Where some see the future as uncertain, or even imperilled, others see opportunity and hope. This Kootenay entrepreneur is boldly going where no plan has gone before, and he wants us all to come along. This story by Matt Coté first appeared in KMC’s Summer 2019 issue. Photos by Bryce Duffy.
Fire. It is one of the first technologies humans ever used. Long before we knew how to start it, we scampered to harness naturally occurring flames to keep our torches burning. Eventually, we learned how to make fire on a whim and how to control it. From that moment on, we learned the truth about technology: it can warm the house, or burn it down. While it’s been eons since we discovered that duality of innovation, it remains the same today.An axe can split wood, or cause you to lose a finger. A car can get you across town, or put you upside down in a ditch.The energy in an atom can power entire nations, or blow up the world. In the spirit of continuing this ongoing dance of techno-optimism, where we forever hang our hopes on our species’ ingenuity and benevolence, we bring you the Kootenays’ leading tech champions. They are tackling some of the world’s biggest problems caused by said tech, with incredibly techie solutions.
Don Freschi: Fenix Advanced Materials
Look at things like smart phones and X-ray machines, and you might argue this is the best time in history to be alive. But there’s a catch to modern technology: to make any digital machine, we need ultra-high-purity metals. To get those, we have to mine ore, transport it huge distances, and separate its elements. When we do that, we also create toxic byproducts, like mercury and arsenic. This is something the citizens of Trail, British Columbia, know all too well. Since 1896, they’ve lived alongside one of the largest lead and zinc smelters in the world. And until 1995, it dumped much of its granular waste into the Columbia River. Since then, the smelter’s recycled what it can into things like cement, but it still ends up burying what’s left. While that’s a fraction of what it used to be, it’s still something.
“It all feeds into the fishery; everything feeds into the water,” explains Don Freschi, a CEO, lifelong Trail resident, metallurgical mastermind, and professional fisher. For 24 years, Freschi has hosted a network television show called Sport Fishing on the Fly, and for 35 years he’s been one of the leading material engineers in the Kootenays. Nowadays, he’s helping with the leftovers. He buys industrial waste from the smelter and turns it back into usable metals for digital technology. He and some colleagues launched Fenix Advanced Materials in 2015. The company cheaply, cleanly, and cleverly combines otherwise toxic by-products from Teck — the smelter’s current owner — to make new metals for semiconductors and the solar-energy industry.
Freschi first took a job at the Trail smelter in 1984, researching semiconductors. The mouthpieces of digital technology, semiconductors control the digital code that runs everything. Then in 1991, he started his own semiconductor company, Firebird Technologies Inc. He ran it successfully until 2009, when he sold it to a Montreal company that still operates it in Trail today, with 40 employees. With Fenix, Freschi now focuses only on making niche metals. It’s working, and business is booming. “We’ll be able to give you some real solid numbers in the next year or two,” he says proudly in his barrelling TV-host voice, “but we go through tons of material. It certainly helps the environment. If it’s not going to a landfill, it’s saving the water, for sure.”
Entrepreneur Don Freschi’s company cheaply, cleanly and cleverly, combines otherwise toxic by-products from the smelter in Trail, BC, to make new metals for semiconductors and the solar-energy industry.
It also improves daily life. Take cadmium and tellurium; on their own, they’re toxic. But Freschi mixes them together and sells it as cadtel, which goes in the semiconductors for solar panels. He also turns arsenic into gallium arsenide, a key ingredient in mobile phone semiconductors. “When you draw out all those nasties, you have to deal with them,” Freschi says. “But if we can handle all the waste streams, we can do a lot better.”
Also, as the entrepreneur-in-residence at the Kootenay Association of Science and Technology, Freschi hopes to lure other tech industries to Trail to prosper alongside him and further boost the economy. “How we see it is vertical integration of the market. So, if they’re making semiconductors here, why aren’t they making the solar panels, since they have the metals? All these industries that are using our products, why wouldn’t they set up in our area? That’s the end goal.”
This is the second in our series called “Big Think” celebrating technological entrepreneurs in the Kootenay region. Matt Coté is a technological agnostic based in Revelstoke, British Columbia. He believes if there is a second coming, it’ll be a robot.