A local company is making a major push to turn Missoula into the world’s foremost center for rare earth metals purification.
Metals US, a Missoula-based company that developed patented sustainable metals-processing technology, announced on Wednesday that it plans to commercialize in the near future and create 120 high-paying jobs at a yet-to-be-built processing center here.
“It’s pretty exciting to be headquartering in Missoula,” said company president and CEO John Hammen. “We’ve had a testing facility here for a few years, and now we’re taking it to the next level. We’re going to commercialize the technology, and both our manufacturing and purification operations will be centered in Missoula.”
The company’s patented Solid Phase Extraction technology was developed by John, his brother Chris and their father Rich Hammen, who is a former director of the chemistry lab at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The company has used more than $3 million in government grants and industry funding to develop their technology, which involves a “spiderweb” nanocomposite metal binding matrix.
The technology created by Metals US can be used for cleaning up mine processes, environmental remediation of metal-containing water, acid mine drainage, recycling of industrial waste streams and cleaning municipal water supplies.
“When you put it all together, our technology is so much more efficient than available technology,” Hammen said. “We have a huge market share and a huge opportunity. It’s also something we like to think of as Missoula and Montana values – making use of resources in a responsible way. And that’s really our goal, is urging industry to clean up its act.”
The company has four issued U.S. patents on its core technology, and its specific processes are trade secrets.
“Our technology has been recognized as a leading technology and has the potential to revolutionize the mining and water processing industries,” Hammen said. “We expect Solid Phase Extraction to transform the landscape of the metal processing space by bringing low-cost, high purity, zero discharge and green processing methods to an industry very much in need of new technology options.”
The company has been working on developing the technology for three decades.
“We’ve put a lot into the technology,” Hammen explained. “We have risen to the front of the pack of rare earth processing companies.”
The firm has already been working with a mining company called USCorp at a rare earth extraction mine in Alaska.
“Using our technology, they are able to dramatically reduce the capital and operating costs of their mines, and the mines can have a higher rate of recovery and cleanliness,” Hammen said.
There is still a long way to go before the company opens a purification operations center in Missoula.
“Right now, we’re looking at instituting metal purification processing centers at various sites, two in the U.S. and one internationally,” Hammen explained. “That will enable us to start bringing in revenue. We will use that revenue to construct purification facilities in Missoula. Our goal is to have the world’s center for rare earth purification.”
Hammen said the company, which is currently located at 425 N. Fifth St., hasn’t decided on a specific site yet for where they would locate the purification center.
“We are looking at some of the historical mill sites,” Hammen said. “Those have a lot of capabilities that would work well for what we’re trying to develop. There are plenty of options.”
The jobs that the company hopes to create would pay well and would primarily be in materials and environmental science, according to Jerry Furniss, a University of Montana business professor who cofounded the company and serves on its board of directors.
“I share the Hammen family vision of bringing clean manufacturing to Montana,” Furniss said. “In addition, we will work to attract complementary value-added business that can use the metals that we purify to build the next generation of clean technology designed to improve our lives.”
Rare earth metals, 17 chemical elements in the periodic table, are found in everything from iPhones to electric car batteries. Despite the name, rare earth metals are relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust. Purifying those and other metals is a trillion-dollar industry.
“Rare earths are not an issue of finding ore, it’s an issue of purifying 17 different metals from different mines around the world,” Hammen explained. “Our goal is to separate and purify them here in Missoula. It will be a huge source of jobs. Rare earths are the basis of a lot of green technologies, like batteries and Prius cars. Right now, China controls 95 percent of rare earths and they are cutting back the availability to the rest of the world. We think we can really change that paradigm.”
Hammen said he is equally thrilled about the prospects for his company as he is about the prospects for the local economy.
“We’re really excited about it,” he said. “It will be a real boon to the Missoula area and a lot of jobs.”
For more information, visit MetalsUS.com.
Reporter David Erickson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.