Quebec companies try plasma technology to produce greener fumed silica

HPQ president, CEO and chairman Bernard Tourillon holds a piece of quartz while at PyroGenesis Canada in Montreal on Sept. 9, 2021. The two companies are eyeing plasma technology to convert silica into fumed silica as a means to make the material greener.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Fumed silica: It’s in your deodorant, light bulbs and wall paint, but you’ve likely never heard of it. Derived from quartz, it’s a light, white, fluffy powder used as a thickening agent in many of the goods Canadians consume daily.

But typical methods of producing fumed silica – also known as pyrogenic silica – are known to pollute the environment and create harmful, potentially explosive by-products. Also, most fumed silica is produced by American, German or Chinese companies, so transportation can add to emissions.

Now, two Montreal-based companies are developing a new method for processing fumed silica they say could reduce emissions by 86 per cent. They say this would make them the only companies to produce fumed silica in Canada, and the first to use plasma technology to manufacture it.

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Quartz mining company HPQ Silicon Resources Inc. and plasma processes specialist PyroGenesis Canada Inc. say using plasma technology to convert the silica into fumed silica, instead of using powerful flames and chemicals, could be the next step in making the material greener.

“This new process could revolutionize the manufacturing of fumed silica, while repatriating production back to North America,” the company said in a news release in August. It also said the global fumed silica market is expected to grow from US$1.5-billion in 2016 to US$2.2-billion in 2022.

Global Market Insights, a U.S. market research and consulting firm, estimates the fumed silica industry could grow at a compound rate of 5.4 per cent annually over the next five years.

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PyroGenesis announced Wednesday it had secured an additional $630,000 from Technoclimat, a Quebec government green energy fund, to develop low-cost, environmentally friendly fumed silica processes. This follows a grant of $700,000 from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, an arms-length federal foundation, announced in May. According to PyroGenesis, this brings the total value of the project to about $5.3-million, including the sale of intellectual property to HPQ Silicon for $3.3-million.

The two companies are targeting the fast-growing demand among investors focused on ESG (environment, social and governance) issues.

At the end of the second quarter of 2021, sustainable investment assets hit $26-billion in Canada, representing a year-over-year growth rate of 130 per cent, according to Calgary-based market research firm Matco Financial Inc. This growth comes despite increasing concerns about greenwashing – when a company implies its product or service is more environmentally friendly than it truly is.

“We’re moving into an environment where ESG principles are there for everybody, so the buyers of a material now have to be conscious of its carbon footprint,” said Bernard Tourillon, president of HPQ Silicon.

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Mr. Tourillon of HPQ Silicon eyes a piece of quartz in Montreal on Sept. 9, 2021.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The project is currently in its trial period, and is expected to produce 50 tonnes of fumed silica in its first year, staring in July, 2022. HPQ Silicon holds intellectual property rights for the reactor process through its subsidiary, HPQ Polvere, and the process is patent protected.

“Scaling up these types of processes is our specialty at PyroGenesis, but we know there’s going to be a lot of fine tuning to before we’re making kilos and kilos of this stuff that is of the right quality for our suppliers’ needs,” said Jean-René Gagnon, lead process engineer at PyroGenesis Canada.

The company’s new technique builds on the work of McGill University emeritus professor Richard Munz, now a consultant on the project.

“The current method used by companies in China and Europe uses a lot of chlorine, so it’s expensive, and it’s not very environmentally friendly,” said Dr. Munz, who started studying the process in the 1990s. “Our idea was to make the same material, using only electricity and plasma technology to ideally make it more cheaply at the same or better quality.”

Plasma is the fourth state of matter, after solid, liquid and gas. In the same way a solid turns to a liquid when energy is applied – such as ice melting into water – a shift to plasma occurs when a gas is given more energy through the transmission of electricity.

Plasma is used in the automobile, medical device and transport industries. PyroGenesis specializes in using plasma technology to create products for the defence, mining, metallurgy and waste-management sectors.

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PyroGenesis’s new plasma method proposes to expose quartz to an electric arc in a manner similar to lightning, Mr. Gagnon said.

“We put the quartz in the reactor and subject it to high temperature, and it vaporizes into very small particles. Then we’re able to resolidify it as this very, very fine powder,” he said.

The two companies hope it will bring fumed silica production to Canada. Current big players in the market include Boston-based Cabot Corp., Germany’s Evonik Industries AG and China’s Henan Xunyu Chemical Co., Ltd., all large-scale chemical companies.

“It’s not a huge market in the way that other natural resources are, like wood or electricity. But at a market value of US$1.5-billion, it’s certainly worth it commercially for us to enter. Even if we get 5 or 10 per cent of that business in the first few years, it’s still an immense amount of money,” Mr. Gagnon said.

The new production method wouldn’t replace current ones – at least, not any time soon – given the size of investments in existing infrastructure. But Dr. Munz said the initiative could be an opportunity to invest in a Canadian exportable good.

Mr. Gagnon said the project also makes particular sense in Quebec, where renewable energy from hydro plants is cheap and quartz is abundant. Most of Canada’s quartz reserves are in the province, as well as in Ontario and Alberta.

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If successful, the companies plan to scale up production to thousands of tonnes a year.

“It would put Quebec on the map for an environmentally friendly way of producing a very important industrial material,” Dr. Munz said. “There’s a long way to go, but we’ve been successful and we’re going to keep going.”

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