Phoenix Tailings: Success Story

Woburn company’s advanced process extracts rare earth metals from mining waste

The device you’re reading this on was made using rare earth metals. Rare earths, as the mining industry calls them, serve essential roles in high technology and green energy. Manufacturers use rare earths everywhere, from neodymium magnets in wind turbines to lanthanum lenses in smartphones and telescopes. Demand for rare earths is growing, but current rare earth mining processes produce 2,000 tons of toxic waste for every ton of metal, causing public health concerns and geopolitical tension. 

Phoenix Tailings, the world’s only clean metal processing company, has found a non-toxic, carbon-neutral way to extract rare earths from tailings, a waste product left over from mining. Their proprietary process has no toxic byproducts, producing nothing but harmless sand, water, and mineral salts.

Taking the pollution and emissions out of rare earth mining

Phoenix Tailings began with a prototype that four friends built in a backyard in Cambridge. The four were entrepreneur/angel investor Nicholas Myers, materials engineers Dr. Tomás Villalón Jr. and Michelle Chao, and process engineer/finance expert Anthony Balladon. They knew there had to be a sustainable alternative to the high energy costs, toxic byproducts, and geopolitical uncertainty of conventional rare earth mining. Mine tailings were a clear source. Tailings are a slurry of water, rock, and minerals left behind after mines process ore for more common minerals like copper and aluminum. Most importantly, tailings contain small amounts of rare earths. And there’s a lot of them – the mining industry produces enough of this waste each year to cover the state of California.  

Headshot of Michelle Chao, COO and co-founder of Phoenix Tailings
Michelle Chao, COO & Co-Founder

The co-founders’ prototype worked. It extracted usable rare earth metal from tailings. Armed with their proof-of-concept, the co-founders began the long journey to commercial scale. 

Chao, Phoenix Tailings’ COO, said “This year, we signed our first commercial contracts. Now we’re building our pilot processing facility. That will be our first step to full-scale commercialization and mass production.”

From the backyard to a pilot facility with FORGE’s guidance

Phoenix Tailings’ team learned of FORGE through their membership at Greentown Labs. FORGE connected Phoenix Tailings with right-fit resources and experts.

Chao said “FORGE understands the unique challenges facing a green tech company operating in Massachusetts. They have provided crucial information to help us choose the right consultants, advisors, and suppliers. That was especially important during the early stages of our business, when we had extremely limited resources. FORGE was an essential value add.” 

FORGE put Phoenix Tailings in touch with a supply chain consultant and several manufacturers near the company’s Woburn headquarters. The FORGE connection who made the biggest difference to Phoenix Tailings was product development expert and former FORGE Manufacturing Expert-in-Residence, Peter Russo. 

“Peter Russo has been a mentor, advisor, and advocate for Phoenix Tailings. His support has been invaluable as we’ve scaled the company from a backyard to a pilot facility.” Chao said. Russo helped Phoenix Tailings find and apply for grants and win a MERT 2.0 MassRobotics Award to automate its refining process. 

Looking forward: meeting rising demand domestically

The U.S. is rapidly electrifying. Chao anticipates a soaring demand for secure, sustainable, domestic rare earth supply chains. Phoenix Tailings is scaling to meet the demand by gleaning valuable materials from waste. 

FORGE always asks founders about the statistics they’re most proud of. For Chao, the answer was obvious.  “The number I’m most proud of is zero – that’s the amount of toxic byproducts produced by Phoenix Tailings’ proprietary rare earth process. China has gained a functional monopoly on rare earths because they are one of the only countries that will tolerate the harmful environmental and public health effects of rare earth processing. We’re proving there’s a better way and it’s going to permanently change the way the United States accesses critical materials.” 

By the numbers

  • Phoenix Tailings has produced over 50 kilograms of metal. When its pilot is complete, the company will produce tons of material.
  • Phoenix Tailings has raised more than $20 million in funding.
  • Unlike other methods of rare earth mining, Phoenix Tailings’ proprietary process creates zero toxic byproducts.