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Digging Deep

To aid a fragile planet, alumni trio uses AI to improve scrap metal recycling in the face of growing demand.

Emily, Ben and Caleb at Radius Recycling in Everett

The numbers tell the story. Metal production—for everything from cars, to washing machines, to steel girders—creates 40% of all industrial greenhouse gas emissions, according to the National Institutes of Health. The challenge is becoming more pronounced by the year, as global demand for metal is expected to almost double by 2050. And so, too, will the stressors exerted on a fragile planet.

A trio of WPI graduates isn’t standing idly by. Emily Molstad ’19, MS ’19, Caleb Ralphs ’20, MS ’21, and Ben Longo ’20 are the brains behind Worcester-based VALIS Insights, Inc., which is using artificial intelligence and machine learning in a groundbreaking bid to identify and recycle metals that—beyond producing harmful carbon emissions during manufacturing—also clog landfills.

The secret to improved recycling, it turns out, is buried deeply in data churned out by the nation’s 565 scrap metal recycling businesses. It’s information that, until now, has never been collected and analyzed in a way that not only stands to aid the environment, but also enables a multi-billion-dollar circular metal economy.

VALIS is piloting VALI-Sort, proprietary software that runs in concert with recyclers’ existing sensor-based sorting equipment. The software logs every bit of metal that flows through sensors, documenting real-time usage trends in ever-changing metal markets. Recyclers then can more easily sort metals based on their profitability. (A separate software application under development, VALI-Melt, helps recyclers utilize various scrap sources to maximize recycled content in new products.)

“There’s a lot of data, but it’s not easy to use it, especially when it stops fitting on spreadsheets,” says Longo, who wrote programming code for VALI-Sort. “We’re getting all of that data in one spot, so people can use it effectively.”

Ben Longo, Emily Molstad, and Caleb Ralphs of Valis at Radius Recycling in Everett, Mass.

Common, in-demand metals, such as aluminum and copper—essential for making lightweight vehicles and for electrification—also stand to be more effectively recycled with the VALIS software.

Data, Data Everywhere

In 2024, the role of Big Data can’t be overstated. Every day, humans and machines across the globe create 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data, according to IBM—enough to fill 20 billion file cabinets. Amid the crush of information, VALIS’s goal is to help recyclers identify “value creation” opportunities, ensuring that valuable materials don’t end up in landfill, while also boosting their profitability. The environmental benefits are notable: recycled metal generates nearly 80% less emissions compared to newly created metals that must be mined from ore. The technology stands to help address inefficiencies across the recycling value chain and recoup $50 billion in metal annually, according to the company.

VALIS, a portmanteau for “value” and “intelligent sortation,” is making headlines. CEO/COO Molstad and CTO Ralphs this year were named to Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” list, which recognizes the “brightest young entrepreneurs, leaders and stars.” (Longo joined the startup as its lead programmer in 2022, two years after Molstad and Ralphs built out VALIS from its roots at Solvus Global in Worcester.)

“Without our technology integrated with recyclers’ equipment, basically all of the data is thrown away at the end of the day,” Ralphs says. “What we do is pair that data with their inventory, with their procurement data, and with their sales data, so we can best understand the dynamics of their process. We can then tell them, ‘Hey, this source provides you higher quality material, and this one provides you less quality material. You can expect to get this much zinc when you buy material from vendor A, and this much copper when you buy material from vendor B.’”

In the end, data is used by sales teams to augment and create new metal markets around the globe. The software is being piloted by Radius Recycling (formerly Schnitzer Steel Industries). Findings will help the founders further develop their technology, which ultimately could be used in other recyclable markets, such as plastics.

We’re enabling data-driven decision making so they can be confident that their processes are optimized even as material and market trends shift.

Emily Molstad

In 2023, Molstad presented its software at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) Convention & Exposition in Nashville, the world’s largest recycled materials industry event, through a panel geared toward helping recyclers understand the power of software and AI applications. “We’re enabling data-driven decision making so they can be confident that their processes are optimized even as material and market trends shift,” Molstad says.

An Early Iteration

Ralphs and Molstad met while working as student interns at Solvus Global, which was co-founded in 2017 by former WPI engineering Professor Diran Apelian, Aaron Birt, MS ’14, and Sean Kelly ’14, MS ’16, PhD ’18, to create manufacturing technology innovations, including developing more sustainable methods to manufacture batteries. VALIS is one of five business enterprise units developed to date at Solvus Global.

During his sophomore and junior years, Ralphs worked at Solvus Global at the behest of Kelly, an adjunct instructor and lecturer at WPI who initially came up with the idea for VALIS following his doctoral dissertation (advised by Apelian) on automotive aluminum recycling. Ralphs performed data visualization and modeling for Kelly, creating an early iteration of VALI-Sort in Python computer programming language. Molstad worked in a materials engineering role at Solvus Global from 2018 to 2023. 

Apelian, who retired from WPI in 2020 after 30 years (and who founded the Metal Processing Institute), is now a distinguished professor of materials science and engineering at the University of California, Irvine. He remains chairman of the board at Solvus Global, and he lauds his co-founders for running a “people-based” business. That’s always been Solvus’s lodestar, Apelian notes.

“There’s a lot of joy in building something from scratch and having it be your baby, but also at the same time making an impact, doing something that you enjoy, and knowing that people value it, and make money along the way,” he says. 

In 2019, Molstad attended the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps), a seven-week experiential program that prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory. During that time, she took a two-month, cross-country road trip in which she visited scrap processing facilities and melt plants. In all, Molstad interviewed 150 industry players, “really getting an in-depth understanding of the language that’s spoken in recycling, and the challenges and needs.”

The founders have thus far secured more than $3.5 million in funding from non-dilutive sources, including a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant from the NSF and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They’ve also received investment from Closed Loop Partners, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, and GS Futures, among others.

Metal recycling facility Radius Recycling in Everett, Mass.

In 2023 the VALIS team began piloting its technology and once again hit the road to meet with recyclers. The travel not only served as a great opportunity to build relationships in the industry,
but also to strengthen the team’s vision. During one notable trip, Molstad, Ralphs, and Longo ended up stranded in their Airbnb during a snowstorm. While the storm disrupted the original plans, it provided invaluable time for the group to brainstorm ideas for the nascent business.

The partners all have strong opinions about where to take VALIS, according to Molstad, but “we’re comfortable debating about topics without each other’s feelings getting hurt, because we’re respectful of and centered on a common goal. We’re able to challenge each other intellectually and technically. We can always find a path that makes sense, that we can agree upon.”

An Early Love of Nature

Molstad’s passion for doing right by the planet started as a kid in Connecticut. There, her grandparents’ home bordered the McLean Game Refuge, where she and her older brother, with walkie-talkies in hand, traipsed the natural wonderland and thrilled to tracking deer and bear. “My grandfather had laid old logs down to create a little entryway, and once we got past those logs, there was just a whole forest for us,” she says. “One of my most vivid memories was coming through a ravine and seeing a family of deer standing in the ferns. It was bright and sunny, and really magical.”

That love for nature inspired Molstad to pursue a career where she could have an impact in protecting the environment. She entered WPI as an environmental engineering major, but changed direction after taking a course called “Recycle the World,” taught by Apelian (and now by Kelly). Apelian says he created the class 15 years ago to lure and retain students interested in STEM fields. The course, an offshoot of the university’s Great Problems Seminar, addressed environmental, social, and policy issues around recycling, in an attempt to show students they had agency in a changing world. “Students could see why they were in school,” Apelian says. “It got them engaged and, more important, empowered.”

There, Molstad fell in love with materials science. Although WPI doesn’t offer an undergraduate major in materials engineering, she switched to mechanical engineering because it gave her a route to explore materials. She also minored in environmental sustainability studies, earning her master’s through the BS/MS program.

While women account for just a third of all employees in STEM fields, Molstad is undeterred in the face of occasional “mansplaining,” or the more frequent instances where she’s the only woman in the room (or on Zoom). She attributes her growth to the number of amazing mentors she’s received support from, but especially her mother. “My mom never let me doubt my capabilities in any capacity,” she says. “That was so empowering to me.

“People are sometimes surprised when I know what I know,” she adds. “But I’m glad to say that I’m seeing that less and less; there’s a lot of encouragement for women to build their careers, not only in STEM, but also in recycling.”

Dreaming Big

Ralphs, for his part, brings data science and machine learning perspectives to VALIS. He grew up in Simsbury, Conn., where a friend asked him, then a high school sophomore, if he wanted to attend a computer science summer camp at Wesleyan University. It was an easy answer. Ralphs thrills to mathematics and problem solving. At the camp, he learned Java and the rudiments of computer programming. From there, he created “little game programs” on his own time. “I knew then that was the direction I wanted to go,” he says.

As a high school senior, the WPI lure was hard to ignore. Ralphs was drawn by admissions materials that stressed project-based learning and the fact that he could minor in the newly created data science program. When he met Molstad at Solvus, the pair saw business potential in metals recycling—and decided to dream big.

“I like owning the work that I’m doing and feeling like I’m delivering value and solving a problem,” Ralphs says. “We’re building something that matters, that isn’t just making someone else more money or affecting a price point on an insurance model.”

We’re building something that matters, that isn’t just making someone else more money or affecting a price point on an insurance model.

Caleb Ralphs

Coincidentally, the founders all lived in Daniels Hall, but Ralphs and Longo—who became close friends from their earliest moments at WPI—wouldn’t meet Molstad until their paths crossed at Solvus Global. These days, Ralphs and Longo are roommates in Cambridge, while Molstad remains in Worcester. The men share an office with a whiteboard, where “you’re staying up late, burning the midnight oil,” Ralphs says, “figuring out how to tweak a specific model or algorithm to meet a deadline.”

Ralphs’s project learning centered on creating cutting-edge computer models, which helped to give him acumen to forge VALIS. He says the data science capstone course he took as a first-year student was especially valuable, giving him critical skills in Python code. 

Longo, a computer science major, similarly used his time at WPI to perform generative modeling—machine learning that relies on statistics and probability—to create traffic simulations. After graduation, he worked as a software engineer for Boston-based Datto, Inc., and 128 Technology in Burlington, Mass., before joining Solvus Global. A native of Thetford, Vt., Longo always gravitated to mathematics and computer programming. WPI fed his natural sense of wonder.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve tinkered with electronics and built stuff,” he says, noting he was particularly fond of Arduinos, hardware and software that allows creators to use microcontroller kits to construct digital devices. “I’ve always found a lot of fulfillment in that kind of thing.”

Longo says his best technological thinking time comes between 9 p.m. and midnight, when he dons a pair of headphones, queues up some Snarky Puppy tunes, and puzzles over the challenges at hand.

The Need for Data

“Fundamentally, the first problem we want to solve is getting information about material through its entire lifecycle. That’s the challenge we’re really trying to push forward,” Longo says.

The Valis team at Radius Recycling in Everett, Mass.

“When you’re talking about industrial data, there are a lot of steps that you need to do really well before you’re in a position where you can even start thinking about using AI,” he says. “Companies know they want to be using AI, and they know there’s a lot of power and value in using it, but ultimately—at the end of the day—any kind of machine learning or artificial intelligence needs data and lots of it. What we’re doing a really good job at is taking all the disparate data sources that are present in an industrial recycling context and making them joinable, so that statistics and artificial intelligence can be applied to that data.”

Apelian is pointed in describing why conquering these challenges is important to VALIS in particular, and to the environment in general.

“We’re in a completely different world today, where we’re creating so much waste,” he says. “Nothing is repaired. Electronics break down, you call the company, and they’ll send you a new one. Questions really need to be framed in that perspective, and to find means to create value from waste.”

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