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Missouri wins federal tech hub focused on the development of clean energy minerals

Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
The Doe Run Company owns several lead mines in the Ozarks, including the West Fork Mine in Reynolds County pictured in June 2018. The mine also contains compounds with nickel and cobalt, which are critical to the clean energy transition.

A regional technology and innovation hub to develop the minerals and metals needed for the clean energy transition is coming to central and southeast Missouri.

The designation this week by the Biden administration is led by Missouri University of Science and Technology and focuses on the potential of the state to become a global leader in producing minerals crucial for electrification, like nickel and cobalt, said Principal Investigator and S&T mining professor Kwame Awuah-Offei.

“Missouri is blessed that we have these minerals in our geology,” he said. “The second piece of it is Missouri S&T has this high level of expertise in hydrometallurgy and mining and mineral processing.”

The combination of geology and a well-established research university makes the state an attractive place to support companies that will use these minerals to facilitate the energy transition, Awuah-Offei said.

“All of these things need batteries and magnets that rely on these same minerals,” he said.

Mines in southeast Missouri, like ones operated by Doe Run, are already producing concentrates that contain significant amounts of cobalt and nickel, Awuah-Offei said. There are other companies with currently operating mines, or ones that could be reopened, that could produce these minerals, he added.

It could also be a chance to clean up the materials left behind from past mining, which contain some critical minerals like nickel, cobalt, zinc, germanium or gallium, Awuah-Offei said.

“This has already been mined and extracted,” he explained. “Except at the time these metals were not the main focus of those extraction activities.”

Beyond the development of these raw materials, the tech hub proposed by S&T seeks to help establish the processing of them in Missouri specifically, Awuah-Offei said.

“And hopefully not only produce cobalt and nickel, but also have companies that are willing to build lithium ion batteries here in Missouri by buying these commodities that we can produce here,” Awuah-Offei said.

It comes at a critical time with the U.S. interested in establishing or bringing back the manufacturing and production that will support the clean energy transition, said Maurice Muia, founder and CEO of Muia Materials, a Missouri-based startup developing new kinds of power transmission lines.

“The first state that comes to mind for clean energy is not Missouri,” he said. “But when you look at the core things that are needed for a clean energy future, a lot of those products can be found in Missouri or they can be processed in Missouri.”

And for communities like Ironton, Fredericktown, Farmington and others nestled in the surrounding counties where these minerals lie, it’s an opportunity for economic growth, Muia said.

“This time I hope we do it responsibly, because we didn’t do a good job in the past,” he said.

These areas have influence, though, being the source of materials and are now critical, Muia said. They have the power to drive what development looks like and what companies that want to come in must provide back to the area, he added.

“That gives communities leverage, they may not want to see pure extraction,” Muia said. “They might want to see some value add. And they should because (that) brings wealth.”

Missouri, especially regions outside of the major population hubs, can become the place where the materials for cleaner energy are extracted and processed and also used in manufacturing facilities, Awuah-Offei said.

“Hopefully as a state we can produce an environment that makes it attractive for those that are going to use these products to locate to Missouri as well,” he said.

Muia agrees.

“You want to capture as much of the value chain as you possibly can,” he said. “The more you do that, the more money is going to circulate in that community.”

The tech hub designation from the Biden administration this week is only the first phase; the application for the more significant implementation award is due in February, Awuah-Offei said.

The hub led by S&T will compete against 30 other hubs including one in Kansas City focusing on developing that region’s biomanufacturing capacity for things like vaccines and other preventative technologies. That second phase will go to five to 10 hubs and bring them between $40 million and $70 million for a few proposed projects.

In S&T’s case, the university plans to use that funding to build a facility in Rolla that mining companies could use to do testing and research, Awuah-Offei said.

“Often the issue is you’ve developed something in the lab and you need a way to scale it up to show to investors that it would work at industrial scale,” he said. “That need still exists even if we don’t get phase two.”

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East area in Illinois for St. Louis Public Radio. He joins the news team as its first Report for America corps member and is tasked with expanding KWMU's coverage east from the Mississippi. Before joining St. Louis Public Radio, Eric held competitive internships at Fox News Channel, NPR-affiliate WSHU Public Radio and AccuWeather. As a news fellow at WSHU's Long Island Bureau, he covered governments and environmental issues as well as other general assignments. Eric grew up in Northern Colorado but attended Stony Brook University, in New York where he earned his degree in journalism in 2018. He is an expert skier, avid reader and lifelong musician-he plays saxophone and clarinet.
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