ENG Spinoff Firm Nets DOE Clean Energy Award

By Mark Dwortzan

Schematic of the SOM magnesium process, which Professor Uday Pal (ME) developed and MOxST is now commercializing.
Schematic of the SOM magnesium process, which Professor Uday Pal (ME) developed and MOxST is now commercializing.

Technology developed by Prof. Uday Pal (ME) has received a boost from the U.S. Department of Energy with a grant aimed a spurring its commercial development. Metal Oxygen Separation Technologies Inc., (MOxST), a Natick-based metals manufacturing company that’s commercializing the technology, was selected as one of six Massachusetts winners of the Industrial Energy Efficiency Grand Challenge, which targets the development of manufacturing processes and technologies that promise to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the industrial sector and enhance U.S. energy security and economic growth.

Known as solid oxide membrane (SOM) electrolysis, Pal’s technology is a novel, energy-efficient, one-step method to produce pure magnesium, the least dense engineering metal with the highest stiffness-to-weight ratio. The U.S. Automotive Materials Partnership estimates that magnesium could reduce average motor vehicle weight by 290 pounds, an achievement that would improve fuel economy by about 1.5 miles per gallon and cut petroleum demand by over $20 billion annually.

Pal developed SOM electrolysis over the past decade to produce magnesium, titanium and other metals from their oxides with minimum environmental impact and at low cost. SOM electrolysis continuously feeds magnesium oxide into a molten salt bath, where electricity splits it into magnesium metal vapor and oxygen gas in separate chambers.

“Many metals are found in nature in oxide form, such as aluminum oxide in the mineral bauxite and silicon dioxide in quartz and various sands,” MOxST Chief Technology Officer Adam C. Powell explains. “This process efficiently separates those oxides into the metal and pure oxygen gas with zero environmental emissions.”

Competing primary metal production methods emit carbon dioxide or chlorine into the atmosphere, and, in the case of magnesium, are considerably more expensive. A recent comparison of the cost of magnesium production using the SOM process with the two other most widely used processes and an additional process under development shows that the SOM process would produce magnesium at half the current cost.

MOxST will use its Grand Challenge grant of $260,000 to develop a low-cost, non-polluting recycling process based on SOM electrolysis to treat low-grade mixed-alloy and heavily oxidized post-consumer magnesium scrap and produce pure magnesium for making new auto parts.

“An environmentally clean and low-cost domestic source of magne¬sium will not only create jobs in the primary magnesium sector, but also build a magnesium economy of die-casting companies and automotive parts suppliers benefitting the transportation  sector,” said Pal.

Scaling Up Magnesium Production Capability

Co-founded with fellow MIT graduate and CEO Steve Derezinski in August 2008, and run in collaboration with Pal’s lab, MOxST has secured more than $1.7 million in government grants and investments to commercialize SOM electrolysis to extract in-demand metals from oxides. Its primary goal is to produce pure magnesium from magnesium oxide to meet the automotive industry's need for the most promising material for lighter and more efficient vehicles.

“Together with the new Grand Challenge project working on the first process capable of recycling low-grade mixed-alloy post-consumer scrap, this will be a foundation technology set for fully-recyclable light-weight vehicle structures of the 21st century,” said Powell.

MOxST’s other main objective is to use Pal’s SOM technology to produce solar-grade silicon directly from sand for solar energy systems. Utilizing a novel method to electrochemically separate sand (silicon dioxide) into silicon and pure oxygen, this carbon and chlorine-free process could avoid the significant greenhouse gas emissions and high operating costs of conventional solar-grade silicon manufacturing.

Pal’s lab at BU is actively involved in both magnesium and solar applications, and his former advisee, Soobhankar Pati (PhD, MSE’10), works for MOxST as a research engineer. They’re now contributing to the company’s effort to incorporate SOM electrolysis in commercial-grade manufacturing equipment for the automotive market, a transition that will require enlarging SOM reactor vessels more than two hundredfold.

“We're working on scaling up the SOM electrolysis process for both silicon and magnesium to tonnage scales,” said Powell. “We're looking at a 24-month timeframe to start introducing the product into the market.”

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