A new company is emerging in Kingston’s burgeoning green-tech economy, intent on providing the rare earth elements essential to transitioning from fossil fuels to greener energy by recycling rather than mining them.
“I started this company after years of thinking about the creation of a constant supply of rare earth elements and it appears that one way to do this is to recycle end-of-life products,” says Ahmad Ghahreman, CEO, president and founder of Cyclic Materials.
“It’s an infinite source of materials that is increasing every year,” he adds, explaining that recycling won’t provide 100 per cent of future needs but could account for up to 10 per cent of the market.
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Rare earth elements are used in everything from wind turbines to electric vehicles to cell phones and hard drives – anything that uses powerful permanent magnets.
Canada has some of the largest known reserves and resources of rare earth elements in the world, estimated last year at over 14 million tonnes of rare earth oxides, according to the Natural Resources Canada website.
Mining these elements, however, is difficult. Deposits are small and costly to extract and doing so can have a negative environmental impact, explains Ghahreman, a former associate professor at the mining department at Queen’s University.
It’s that conundrum that Cyclic Materials is determined to address.
Ghahreman estimates that his company will eventually comprise 10 per cent of the rare elements market.
“Our objective is, by end of 2026 we will be producing 600 tonnes of rare earth elements per year in North America,” says Ghahreman. “But our vision is global and we are expecting to be operating and producing slightly over 3,000 tonnes a year of rare earth elements globally by 2031.”
To put that in perspective, 3,000 tonnes is equal to about six million electric vehicles or, more accurately, the magnets needed for those vehicles.
That’s no small feat since there isn’t a lot of rare earth metal in any of the recyclables. For example, Ghahreman explains, each electric vehicle on average has two kilograms of rare earth magnets; a rare earth magnet contains about 25 per cent rare earth elements. So, each electric vehicle yields about half a kilogram. While that’s not a huge volume, when multiplied by the number of electric vehicles projected in the near future, it becomes a substantial number.
In September, Cyclic Materials began running a pilot at the Kingston Process Metallurgy (KPM) facility following a successful bench-scale testing completed in July 2022.
“We’re running the pilot plant right now with 10 people. (Ghahreman) came to us because he knows we have the capacity,” says Boyd Davies, vice-president at KPM.
Cyclic Materials has the funding in place to complete the pilot phase and is fundraising for the scale-up.
“The pilot that we’re running right now is already funded, but for our activities in 2023, which will include a larger-scale operation (that) we’re building here in Kingston, we’re actively fundraising through venture capital, banks or other avenues,” says Ghahreman.
The company’s business model and vision are garnering support from Invest Kingston, a non-profit organization that helps attract investments and supports the growth and retention of new and existing businesses in the city.
“Cyclic Materials is a great fit for Kingston’s ecosystem, given the stage and sector they are in. They tie directly to our integrated economic development strategy that focuses on material and process innovation, which are both applicable to Cyclic Materials’ business case,” says Abdul Razak Jendi, investment manager of sustainable manufacturing with Invest Kingston. “It’s a great fit with the battery material and recycling ecosystem Kingston is creating.”
The company has also got the city’s economic development department interested.
“Cyclic Materials is a very exciting company and I think they’re very close to hitting the commercialization phase,” says Craig Desjardins, director of innovation and partnerships with the city.
The company is in talks with suppliers and consumers of the end product.
“We have letters of intent and memorandums of understanding and definitive agreements with multiple recycling yards, magnet manufacturers and electronic-based recyclers and the list goes on,” says Ghahreman.
He’s also in contact with the largest magnet producers in North America, Europe and Asia, as well as numerous companies that use magnets in their products.
“For instance, if suppliers to car companies provide motors made with our materials, they could say, ‘This motor of this electric vehicle is made of 100 per cent recycled magnet’, and that’s the dream, honestly, that drives us every day,” says Ghahreman.
The decision by global giant Umicore to locate a major manufacturing facility in the Kingston area is also on the radar.
“Umicore will be producing battery materials and in batteries there is a little bit of application for those metals, so they can be one of the really good customers for us,” says Ghahreman, who has been a consultant to NRCan and the Government of Alaska on rare earth projects over the past 10 years, gaining extensive knowledge of the mining process.