Pure glass and silicon, clearly dated rocks, bigger diamonds, infinitely reusable concrete and scrap metal, higher ore yields from mining – and all with less energy than before. The fragmentation technology developed by Kerzers-based SELFRAG AG which was founded in 2007 opens up a whole new range of encouraging possibilities in the fight against dwindling natural resources.
Tons of rock are transported from the world’s biggest mines in Mexico, Canada, South Africa and Russia to SELFRAG in Kerzers. The name of the company gives a clue to what it does: selective fragmentation. “With very fast pulse power delivered by artificial lightning we break rock down into its natural components,” explains CEO Frédéric von der Weid. “This process has four extremely interesting environmental and economic advantages over all the existing methods: we need a lot less energy; the existing raw materials are completely reusable; they’re undamaged; and they’re absolutely pure.”
The objective is to process 100 tons an hour
If you consider for a moment that precious stones like diamonds or rare commodities like uranium, coltan or rare earth elements are of growing importance and that the fragmentation method can also be used to recycle scrap metal or concrete you will quickly realize the enormous potential of this Swiss SME. SELFRAG can play a vital role in helping overcome the global scarcity of commodities. But where’s the catch? “There isn’t one!” laughs Frédéric. “The technical discovery has been made. Now it’s a matter of solving the engineering problems so that we can expand the operation to the planned dimensions. If our process is to be successfully applied to mining operations, our machines need to be able to process around 100 tons an hour - or about 700,000 tons a year - and not just a few a kilos.”
Mining companies, like many others, now believe in the power of artificial lightning – and yet they’re still having trouble taking it fully on board. Can selective fragmentation really be used for all kinds of rocks, regardless of their composition? And, of course, will it work for the complex mix of materials that come out of their own mine in particular? And will the process work in practice and not just on a small scale in the laboratory? At any rate the results of the experiments with larger and larger quantities are so promising that the order books for 2014, when large-scale machinery is scheduled for production, are already more or less full.
Shock waves produced by unimaginably large voltages
It’s not difficult to explain how the SELFRAG machines work. Artificial lightning bolts of up to 400,000 volts flow through the material and encounter heightened resistance at each new boundary layer. This produces a shock wave that causes the various components to be separated mechanically from one another. The voltage required for this operation is almost two thousand times higher than the voltage that comes out of an ordinary socket in your home. It is transported via water but at such a high speed that the water plays the role of a perfect isolator, forcing all the energy into the material to be fragmented. This demonstrates the extraordinary level of know-how that underpins the fragmentation technology.
The whole project had relatively modest beginnings. A Langenthal-based engineering company was looking for more efficient ways of recycling concrete because the gravel that it contains is becoming scarcer and therefore more expensive. “The technology was discovered in 2000 by scientists from the Ammann group in collaboration with the research center in Karlsruhe,” explains Frédéric von der Weid, himself a qualified engineer from the ETH in Lausanne. Little by little it became clear that this technology could be used in the construction of machinery for a wide range of applications. Subsequently Johann Schneider-Ammann, who was a member of Switzerland’s National Council at the time and CEO of the family firm, decided to spin the technology off in to SELFRAG, which was founded in 2007 and in which he retains a stake.
An ideal location for the company
Kerzers was chosen as the location for the new company. It’s within commuting distance of Langenthal and therefore convenient for the Ammann employees who switched to the new SME. At the same time it’s far enough away to be properly independent of the parent company, explains Frédéric von der Weid, who has been CEO of SELFRAG from the very start. Kerzers was also chosen because of its proximity to various major universities and their research departments – namely, the universities of Berne, Fribourg and Neuchatel – as well as to the federal institutes of technology in Zurich and Lausanne. And last but not least, the canton of Fribourg expressed great interest in attracting the new company.
At the beginning we mentioned the major coup that SELFRAG has planned for the beginning of 2014, but it’s also important to note that the company has already achieved commercial breakthroughs in two areas. As part of a CTI project with the Institute for Geology in Berne the company has already developed laboratory equipment that can be used, for example, to help to find out the exact age of various kinds of stone. Following the development of these devices, which look a bit like coffee vending machines, the next generation of larger machines was completed in 2010. These are capable of fragmenting between 200 and 2,000 tons of material per year and can be used, for instance, in the recycling of high purity glass and silicon.
Kerzers location seems secure
At present SELFRAG has around 30 employees and intends to create a further 50 jobs over time. Space for the expansion of the company’s premises, which looks likely to become necessary in the near future, is available in the Kerzers industrial zone.
Ammann Schweiz AG, Affentranger Associates (the venture capital arm of Implenia’s Chairman Anton Affentranger) and a handful of private individuals were the initial investors in SELFRAG. They were joined in March 2011 by Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd. which has contributed a total of 24.4 million Swiss francs.