employs about 10 people, with two full-time chemists and one part-time. Rosenberg also now has four graduate students and two undergraduates working on related projects in his lab.
“What’s been really gratifying for me is that I’ve come up with an idea in the lab – a better or cheaper product – and the company adopted it right away,” he says. “It’s really exciting to do something in the lab and see it immediately adopted into a commercial process.”
Rosenberg says the commercial projects using his technology build huge reactor columns filled with enormous amounts of the resin. One project in China eventually will use 20 cubic meters of the materials and will be able to treat 800 cubic meters of fluid per hour.
“The product will be nickel,” he says. “You fill the column with fluid, then you rinse and then you strip it with an acid. This can produce nickel sulfate or nickel carbonate, or you can run electricity through the solution to do electroplating.”
He says Ammtec has assisted with three projects in China: the aforementioned factory near Shanghai and two smaller facilities that are cleaning mine streams for nickel and cobalt. There also have been two projects in Australia.
“We realized early on that no company will use our material unless they can make money on it,” Rosenberg says. “But at the same time companies are under pressure by government agencies to clean up their wastewater. So it’s a real carrot-and-stick.”
The future of PSI is in flux right now, as Ammtec recently experienced a hostile takeover by another company. He says PSI has yet to turn a profit on its products and might end up being sold again.
“I really think the technology has advanced far enough that the company will survive,” he says, “but only time will tell. We made money on the sale of the company, and now we are trying to make money on the products. And it’s progressing.”
What Rosenberg would really love to see is a Montana factory spawned by his research. He says a bench-scale project in his lab showed the technology could cleanse the rising acid lake in Butte’s Berkeley Pit.
“The company looked at it and said there really isn’t enough copper in the water to make money on it,” he says. “Yeah, it’s a question of the economics involved, but I think we could do the job.”
Another demonstration project included helping clean Belt Creek near Great Falls, though that involved no valuable metals. Rosenberg’s lab also collaborated with a team from Carroll College to clean an incredibly contaminated stream in Helena. But so far no major Montana commercial project has come along that would require massive amounts of the resin. He hopes that happens in the future.
In the meantime Rosenberg’s current research involves trying to shrink his resin particles to the nanoscale. The particles could then be placed on a plastic membrane, which is a better option for certain applications than the huge reactor columns. He also is working with J.B. Alexander “Sandy” Ross, associate dean of the UM Graduate School, to place glowing molecules on the composite resin, allowing them to sense the presence of the metals for nanotechnology purposes.
Rosenberg says the technology he works on resulted from the dream of two Missoula entrepreneurs.
“They brought their dream to me, and now it has become a reality,” he says. “It’s not making money hand over fist yet, but they got their money back, and they both hope the company will become a viable business that really makes a difference.”
— By Cary Shimek
This plant near Shanghai, China, produces materials based on UM technology that are used in environmental remediation around the world.
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