From mine tailings to magnets: Two AMM students launch a green venture
Upcycling tailings storage facilities to produce value-added critical products for a low-carbon world
After meeting in the MEL in the Advanced Materials Manufacturing program, Felipe Blanco and Sangeeth Karuppiah began developing an idea for a commercial venture. Their vision? To redefine tailings management by upcycling tailings storage facilities to produce critical value-added products for a low-carbon world.
Within a few months of meeting each other in the Master of Engineering Leadership in Advanced Materials Manufacturing program, Felipe Blanco and Sangeeth Karuppiah began developing an idea for a commercial venture. Their vision? To redefine tailings management by upcycling tailings storage facilities to produce value-added critical products for a low-carbon world. They want to use materials found in mine waste to create rare earth permanent magnets – which are essential products for electric vehicles and wind turbines.
The two students advanced their idea over the course of the one-year MEL, and in February 2022 they were accepted into UBC’s highly competitive Venture Program: Lab2Launch to take their innovative concept to the next stage of commercial development.
Where did you get your idea to upcycle mine tailings?
Felipe: Before doing the MEL, I worked in mining for 13 years, and in 2020 I was working on a project related to tailings recovery. During that project, I realized that tailings contain many valuable materials, including rare earth elements that are in high demand as they are key in a low-carbon-emitting world. I combined that experience with the new knowledge I was gaining in the MEL program, including technologies like additive manufacturing, as well as learning more about sustainability and environmental impacts.
This idea is exciting because it is using clean technologies for a new concept. It takes a free raw material considered waste, reducing the negative impacts for the mining industry, while offering greener products with a lower carbon footprint for the electric vehicle and wind turbine markets.
Sangeeth: I came to the program with five years of experience as an automobile engineer, and I know the future is one of electric vehicles. When I was talking with Felipe, I saw he shared my opinions about sustainability and the need to think of waste in new ways. He came up with the idea of recovering valuable material from tailings, processing it and then using additive manufacturing to make permanent magnets for electric vehicles or the green energy production market. This is part of the transition from specification-driven engineering to performance-driven engineering.
We make a good team: he has mining experience and I have knowledge of product development in the automotive sector. And with our shared background in the MEL we saw we could work together to make our ideas into a product.
How did you develop the initial idea into a working prototype?
Felipe: We began developing the idea in earnest in May, following lots of conversations with our instructors and classmates about our concept. We worked with a company in Ontario to develop the first prototype using additive manufacturing. In November, we showed it is possible to use additive manufacturing to produce permanent magnets within our target parameters. In addition, thanks to the support of Casey Keulen and Massoud Baghalha we were able to set up our “demo day” in early December. That first step was important, but there are many steps to go.
How did you develop the business case for your idea?
Felipe: We both applied for the graduate course Technology Entrepreneurship through the Sauder School of Business. In September, we presented our concept to the class and then formed a team that includes ourselves and three MBA students with diverse backgrounds who share our same values of making a positive impact on the environment.
Sangeeth: The course gave us the opportunity to validate the business case for our concept. We had the general idea that the mining sector has a challenge with tailings and that the electric vehicle sector has a challenge with sourcing materials. But we didn’t have any tangible proof of our hypothesis. As part of this course, we completed 26 interviews with leaders from both the EV and mining sectors. These interviews validated our hypothesis and gave us information to finetune our concept.
Felipe: We’re developing our company GreenAge Materials and building our team to the next level. We applied to UBC’s Founder Program, and we found out in late February that we were accepted into Lab2Launch.
This is an incubator program where we will be connected to mentors to advance commercial validation and the technical side. The ultimate goal of the program is to be prepared for presenting our idea to investors. Based on the industry interviews we did in the fall to validate our concept, we are in good shape. However, there are some technical aspects we need to solve in the following months. It will be challenging, but we are all very motivated.
When you started the MEL in January 2021 did you have any idea you’d be involved in this kind of venture?
Sangeeth: Coming into this program my long-term goal was be an industrialist and set up a manufacturing facility. I thought the MEL program would start building my skills to do that – but I didn’t expect to be pursuing a commercial venture quite this early!
Felipe: From the start, one of my goals in doing the MEL in Advanced Materials Manufacturing was to develop a venture, and that’s also why I wanted to apply for the Technology Entrepreneurship course. When I met Sangeeth I realized that our professional backgrounds complemented each other and that we could work well together. I found a friend, first of all, and after that I found a real partner for this venture.
Any final thoughts you want to share about the program?
Felipe: Almost everyone in the MEL is an engineer, but with very different backgrounds and experiences. MEL students should take advantage of this environment – this diversity is a great strength if you are interested in developing a business venture inside the program with the support of UBC. I also think more students should try and pursue entrepreneurial ideas.