Saskatchewan chemist strikes gold in the Dragon’s Den

October 2018
MATERIALS

The ancient alchemists might have marveled at the season premiere of CBC television’s Dragon’s Den in September, when a University of Saskatchewan chemistry professor found riches for his start-up firm by turning common electronic waste into gold. With a live chemical show-and-tell that lasted no more than a couple of minutes, Stephen Foley impressed the panel of potential investors sufficiently for them to pool their resources and offer a total of $1 million for a stake in his firm, Excir Works.

“I thought we were done, that it had gone off the rails,” he says, recalling the mystified expressions on his audience’s faces as he extracted gold from a circuit board into solution, essentially making it disappear. Only after he had precipitated it out in a different solution did they realize what he had done.

Excir Works CEO Graham Fritz, Founder Loghman Moradi, Chief Technology Officer Hiwa Salimi, and Stephen Foley worked some fundraising alchemy on CBC’s Dragon’s Den

Excir Works CEO Graham Fritz, Founder Loghman Moradi, Chief Technology Officer Hiwa Salimi, and Stephen Foley worked some fundraising alchemy on CBC’s Dragon’s Den. Photo credit: Excir Works

“Once they saw the gold everything changed. They said ‘we’re on board with that’.”

Foley has become used to the challenge of explaining the process he and two of his grad students, Hiwa Salimi and Loghman Moradi, have been refining for the last four years. Other investors have been similarly daunted by what they regard as magical steps to address one of the high-tech industry’s most pressing problems: how to recover valuable metals from growing mountains of discarded electronic circuitry.

The real secret to this particular alchemy is a set of ligands that select for gold over other transition metals that might be found in an alloyed sample. By starting with an organic solvent to remove various metals, these ligands can then form a coordination complex that isolates gold in particular.

This elegant strategy is a far cry from the centuries-old use of aqua regia, a combination of hydrochloric and nitric acid that continues to serve as the primary means of separating metals out of circuitry. The harsh environmental and health effects of these agents, which are often employed indiscriminately in the developing world, have only added to the urgency of dealing with electronic waste.

“We started playing around with aqua regia to get a better understanding of it,” explains Foley, who discovered that most of the investigators tackling this task had been process-oriented chemical engineers rather than chemists. “We just broke down the equations and started to think about how we could do this without requiring corrosive concentrated acids. That was the starting point of our research.”

Excir Works CEO Graham Fritz, Founder Loghman Moradi, Chief Technology Officer Hiwa Salimi, and Stephen Foley worked some fundraising alchemy on CBC’s Dragon’s Den

Excir Works CEO Graham Fritz, Founder Loghman Moradi, Chief Technology Officer Hiwa Salimi, and Stephen Foley worked some fundraising alchemy on CBC’s Dragon’s Den. Photo credit: Excir Works

After a couple of years their work had reached the point where they were in a position to patent their method and collaborate with the university’s technology transfer office to found Excir Works. That was when the real work began, as far as Foley was concerned, since the nature of these activities were completely new to him. Even the very dramatic nature of the company’s mandate — essentially mining for gold — complicated the search for appropriate business talent to manage the new enterprise.

Now, with sufficient funds to turn a Calgary warehouse into a pilot plant that can demonstrate this laboratory technique at a commercial scale, Foley finds himself immersed in a world of business activities that are as far out of his comfort zone as this intricate chemistry was for the people who have supported this fledgling enterprise.

“I’ll be honest, it’s a little bit overwhelming,” he admits. “You have to think about safety concerns, hiring people, payroll, benefits, and security, because, well, there’s gold.”