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Practical application and commercialization of “Molten Salt Electrochemical Process (MSEP)” technology that can be effectively applied in the fields of environment, energy, resources, and nanotechnology.I’MSEP Co.,Ltd

2019.02.28

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Liquid “Molten Salt”, which is made by melting salt at a high temperature

Points to be noted

  • Development of new compounds and materials by ascertaining and using the characteristics of individual elements
  • Development of effective methods to utilize metals and various elements in Japan where mineral resources are scarce
  • Development of smelting and recycling technology for metals that puts less burden on the environment

Many metals are used in items around us such as electric appliances, personal computers, automobiles, etc. and maintaining performance without metal is difficult. These metallic elements usually exist in nature as minerals and “Smelting” is used to extract the target metals from minerals, it is necessary to recycle the metals after using the bare metals obtained from the mineral as products for further increasing the added value. One of the methods is electrolysis.
Electrolysis is a method to obtain the target substance by dissolving various compounds in a liquid (Electrolyte) according to the purpose and applying a voltage to cause reduction reaction at the cathode and oxidation reaction at the anode respectively. Though “Aqueous solution” is a typical liquid used as an electrolyte, some metals cannot be extracted using “Water” as the solvent. In such cases, “Molten salt” is used as the electrolyte instead of “Aqueous solution” to extract more types of metals. The technology of using “Molten salt” as an electrolyte is called Molten Salt Electrochemical Process (MSEP).
Using “MSEP”, I’MSEP Co., Ltd. is working towards high functionality such as extraction of metals and using diverse electrochemical reactions to discover new materials and for plating.

“Molten salt” refers to a liquid that is formed by melting (Liquefaction) “Salt”.
Salt is made by neutralizing acids and alkalis, and there are many types including the most familiar example “Sodium chloride”, which is used as table salt.
General characteristics of molten salt include the following.
・Dissolves various substances and has high solubility
・Vapor pressure is low even at high temperatures, and it is stable as a free-flowing liquid
・It is chemically stable, has a wide stable voltage field as a solvent, and high conductivity
・ Highly resistant to radiation A variety of excellent abilities can also be exhibited by blending different types of salts, as various properties change including the melting point.

I'MSEP Co., Ltd was established in April 2006 as a venture company from Doshisha University with President Ito, who conducted research on MSEP for many years and worked as a professor at Doshisha and Kyoto Universities. Their goal is to identify and apply the properties of substances and materials obtained using MSEP technology.
The company at present is working towards the commercialization of development for four unique technologies. The author spoke to President Ito about the specific initiatives.

The first is “Carbon plating” using “Molten salt” as an electrolyte.
Electrolysis of molten salt has been utilized for carbon plating for the time in the world, which cannot be achieved with an aqueous solution system. “Carbon plating” has the following advantages.
・Corrosion resistance: Excellent resistance to corrosion that is comparable to gold plating
・Conductivity: Contact resistance (Electric resistance existing around the interface when 2 objects are brought in contact and an electric current flows) is low as its conductivity is high
・Adhesiveness: Significantly better adhesiveness is obtained compared to carbon film with the gas-phase method (Depositing the substance generated by a chemical reaction between low-pressure gases, on a chip to form a thin film, with methods such as PVD and CVD) used for conventional carbon coating
・Economic efficiency: Continuous and mass production is possible at low cost. According to President Ito, it can significantly improve the performance and service life of devices when used as components for fuel cells for automobiles, lithium-ion batteries, and electrochemical capacitors (Electric appliances)

Carbon plating formed on SUS304 plate (Stainless steel plate).
“Dense Carbon Plating Film” that has excellent adhesion with printed circuit boards is expected to be applied in fuel cell separators

The second is the production of nanoparticles. Plasma-induced cathode electrolysis is a method of reducing metal ions present in molten salt by electrolysis that utilizes the cathode discharge phenomenon to form metal nanoparticles in the molten salt. This method can be used to form nanoparticles of metals and various alloys such as silicon, titanium, tungsten, and tantalum. They succeeded in miniaturization and homogenization of particles, and are currently prototyping a device of large scale which is also capable of continuous production.

The third is the electrolytic synthesis of ammonia. Ammonia is used as a raw material for fertilizers, medicines, and fibers, and the demand for ammonia is expected to increase significantly with its application as an energy carrier in the future.
The ammonia synthesis method used at present is the “Haber-Bosch Process” which converts hydrogen obtained from natural gas and nitrogen from the air the into ammonia by catalytic reaction under high temperature and high pressure, but a large amount of carbon dioxide is generated during synthesis. Although it is an excellent method to supply nitrogenous fertilizers that are indispensable for increasing food production to support the growing population of the world, the method has the problem that it cannot reduce carbon dioxide, which is an effective method for preventing global warming.
However, if the method used to synthesize ammonia by generating nitrogen ions with an electrochemical reaction while supplying nitrogen gas into “Molten salt” and adding steam, ammonia can be synthesized by the electrical power from renewable energy without generating carbon dioxide.

The fourth is the recycling of metal. Extracting and recycling useful and expensive metals from objects used as products. Even among metals, rare earth metals are an indispensable necessity in high-tech devices, but these metals can hardly be mined in Japan. Therefore, efficient recycling from scrap available inside Japan is necessary for a stable supply. It can be understood that recycling is required as you frequently come across the word urban mining.
For example, in the case of neodymium magnets used in air conditioners and hard disks, to recover them from scrap, iron is precipitated using alkalis after dissolving the whole equipment in a large amount of acid, and rare earth elements are retrieved as oxide from the solution. To separate and retrieve each rare earth element, more than 50 extraction and separation processes are necessary, using solvents that are expensive and harmful to the environment. At present, full-scale recycling is not carried out in Japan as recycling is expensive.
President Ito says that the company can selectively retrieve rare earth metals from neodymium magnets just by using molten salt electrolysis, without using solvents that are expensive and harmful to the environment. The demand for rare earth elements, which are indispensable to high technology industries, is expected to increase in the future, and there is a concern about the shortage of supply in Japan as it has no resources and relies on imports. The company's technology is expected to contribute to the future of Japan significantly.

“MSEP” is a technology that will contribute to various fields such as environment, energy, resources, and nanotechnology. That is why the scale of initiatives is significant, and the cost for research and development are also more.
There are many difficulties to be managed by just a single company, and they are seeking companies to work together towards commercialization of products and their practical applications.

Interview Date: February 8, 2019

 

company information

Our company is a research and development type venture company established with an aim of practical application and commercialization of the one-of-its-kind "Molten Salt Electrochemical Process (MSEP)" technology. We contribute to the society by carrying out support right from licensing of owned intellectual property and fundamental research to development of mass production technology.

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