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Modern Electro/Thermochemical Advances in Light Metals Systems

The projects that comprise ARPA-E's METALS program, short for "Modern Electro/Thermochemical Advances in Light Metal Systems," aim to find cost-effective and energy-efficient manufacturing techniques to process and recycle metals for lightweight vehicles and aircraft. Processing light metals such as aluminum, titanium, and magnesium more efficiently would enable competition with incumbent structural metals like steel to manufacture vehicles and aircraft that meet demanding fuel efficiency standards without compromising performance or safety.
For a detailed technical overview about this program, please click here.  

Alcoa, Inc.

Energy Efficient, High Productivity Aluminum Electrolytic Cell with Integrated Power Modulation and Heat Recovery

Alcoa is designing a new, electrolytic cell that could significantly improve the efficiency and price point of aluminum production. Conventional cells reject a great deal of waste heat, have difficulty adjusting to electricity price changes, and emit significant levels of CO2. Alcoa is addressing these problems by improving electrode design and integrating a heat exchanger into the wall of the cell. Typically, the positive and negative electrodes--or anode and cathode, respectively--within a smelting cell are horizontal. Alcoa will angle their cathode, increasing the surface area of the cell and shortening the distance between anode and cathode. Further, the cathode will be protected by ceramic plates, which are highly conductive and durable. Together, these changes will increase the output from a particular cell and enable reduced energy usage. Alcoa's design also integrates a molten glass (or salt) heat exchanger to capture and reuse waste heat within the cell walls when needed and reduce global peak energy demand. Alcoa's new cell design could consume less energy, significantly reducing the CO2 emissions and costs associated with current primary aluminum production.

BlazeTech Corp.

Hyperspectral Imaging for the Identification of Light Metals

BlazeTech is developing advanced sorting software that uses a specialized camera to distinguish multiple grades of light metal scrap by examining how they reflect different wavelengths of light. Existing identification technologies rely on manual sorting of light metals, which can be inaccurate and slow. BlazeTech's sorting technology would identify scrap metal content based on the way that each light metal appears under BlazeTech's sorting camera, automating the sorting process and enabling more comprehensive metal recycling. The software developed under this program will be used to dramatically improve existing metal sorting systems. This technology offers great potential to improve the efficiency of light metals recycling, as similar techniques have proven successful in other industries, including vegetation surveying and plastics identification.

Case Western Reserve University

Novel Titanium Electrowinning Process Using Specialized Segmented Diaphragms

Case Western Reserve University is developing a specialized electrochemical cell that produces titanium from titanium salts using a series of layered membranes. Conventional titanium production is expensive and inefficient due to the high temperatures and multiple process steps required. The Case Western concept is to reduce the energy required for titanium metal production using an electrochemical reactor with multiple, thin membranes. The multi-membrane concept would limit side reactions and use one third of the energy required by today's production methods.

Energy Research Company

Development of an Integrated Minimill for the Aluminum Industry: From Scrap to Product in One Step

Energy Research Company (ERCo) is developing an automated Aluminum Integrated Minimill (AIM) that can produce finished components from mixed metal scrap. Unlike most current approaches, ERCo's AIM can distinguish and accurately sort multiple grades of aluminum scrap for recycling. ERCo's AIM reduces energy consumption in several ways. First, the technology would provide real-time feedback controls to improve the accuracy of the sorting process. The sorted scrap is then melted and cast. Further, ERCo's design replaces the inefficient dryers used in conventional processes with advanced, high-efficiency equipment. ERCo's AIM enables significantly more efficient and less expensive scrap sorting and aluminum recovery for casting.

Gas Technology Institute

Dual Electrolyte Extraction Electro-Refinery for Light Metal Production

Gas Technology Institute (GTI) is developing a continuously operating cell that produces low-cost aluminum powder using less energy than conventional methods. Conventional aluminum production is done by pumping huge electrical currents into a vat of molten aluminum dissolved in mineral salts at nearly 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. GTI's technology occurs near room temperature using reusable solvents to dissolve the ore. Because GTI's design relies on chemical dissolution rather than heat, its cells can operate at room temperature, meaning it does not suffer from wasteful thermal energy losses associated with conventional systems. GTI's electrochemical cell could also make aluminum production significantly less expensive by using less costly, domestically available ore with no drop in quality.

iMetalx Group, LLC

Advanced Titanium Electrowinning Using Alternative Ores

iMetalx is scaling up an advanced electrochemical process to produce low-cost titanium from domestic ore. While titanium is a versatile and robust structural metal, its widespread adoption for consumer applications has been limited due to its high cost of production. iMetalx is developing an new electrochemical titanium production process that avoids the cyclical formation of undesired titanium ions, thus significantly increasing the electrical current efficiency. iMetalx will test different cell designs, reduce unwanted side reactions to increase energy efficiency, and minimize the heat loss that occurs when processing titanium. By developing a scalable and stable electrochemical cell, iMetalx could significantly reduce the costs and energy consumption associated with producing titanium.


Clean Efficient Aluminum Oxide Electrolysis with SOM Inert Anodes

INFINIUM is developing a technology to produce light metals such as aluminum and titanium using an electrochemical cell design that could reduce energy consumption associated with these processes by over 50%. The key component of this innovation lies within the anode assembly used to electrochemically refine these light metals from their ores. While traditional processes use costly graphite anodes that are reacted to produce CO2 during refining, INFINIUM's anode can use much cheaper fuels such as natural gas, and produce a high-purity oxygen by-product. Revenue from this by-product could significantly affect aluminum production economics. Traditional cell designs also waste a great deal of heat due to the necessity of keeping the reactor open to the air while contaminated CO2 rapidly exits the chamber. Since INFINIUM's anode keeps the oxygen or CO2 anode gas away from the main reactor chamber, the entire system may be far more effectively insulated.

Materials & Electrochemical Research (MER) Corporation

Advanced Electrolytic Titanium Powder Production from Titanium Oxycarbide

Materials & Electrochemical Research (MER) is scaling up an advanced electrochemical process to produce low-cost titanium from domestic ore. While titanium is a versatile and robust structural metal, its widespread adoption for consumer applications has been limited due to its high cost of production. MER is developing an new electrochemical titanium production process that avoids the cyclical formation of undesired titanium ions, thus significantly increasing the electrical current efficiency. MER will test different cell designs, reduce unwanted side reactions to increase energy efficiency, and minimize the heat loss that occurs when processing titanium. By developing a scalable and stable electrochemical cell, MER could significantly reduce the costs and energy consumption associated with producing titanium.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Catalyzed Organo-Metathetical (COMET) Process for Magnesium Production from Seawater

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is developing a radically new process to produce magnesium from seawater. Today's methods are energy intensive and expensive because the magnesium concentration in seawater is so low that significant energy is needed to evaporate off water and precipitate magnesium chloride salt. Further, conventional technologies involve heating the salt to 900°C and then using electric current to break the chemical bond between magnesium and chlorine to produce the metal. PNNL's new process replaces brine spray drying with a low-temperature, low-energy dehydration process. That step is combined with a new catalyst-assisted process to generate an organometallic reactant directly from magnesium chloride. The organometallic is decomposed to magnesium metal via a proprietary process at temperatures less than 300°C, thus eliminating electrolysis of magnesium chloride salt. The overall process could be significantly less expensive and more efficient than any conventional magnesium extraction method available today and uses seawater as an abundant, free resource.

Palo Alto Research Center

Probing Alloys for Rapid Sorting Electrochemically (PARSE)

Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is developing an advanced diagnostic probe that identifies the composition of light metal scrap for efficient sorting and recycling. Current sorting technologies for light metals are costly and inefficient because they cannot distinguish between different grades of light metals for recycling. Additionally, state-of-the-art electrochemical probes rely on aqueous electrolytes that are not optimally suited for separating light metal scrap. PARC's probe, however, uses a novel liquid, which enables a chemical reaction with light metals to represent their alloy composition accurately. A probe that is more accurate than existing methods could separate scrap based on alloy quality to obtain low-cost, high-quality aluminum.

Phinix, LLC

Production of Primary Quality Magnesium and Al-Mg Alloys from Secondary Aluminum Scraps

Phinix is developing a specialized cell that recovers high-quality magnesium from aluminum-magnesium scrap. Current aluminum refining uses chlorination to separate aluminum from other alloys, which results in a significant amount of salt-contaminated waste. Rather than using the conventional chlorination approach, Phinix's cell relies on a three-layer electrochemical melting process that has proven successful in purifying primary aluminum. Phinix will adapt that process to purify aluminum-magnesium scrap, recovering magnesium by separating that scrap based on the different densities within its mix. Phinix's cell could offer increased flexibility in managing costs because it can handle scrap of various chemical compositions, making use of scrap that is currently in low demand. With a more efficient design, the cell can recover and reuse aluminum-magnesium scrap at low cost with minimal waste.

Research Triangle Institute

High Operating Temperature Transfer and Storage (HOTTS) System for Light Metal Production

Research Triangle Institute (RTI) is developing a high-quality concentrating solar thermal energy transport and storage system for use in light metals manufacturing. A challenge with integrating renewable energy into light metals manufacturing has been the need for large quantities of very high temperature heat. RTI's technology overcomes this challenge with a specialized heat transfer powder. This powder can be heated to temperatures of 1100 degrees Celsius with concentrating solar thermal energy, some 400 degrees Celsius higher than conventional solutions. Because the heat transfer fluid can also store thermal energy, metal manufacturing plants can continue to operate even when the sun is not shining. RTI will also develop advanced materials that will protect the system's components from the accelerated degradation experienced at these high operating temperatures. This technology will enable constant, high-temperature operation of the light metals production process with reduced CO2 emissions.

SRI International

Direct Low-Cost Production of Titanium Alloys

SRI International is developing a reactor that is able to either convert titanium tetrachloride to titanium powder or convert multiple metal chlorides to titanium alloy powder in a single step. Conventional titanium extraction and conversion processes involve expensive and energy intensive melting steps. SRI is examining the reaction between hydrogen and metal chlorides, which could produce titanium alloys without multiple complicated steps. Using titanium powder for transportation applications has not been practical until now because of the high cost of producing powder from titanium ingots. SRI's reactor requires less material because it produces powder directly rather than converting it from intermediate materials such as sponge or ingot. Transforming titanium production into a direct process could reduce costs and energy consumption by eliminating energy intensive steps and decreasing material inputs.

Titanium Metals Corp.

A Vision of an Electrochemical Cell to Produce Clean Titanium

Titanium Metals Corporation (TIMET) is developing an electrochemical process for producing pure titanium powder. Incumbent titanium production processes require the importation of high-grade titanium ores. TIMET's groundbreaking design will enable the use of abundant, low-cost, domestic ore to produce titanium powder electrolytically. By totally revolutionizing the electrolysis process, TIMET can fully optimize the process more effectively using a unique approach. TIMET's electrochemical methods could produce higher quality titanium powder at lower cost and reduced energy consumption compared to the conventional Kroll process.

UHV Technologies, Inc.

Low-Cost High Throughput In-Line X-Ray Fluorescence Scrap Metal Sorter

UHV Technologies is developing a sorting technology that uses X-rays to distinguish between high-value metal alloys found in scrap of many shapes and sizes. Existing identification technologies rely on manual sorting of light metals, which can be inaccurate and slow. UHV's system will rapidly sort scrap metal passed over a conveyer belt, making it possible to lower metals waste while simultaneously increasing the quality of recycled metal alloys. By analyzing the light emitted from X-rayed metal pieces, UHV's probe is able to identify alloy compositions for automated sorting. By automating this process, UHV would significantly reduce the costs associated with recycling light metal scrap.

University of Colorado, Boulder

Carbothermal Reduction Process for Producing Magnesium Metal using a Hybrid Solar/Electric Reactor

University of Colorado, Boulder (CU-Boulder) is developing a new solar-powered magnesium production reactor with dramatically improved energy efficiency compared to conventional technologies. Today's magnesium production processes are expensive and require large amounts of electricity. CU-Boulder's reactor can be heated using either concentrated solar power during the day or by electricity at night. CU-Boulder's reactor would dramatically reduce CO2 emissions compared to existing technologies at lower cost because it requires less electricity and can be powered using solar energy. In addition, the reactor can produce syngas, a synthetic gasoline precursor, which could be used to power cars and trucks.

University of Utah

A Novel Chemical Pathway for Titanium Production

The University of Utah is developing a reactor that dramatically simplifies titanium production compared to conventional processes. Today's production processes are expensive and inefficient because they require several high-energy melting steps to separate titanium from its ores. The University of Utah's reactor utilizes a magnesium hydride solution as a reducing agent to break less expensive titanium ore into its components in a single step. By processing low-grade ore directly, the titanium can be chemically isolated from other impurities. This design eliminates the series of complex, high-energy melting steps associated with current titanium production. Consolidating several energy intensive steps into one reduces both the cost and energy inputs associated with titanium extraction.

University of Utah

Electrodynamic Sorting of Light Metals and Alloys

The University of Utah is developing a light metal sorting system that can distinguish multiple grades of scrap metal using an adjustable and varying magnetic field. Current sorting technologies based on permanent magnets can only separate light metals from iron-based metals and tend to be inefficient and expensive. The University of Utah's sorting technology utilizes an adjustable magnetic field rather than a permanent magnet to automate scrap sorting, which could offer increased accuracy, less energy consumption, lower CO2 emissions, and reduced costs. Due to the flexibility of this design, the system could be set to sort for any one metal at a time rather than being limited to sorting for a specific metal.

Valparaiso University

Solar Thermal Electrolytic Production of Mg from MgO

Valparaiso University is developing a solar electro-thermal reactor that produces magnesium from magnesium oxide. Current magnesium production processes involve high-temperature steps that consume large amounts of energy. Valparaiso's reactor would extract magnesium using concentrated solar power to supply its thermal energy, minimizing the need for electricity. The reactor would be surrounded by mirrors that track the sun and capture heat for high-temperature magnesium electrolysis. Because Valparaiso's reactor is powered by solar energy as opposed to burning fossil fuels, integrating magnesium production into the solar reactor would significantly reduce CO2 emissions associated with magnesium production.


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