ST. LOUIS — Lead production has a bad reputation among environmentalists.
But according to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Sunday editions, that's something the Doe Run Co. wants to change with a new production method that relies on a wet chemical process instead of a heat-based smelting process.
The suburban St. Louis-based company says the new method would not only curb pollution but help them improve the overall recovery rates of lead.
"It's not only safer, it's cleaner," Bruce Neil, Doe Run's president and chief executive officer, said in an exclusive interview with the Post-Dispatch. "Importantly to us, it's more efficient."
For years, smelters in Herculaneum in eastern Missouri and La Oroya, Peru, that are operated by Doe Run and a sister company have been emitting lead into the environment. This has spurred citizen lawsuits and sanctions by environmental regulators.
With Doe Run's development, smelting operations in Herculaneum could be a thing of the past. However, it's possible other operations, such as casting and alloy services, could continue at the facility.
Company officials did not indicate whether the new technology would be used at the Peru smelter, which has been closed since mid-2009.
The process, known as "FLUBOR," involves using a solution that contains fluorboric acid to dissolve lead concentrates. Lead is then extracted using an electric current.
Doe Run officials said the new technology would allow them to meet demand while eliminating 99 percent of all current land, air and water pollution releases.
The Italian engineering company Engitec patented the technology, but it had not been tested on a commercial scale until Doe Run became involved.
In the late 1990s, Doe Run built a pilot plant to evaluate the process. Next came a demonstration plant, which began operating in 2007 near Viburnum in southeastern Missouri. The demonstration plant shut down in early 2009 for nine months to save money, but it has been in continuous operation since November.
A preliminary feasibility study has validated the technology.
"This has never been done before for lead," said Dave Olkkonen, Doe Run's manager for research and technical development. "No one has ever been able to do what we've accomplished today."
The company is seeking the $100 million to $150 million in financing it estimates it would need to take the project from a demonstration plant to a commercial-sized operation. The best-case scenario is to open a new plant sometime in mid-2013, Neil said.
"I think lead is an important metal for the country," Neil said. "I believe it's a strategic metal. I think this assures we can have a lead technology in the country that allows us to produce it and not be reliant on other sources."