Silver and gold mining helped shape the economic and ecological landscapes of the Inland Northwest. Now, a Spokane-based startup company aims to apply new technology to the problem of how best to separate those precious metals from other mined materials.
MIPSolutions Inc. says the process it’s developing, which involves reusable resin beads that trap molecules of silver or gold, makes extracting those precious metals more efficient and environmentally friendly than current methods.
The company initially would seek to buy ground precious-metal concentrate from small mining operations that larger gold processors ignore, then extract silver or gold.
“The big boys are doing their own thing,” said Jeff Lamberson, company president and co-founder. “Gold is so high that stuff that was unprofitable three years ago is extremely profitable. So they’re running at capacity and they don’t want to bother with this stuff.”
But first MIPSolutions must perfect its technology and build a plant, and it faces challenges convincing an established industry that its methods will mean pay dirt.
“New technologies in an old industry are notoriously difficult or slow to grasp,” Lamberson said. “They look at me like I’m talking French.”
Licensed from Johns Hopkins University, MIPSolutions’ “molecularly imprinted polymers” technology also could be applied to remediate old mine sites or purify water of heavy metals, Lamberson said.
The company Tuesday became publicly traded on the over-the-counter market, which specializes in small-company stocks.
Lamberson hopes to raise about $600,000 to $700,000 to establish an operating facility by the end of the year, possibly to be built in Eastern Washington or North IdahoMIPSolutions previously garnered about $800,000 in investments from friends and family, he said.The fledgling company employs three people and operates out of a small office at the downtown Spokane Entrepreneurial Center. Company co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Glen Southard works at lab facilities rented in Salt Lake City. Southard helped develop the technology at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory.
“Environmentally, it’s a very, very good thing,” said Mike Urso, a principal consultant at Sirti, a technology business incubator, who is working with the company. “I think there’s a real opportunity here to make some money and to clean up the environment as well.”
Toxic substances such as cyanide, arsenic, lead and mercury can escape into the environment during processing and refining.
About half the world’s gold is leached with cyanide, forming a solution that also may contain other heavy metals, Southard said. The resulting gold can be removed from the cyanide solution using activated carbon, which also may grab other metals, he said.
MIPSolutions, however, is crafting recipes for porous materials that attract microscopic amounts of specific metals, such as gold.
In the lab, the company would essentially “glue” molecules together around synthetic “template molecules,” forming “molecularly imprinted polymers,” or MIPs, which take the shape of resin beads about 0.5 millimeters in diameter.
When the templates are removed, they leave pockets that trap a certain type of metal from a solution based on its characteristics. Different beads would trap different metals, allowing the company to isolate valuable metals or toxic substances, such as mercury, Southard said.
The captured precious metal can be removed and the beads reused, the company said. Lamberson said the company already has used MIPs to discriminate between gold and silver. He estimates it will take about 45 days to scale up the technology so the company can make 50 to 100 liters of beads at a time. It would take three 55-gallon drums of the product to produce as much as 1,000 ounces of gold a day – about $900,000 worth at current prices, he said.
The technology already can produce gold that’s about 85 percent pure, Lamberson said. But Southard will try to increase the purity.
MIPSolutions has submitted a proposal to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency small-business innovation program for reducing mercury emissions from extraction. It’s vying with 68 other firms for as much as $70,000 in first-round funding, according to the company.