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With Support From Oak Ridge National Lab Innovator Program, Nth Cycle Turns E-Waste Into Precious Metals

State: Tennessee

Region: Southeast

Agency: Dept. of Energy

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)

With the use of electronic products around the world, a staggering amount of electronic waste, or e-waste, is generated each year – experts estimate that this year, the global population will produce 57.4 million tons of it. E-waste, which includes discarded electronic products with a battery or plug, often contains toxic and hazardous substances such as mercury, posing a severe risk to both human and environmental health. 

Nth Cycle, a metal refining technology company, is helping clean up the mess with a new and more sustainable approach to mining precious metals and minerals from electronic waste and a wide variety of metal feedstocks.  

Megan O’Connor, Nth Cycle’s founder, was a fellow in the second cohort of the Department of Energy’s Innovation Crossroads program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Innovation Crossroads, funded by DOE’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office, Building Technologies Office, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, provides critical early support for energy-related startups.  

By using electro-extraction, which leverages electricity and carbon filters, Nth Cycle is turning e-waste into electronic gold. This technology has the potential to revolutionize the way metals are extracted, making it possible for mining operations to maximize their ability to extract metals from what they pull out of the ground, while also allowing for better competition with foreign mining operations and reducing our dependence on them. 

The birth of Nth Cycle began with O'Connor's development of the electro-extraction technology while she was at Yale. O'Connor's drive to bring the innovation to the commercial mining and recycling markets led her to apply to the Innovation Crossroads program, an accelerator designed to propel start-ups to success through expert mentorship and top-tier resources.  

The program provided Nth Cycle with invaluable support to power up its technology and establish itself as an industry leader. With the foundation built through the Innovation Crossroads program, Nth Cycle is revolutionizing the mineral extraction industry with a focus on sustainability, leaving a lasting impact on the world. 

How it works: Nth Cycle's electro-extraction technology immerses waste material in a specially designed tank filled with a patented solution. An electric current is then passed through the solution, causing valuable minerals like cobalt, nickel, lithium, rare earth metals, gold, silver and platinum to be magnetically drawn toward an electrode and away from the waste. The high-purity minerals extracted from this process can be used in various industries, such as battery manufacturing, electronics manufacturing, and the medical industry. For example, the minerals that are extracted can be used to make new batteries or electronic products instead of using new materials. Precious metals like gold, silver, and platinum can be extracted from medical waste and reused in medical equipment and devices. Nth Cycle's electro-extraction technology uses only electricity and carbon filters, making it an eco-friendly option that doesn't harm the planet. 

Nth Cycle's first commercial-scale electro-extraction unit, the OYSTER (Optimized Hydrolysis System Targeting Element Recovery), can refine black mass, a type of e-waste, from end-of-life lithium-ion batteries into a high-purity, premium nickel MHP (mixed hydroxide precipitate). The OYSTER features a modular and compact design, allowing easy deployment on-site with the opportunity to scale as needed. 

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