Company turns pollutants into products
Where do photography, fertilizer, cyanide, silver bullion, and e-waste intersect?
In the mind of John W. Whitney, Ph.D., president of Itronics Inc., a “Creative Green Technology” company based in Reno.
In the last three decades, Dr. Whitney has turned used photographic processing chemicals into fertilizer and a product to neutralize cyanide at gold mines; captured polluting silver and turned it to silver bullion; and is now working on turning e-waste from computers into something usable.
“We created value where none existed,” Whitney said during an interview in his Reno office, referring to the process of turning film processing waste into fertilizer. “We’re looking to do the same with e-scraps.”
Itronics is a clean-tech company producing specialty fertilizer with silver as a byproduct at its plant in Stead. The company also operates a research and development facility in Reno that explores ways to turn harmful waste into usable — and marketable — businesses.
Whitney started life on a Nebraska farm. He studied geology, mineralogy, and chemistry to get away from farming. He holds a doctorate in Mineral Economics from Pennsylvania State.
He came to Reno in the early 1970s as a mining consultant.
“We used computers for large-scale data management,” Whitney said. “Mines generate massive amounts of data that has to be interpreted.”
In 1981, he and a partner developed a chemical recovery method for gold and silver mines.
“This is where I got my expertise,” he said.
By 1986, his expertise was well known in the region.
At that time, used chemicals from photo processing were dumped down the drain. The Reno-Sparks treatment plant was not equipped to filter out the dangerous ingredients. The silver, in particular, was polluting the Truckee River and killing off fish.
The EPA had filed suit against the state, which was expected to pass the suit on by filing against the cities. Upgrading the treatment facility would cost millions of dollars. They needed another option. Officials from the cities of Reno and Sparks called on him to find a cheaper solution.
Whitney set up a research and development office and found a method to remove the silver from the liquid.
Even though Whitney’s process saved the treatment facility millions of dollars in upgrades and the cities millions in lawsuit costs, the company received no government funding. Investors paid for the research. What the city and state jurisdictions did do is pave the way to turn the process into a business.
The first step was to find a profitable use for the remaining sludge.
A company-hired researcher discovered that some types of fertilizer have a similar chemical makeup to the nitrogen, iron, and sulfur leftover after the silver was removed.
It worked in R&D. Whitney’s farmer father helped in small-scale testing and found it worked better than standard fertilizers. Field tests done on a turf farm east of Reno created thick grass on a previously unproductive plot. But could the fertilizer turn a profit?
Once there was an alternative way to dispose of photographic waste, Nevada outlawed dumping it into the sewer system. To help make the enterprise worthwhile, the state allowed photographic liquid to be brought in from other states, as long no part of it entered the waste stream.
Itronics opened a factory in Stead in 2000 to handle the process and GOLD’n GRO fertilizer products were born.
Its subsidiary, Itronics Metallurgical, Inc., is the only company with a fully permitted “Beneficial Use Photochemical, Silver, and Water Recycling” plant in the United States, according to company literature. The plant converts more than 99.5 percent of the spent photo liquids into pure silver plus GOLD’n GRO fertilizers.
The effort has earned Whitney numerous accolades in Nevada and internationally (see sidebar).
Even though much photography is now done digitally, Whitney said numerous industries continue to utilize film processes and produce photographic chemical waste.
Film is more safely stored than digital images.
Insurance companies require 20 percent of medical imaging to be done on film to avoid fraud, since digital images are easy to manipulate.
Gas and oil pipelines are imaged on X-ray film to look for weaknesses, as are aircraft parts and space-bound craft.
“A lot of permanent data storage is on microfiche, which uses photographic printing,” Whitney added.
About 100 million gallons per year of photographic chemical waste is generated the U.S. with most being diluted and hauled to hazardous waste disposal sites. Itronics uses only about 100,000 gallons per year.
“We have plenty of room for growth,” he said.
Itronics is beefing up research and development in other uses.
“Fertilizer is a highly seasonal product,” Whitney said. “That’s not a good way to have a stable business.”
Itronics has scaled up testing on a product that has proven effective in neutralizing cyanide used in gold and silver refining. Called KAM-Thio, the test product is a rebranded version of one of Itronics’ fertilizers.
“One of the largest potential markets in the world for the KAM-Thio technology is right in our back yard,” Whitney said in an August press release, referring to the extensive mining industry in Nevada.
The process pulls out the cyanide, neutralizes the heavy metals, and after all that, can actually fertilize grass.
Whitney’s not done yet. More recently, he’s turned his attention to e-scraps, the shredded remnants of electronics. Itronics is working on a process to separate the precious metals in e-scrap using proven technology.
“There’s gold in circuits,” he said. “I suspect we’ll have a very high gold recovery; silver, gold and palladium.”
“Our goal is 100 percent recycling; to create value where none existed, where (pollutants would otherwise) end up in some other large waste stream.”
Christal Park Keegan’s professional experience includes working as an attorney for the National Judicial College in Reno and for the Chapman Law Firm in Northern Nevada.