Gold miners apply mercury to the dirt and rocks they gather in waterways to separate the tiny flecks of gold from the rest. Mercury sticks to gold in a process called amalgamation, trapping the gold and settling out of the dirt. After applying mercury, artisanal and small-scale gold operations in the Amazon burn it off to collect the gold.
While great for finding gold, mercury contaminates the water, poisons the wildlife and pollutes the air when it is burned. Replacing mercury could help clean up a dirty industry. A startup called ChemFinity is developing a mercury replacement. Their porous polymer sorbent is a membrane that traps gold particles. The membrane can also filter mercury out of contaminated water, elevating this innovation to two potential roles: A tool for cleaner mining as well as environmental clean-up.
“ChemFinity’s selective membranes help to create a circular economy and cleaner environment by recovering critical minerals from sources like waste, removing toxins from nature, and purifying water for reuse,” says Adam Uliana, co-founder of ChemFinity. “Miners can use our ecofriendly membranes to replace mercury and recover the gold they need to support their families.”
ChemFinity Technologies, Inc. spun out of University of California, Berkeley’s College of Chemistry in September 2022 and is now located in New York City. In addition to mercury-trapping membranes, ChemFinity is developing highly selective adsorbent and membrane materials for separating elements throughout the periodic table.
“ChemFinity is mainly focused on separations that could help alleviate environmental injustice issues, with applications in critical metal recovery, water desalination, and gas separations,” Mr. Uliana says.
in 2022, ConservationX Labs hosted the Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge: The Amazon to promote the development of cleaner mining methods, and Engineering for Change supported the competition as an implementation partner. ChemFinity took one of two grand prizes awarded. ChemFinity was awarded a top prize in the competition. The startup is also supported by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Fellows Program.
The startup’s next steps are to scale up manufacturing.
“We are optimizing scale-up manufacturing procedures for our membrane and sorbent materials, so that more people can benefit from their unprecedented capabilities at a larger scale. We are also developing small pilot prototypes of our technology that we will use for testing with communities who could benefit from them,” Mr. Uliana says.