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:: Startup That Recycles Toxic Sludge Wins UConn’s Wolff Competition
A startup that could rid the earth of vast cesspools of toxic sludge has won UConn’s annual Wolff New Venture Competition, and a $20,000 prize.
The entrepreneurial competition honors some of the strongest startup programs with a UConn affiliation. All five of the teams that participated have spent at least a year refining and developing their business plans under the guidance of the School of Business’ Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.
The winner, Phoenix Tailings, is developing a technology that takes hazardous waste materials—so dangerous that to touch them would burn your skin—and extracts valuable metals that are used in electronics, automobiles, defense, and manufacturing. “Our work is incredibly important,’’ said Nicholas Myers, CEO and co-founder. “If we can be successful, we can fundamentally change these pools and their impact on the regions and the communities where they exist. But we can also be a new source for how companies get raw materials. We envision a day when companies like Ford and Apple are using our materials.’’
What is ‘Red Mud’?
“Red mud” is also known as bauxite tailings or alumina refinery residues. It is a waste product composted iron oxide and other chemicals. For every ton of alumina produced in the manufacture of cars, cell phones and other popular products, another ton of residue is created.
Currently the world produces 120 million tons of this sludge, the volume of Mt. Everest, said Myers. The chemical pools are an environmental hazard. In fact, earlier this year a dam burst at a mine in Brazil, killing hundreds and unleashing an avalanche of red mud that contaminated a nearby water supply. According to environmental group Greenpeace, the nearby Paraopeba River turned dark amber and dead fish floated on the surface. “Together we’re solving this problem in a way no one has thought of before,’’ said Myers, who founded the company with Michael Martin ’17 (ENG) ’19 MS, vice president of operations. Martin, earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in material sciences from the School of Engineering. Phoenix Tailings also has a number of top material scientists as their company advisers.
The $20,000 award money will help Phoenix Tailings to build a prototype of their invention. “Most of this material that is used in our everyday lives is produced in China, so to be able to source this new supply in the U.S. would be a tremendous economic benefit and decreases our nation’s reliance on materials from another country,’’ Martin said.
The team plans to patent both the technology and the process. Using equipment that is only the size of a portable trailer, they estimate that in the first year of operation alone, they could make $3 million.
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