SALT LAKE CITY — A huge object resembling a space capsule stopped traffic in the Salt Lake Valley Friday morning and left many motorists wondering what it was.
The processing vessel for valuable metals was hauled in a convoy of support vehicles to Kennecott Utah Copper's vast complex in Magna, where the 56-foot-long "crystallizer" is part of an ambitious $340 million project.
A new plant under construction, the first of its kind in the world, is aimed at turning two obscure metals into valuable products. It represents another move by Kennecott to expand its opportunities in the growing economies of India and China.
"This is a big plant," said Brendan Ryan, Kennecott's vice president for projects and expansion. "This will (produce) 10 percent of the world's molybdenum. And we need to size it appropriately."
Molybdenum, a metal known at Kennecott by the more pronounceable nickname "molly," is about to become big business in Utah. Along with it, Kennecott intends to produce a finished form of rhenium, a metal most people have never heard of.
When used as additives, rhenium and molybdenum increase the value of high-end steel by making it harder, stronger and more resistant to heat and wear.
In a crystallized powder form, rhenium is more valuable than silver, selling for about $2,000 a pound.
"It's used in a lot of aerospace industries, a lot of jet turbines," Ryan said. "It allows them to run more efficiently and cleaner."
The Molybdenum Autoclave Processing project has been under way since 2010. In recent weeks, a five-story building has arisen. Eventually, the project will include eight buildings, reaching up to 10 stories high.
Kennecott is investing more than $300 million, betting the company can make a profit by altering its handling of the two metals. For decades, the company has been extracting ore containing rhenium and molybdenum out of the Bingham Canyon mine. They are essentially by-products of copper mining.
MAP will allow Kennecott to do something it's never been able to do before: produce the two metals as a final product instead of shipping raw concentrates to other companies for final processing.
"It brings jobs to Utah," Ryan said. "It stops us having to ship this product over to Europe or South America to have it made into a final product."
Currently, about 400 people are working on the construction project. That will soon grow to 600. When the plant is finished in the first quarter of 2013, it will create about 100 long-term jobs.
The crystallizer shipped to the site on Friday will turn molybdenum into crystals. Most of the MAP process involves processing of liquids in a giant pressure cooker called an autoclave. The company promises minimal emissions.
"The main thing that the public will notice driving by is steam from the cooling tower," said Doug Stauffer, Kennecott's MAP Project Director.
The plant will burn natural gas to make steam needed in the process. Some of the heat will be used to generate electricity. So Kennecott will get 6 kilowatts of power, along with two very obscure but very valuable metals.