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Metal Tech Alley: Blazing the "Trail" toward a high-tech circular economy

Innovative e-waste and battery recycling playing a central role in Trail, B.C.'s industrial transformation

Terry Van Horn, executive director of LCIC, which has led the Metal Tech Alley initiative in Trail, B.C. Photos courtesy of Stacked Films.
Terry Van Horn, executive director of LCIC, which has led the Metal Tech Alley initiative in Trail, B.C. Photos courtesy of Stacked Films.

Metal Tech Alley is the brand name for a collection of over 80 high-tech companies located in and around the rural town of Trail in the West Kootenays in southeastern B.C. The region, with a population of about 19,000, is home to an extended supply chain of industrial support service businesses, including large global players, engineering and IT firms, and tech startups. With research showing a very high concentration of PhDs per capita, Metal Tech Alley represents massive intellectual assets and a platform for economic development that is unique and attracting ongoing investment.

The Metal Tech Alley initiative is led by the Lower Columbia Initiatives Corporation (LCIC), a regional economic development partnership, and community partners surrounding the town of Trail. The Metal Tech Alley brand was established following research undertaken by LCIC, which was partially funded by Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd. (Teck's Trail operations are one of the world's largest fully integrated zinc and lead smelting and refining complexes.) The research considered the region's key assets, areas of expertise and the current and future economic outlook. 

Retriev Technologies and KC Recycling are cornerstones of the local economy in Metal Tech Alley, Trail, B.C., recycling a range of batteries, e-waste and other materials from around North America and beyond.

At the heart of the circular economy in Metal Tech Alley are three companies with a focus on turning end-of-life products into valuable materials, including two specialized recycling operations and one high-purity metals refiner. Retriev Technologies and KC Recycling are cornerstones of the local economy, recycling a range of batteries, e-waste and other materials from around North America and beyond. The third company, Fenix Advanced Materials, takes intermediate material from Teck, refining it into ultra-high levels of purity for very specific cleantech applications.

According to Terry Van Horn, executive director of LCIC, Metal Tech Alley's success so far is based on a strategy of growing the economy of the region by attracting like-minded, ambitious people, companies and innovators. The focus is on building industry and infrastructure, including recycling and circular-economy-based businesses, as well as digital fabrication, advanced materials/metallurgy and other innovative tech-based industry. She says the initiative is making bold moves to harness the next wave of technology, and at the same time entice people and businesses out of nearby cities and more populated areas, including Vancouver and Calgary, into the region. 

"We live and breathe industry 4.0 every day," says Van Horn. "Having a Fortune 500 company like Teck in our business community led us to recognize the opportunity to use this kind of asset to drive innovation. Many materials that are processed locally are leaving our region daily. By better understanding our value chain, entrepreneurs are finding incredible opportunities to build and process new value-added businesses right here in southeastern B.C. 

"It's no surprise to us that we are becoming recognized as a leading area in industrial business transformation," continues Van Horn. "We have industry experts that are choosing to move to the region because they see opportunity here." 

One example, she says, is Pilar Portella, previously executive director of Innovate Okanagan, who has selected Metal Tech Alley as the location for her company, i4C innovation. "i4C is an industry 4.0 hub that is focused on Industrial Internet of Things and is proactively working with technology innovators to bring tech into very large industrial applications." 

"Metal Tech Alley stimulates growth with strategies and tactics that focus on our industry and technology partners by connecting the dots and creating a network to achieve success," comments Portella, i4C's CEO. "The collective desire to collaborate and drive business opportunities that are helping to transform the region are a big reason why we chose this location for i4C."  

"We are also working with the National Industrial Symbiosis Program (NISP) to create a value chain analysis and resource map that will help our future strategy," continues Horn. 

"This kind of activity typically doesn't find its way to rural areas, but we're bringing it to rural B.C. because we want to lead the transition towards a clean environment and the circular economy. Our local visionaries have harnessed existing infrastructure, developed talent and helped create a desire to innovate and continue to build global businesses here." 

The team at KC Recycling, a lead-acid battery recycling specialist and part of Metal Tech Alley, Trail, B.C.

Retriev Technologies 
Metal Tech Alley's proximity to the U.S. border (about a five-minute drive) combined with the region's growing expertise and focus on industrial processing, makes Trail the perfect location for Retriev Technologies. Established in 1993, Retriev's facility was started primarily to treat lithium batteries, and was built in Trail because of the availability of argon (originally needed for the process).

The availability of well-trained industrial personnel and a willingness from the B.C. Ministry of the Environment to provide a temporary permit to test their newly patented process, provided additional incentives for their location in Trail. 

Retriev now offers the only location in North America that manages primary and secondary (rechargeable) Lithium and Li-Ion battery recycling under one roof, according to Van Horn. With a hazardous waste treatment permit issued by British Columbia's Ministry of Environment & Climate Change Strategy, Retriev's Trail facility manages all battery types and processes lithium-based batteries for metal recovery. 

The facility has processed three million pounds of batteries so far in 2019 and over 46 million pounds since it began operations. Retriev started out processing lithium primary batteries in 1993. Lithium-ion batteries were first processed in 1996, when a manufacturer in the Lower Mainland (the region around Vancouver, B.C.) was looking for a company to treat their scrap. 

Retriev developed its lithium-ion recycling process in-house over the early years of the company, constantly modifying and improving the process. From those early days the company went from processing small single cells and consumer lithium-ion batteries, to hybrid and electric vehicle batteries. 

The process involves dismantling large battery packs down to the module or cell level and then processing them through a mechanical process which removes the electrical and fire hazard of lithium-ion batteries. The process separates the batteries into fractions for recovery by other metal producers.  

For lithium-primary batteries, according to Retrieve, the main hazard is the contained lithium metal and the associated electrical hazard. Batteries are stored in concrete bunkers until they are ready for processing. 

Depending on size and makeup, they are then frozen in liquid nitrogen, just prior to processing. This lowers the reactivity of the batteries while they are mechanically broken down in a brine solution. The lithium metal reacts with the water, dissolves and cathode components are neutralized. After separating different materials the lithium can be recovered as lithium carbonate.  While Retriev's Trail location is the only facility in Canada, the specialist battery recycler operates out of other strategic locations in Lancaster, Ohio, (including the head office and recycling facility), another facility in Baltimore, Ohio, and has executive offices in Anaheim, California. 

Kathy Bruce, Senior VP of Retriev's Trail operations explains: "The Retriev business model is based on selecting locations that match the current and future needs of the markets we specialize in, and investing strategically in technology to match current and future market requirements."   

She says Retriev is currently developing new processes to make value-added products from recycled materials and has seen double-digit growth in volumes of lithium-ion batteries recycled over the past five years. The company definitely anticipates a robust future - particularly with respect to the growing market for plug-in electric vehicles.

"Our focus over recent years has been to position ourselves to serve this emerging market by developing relationships and establishing contracts with most major OEMs, readying our business for explosive growth in these products," says Bruce. Retriev's research and development team continues to refine and improve its processes, seeking to create more value from the recycled materials with a strict focus on developing in line with the company's expertise in batteries and related components. Current process improvements aim to shorten the supply-chain from recycled materials to new battery components. 

KC Recycling’s Pete Stamper.

KC Recycling
KC Recycling is a great example of a company that is focused on business built around the concept of a circular economy. The company identified a critical need for the lead smelting operation at Teck's Trail location to have a lead-acid battery breaker in immediate proximity. 

KC's location in Trail as part of Metal Tech Alley, combined with their core competencies in lead-acid battery recycling, has allowed the company to fit into this role, and create a true circular economy for Teck's operations. KC takes Teck's end-of-life lead-acid batteries, processes them and then provides raw material back to Teck, supplying both lead and sulphuric acid.  

Overall, KC Recycling manages three recycling streams. Lead-acid car batteries, cathode ray tubes and electronic scrap. Products arrive from U.S. and Canadian sources, via road and rail.  Metal Tech Alley's location makes it very easy to receive goods from the U.S., due to its proximity to the border, and in particular because Trail is one of the few locations where a U.S. rail line crosses into Canada. 

Plus, as one of only a few lead-acid car battery breakers in Western North America, (the other closest facilities are located in Minneapolis and California) KC Recycling currently processes 40,000 tons of this waste stream per year. 

"We are finding real advantages to being located in Trail," says Pete Stamper, CEO of KC Recycling. "The lead-acid car battery market is a real niche for us and we are currently studying a major investment to almost triple our capacity to meet growing demand in our market. This market growth is driven by expanding energy storage needs. KC Recycling is well positioned to be the preferred recycler [of lead-acid batteries] in Western North America." 

Another niche area for KC is leaded glass recycling from cathode ray tubes. While this waste stream is in decline overall, there is still good economic justification to offer the service, particularly as KC is also one of the few remaining facilities with the capability to manage this type of material. As a specialist in this area, Stamper says their business has become very efficient at managing the process.  

Electronic-scrap, or e-scrap, is the final waste stream that KC Recycling currently handles. Specializing in first-stage recycling, the company is currently processing over 20 percent of all the e-scrap materials in B.C. through its disassembling and sorting facility in Trail, which feeds supply chain partners handling the next stage of processing. 

"Locating in Metal Tech Alley is key to us as the logistics of moving heavy materials around can be very prohibitive," says Stamper. "Being a very short distance from our smelting partner, Teck, we can take advantage of efficiencies that are only available because of proximity. 

Additionally, vendors, contractors and other business leaders in the area are experts with metals. The workforce here is a key enabler to success for us. The inherent skill and experience in the local area that has developed because of the industrial history here in Trail is a huge asset."

Fenix Advanced Materials
Fenix Advanced Materials is another Metal Tech Alley company that takes advantage of its proximity to Teck. The business takes Teck by-products, such as low purity (99.99 percent pure) indium and cadmium, refines them until they are ultra-pure (99.99999 percent pure), and then ships many metric tons per year of these ultra-pure metals worldwide. 

These metals are then used as raw materials in modern semiconductor technologies, which include x-ray, infrared and gamma ray detectors, solar photovoltaics, and for temperature calibration applications. Fenix uses a combination of proprietary hydrometallurgy, pyrometallurgy and electrochemical processes to purify metals to the ultra-high levels required by industrial end users. 

Fenix's foresight and innovation has embodied circular economy strategies, by creating an entirely new market for Teck's by-products and otherwise unused materials. The company is also helping create further investment as well as additional interest in what is happening in Metal Tech Alley by partnering with UBCO (University of BC Okanagan) on lithium tellurium (LiTe) solid-state battery research over the next three years.

"Being in Metal Tech Alley has been an asset to our business from day one," says Don Freschi, CEO of Fenix. 

"Locating in this area has led to connections and business support opportunities that simply are very tough to access elsewhere. Fenix just secured over $1.5M in funding from these business connections, which includes NRC-IRAP, Community Futures of Greater Trail, and Columbia Basin Trusts Impact Investment Fund, to expand and commercialize our product lines."

Terry Van Horn, leading the Metal Tech Alley initiative, building a high-tech, industrial circular economy in B.C.’s Kootenay region.

Location, location, location 
According to Terry Van Horn, there is continued and growing interest in what Trail, B.C., and Metal Tech Alley have to offer, much of it from business owners and people working in larger cities.  

"We receive enquiries on a daily basis from people who work or want to work in our circular economy, often from Vancouver and Calgary, and who are looking to bring their expertise to a location that allows them to experience the Kootenay lifestyle, and have the work-life balance that the region offers. 

"Thanks to the existing businesses that we have managed to secure, and the new opportunities here, Metal Tech Alley is a great choice for people who are ambitious at work but yearn for a different life experience. It's always a surprise to people from outside of our region when they see what we are doing here and the global scale we reach. 

"For businesses and individuals looking to cash in on the circular economy and get out of the city, Metal Tech Alley offers a real opportunity to find their place and continue to work with like-minded individuals." 

"Recycling is a hugely important piece of our puzzle and we are actively working with organizations such as the National Industrial Symbiosis Program (NISP) to identify opportunities for businesses to further improve processes, expand markets and attract investment. This is just the beginning. We have attracted nine new Metal Tech Alley companies, created 19 new jobs and increased revenues of over $5M in the last year, and are expecting more. It is really exciting!" RPN

In June 2020, Metal Tech Alley will host a circular economy event, including tours and educational sessions, in Trail, B.C. For information, contact [email protected].

This article was originally published in the October 2019 edition of Recycling Product News, Volume 27, Number 7.

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