As demand for the metals and minerals underpinning the green energy transition continues to surge, the pressure is on for miners to find, explore and develop scores of critical minerals. Thankfully, the materials science revolution continues to bear fruit, allowing resource companies to employ cutting-edge technology in the quest to meet ever-increasing demand for electric vehicles, batteries, renewables and electrification infrastructure.
Startups and joint ventures are stepping up to the plate, harnessing machine learning, cutting-edge chemistry, and breakthrough processes provided courtesy of the materials science revolution.
A case in point, as per a recent Wall Street Journal story: Startup Urbix, an Arizona-based graphite producer leveraging machine learning to discern how to create “uniform graphite anodes fit for use in EV batteries from a range of natural and synthetic forms of graphite.” The company says that its machine learning technique drastically reduces waste — whereas traditional methods result in a roughly 30 to 35 percent yield, Urbix’s technique allows for 80% of raw material inputs to end up in the final product.
Meanwhile, Locus Fermentation Solutions, an Ohio-based chemical business, has begun using bio-surfactants, chemicals from microbes capable of breaking a material’s surface tension, to increase the yield in the copper production process. According to the company, bio surfactants can be utilized for either of the main copper processing techniques and can increase copper yields by 7%, while at the same time saving energy as less rock needs to be crushed.
Mine tailings can also be fertile grounds for resource harvesting. Massachusetts-based startup Phoenix Tailings currently specializes on finding mine sites free from radioactive materials such as thorium and uranium and recovering REEs from these sites. The company says that at its pilot facility in upstart New York, where it processes the tailings, zero waste is produced as leftovers from the process are recycled.
Other companies, and even governments are also looking to “turn the same stone twice.”
In the rare earths realm, Reuters lists six major projects outside of China aimed at extracting the critical minerals from waste or byproducts, including Iluka Resources Ltd’s and VHM Ltd’s operations in Australia, Rainbow Rare Earths Ltd’s endeavor in northeast South Africa, Swedish state-owned LKAB’s plans to extract REEs from two existing mines, and two U.S. operations, one of them being the above-referenced Phoenix Tailings, and the other being U.S. Energy Fuels. U.S. Energy Fuels originally focused on uranium production, started acquiring monazite, a byproduct of mineral sands, to extract REEs with plans to open its own separation plant by 2024.
Beyond the rare earths, global miner Rio Tinto began producing tellurium at its Kennecott copper operation in Utah, where roughly 20 tons of the material are generated from by-product streams generated during the copper refining process. As America’s oldest copper mine, now in its 117th year of operations, there’s no telling how many critical minerals may reside in Kennecott’s historic waste piles.
In addition to recovering tellurium from Kennecott, after commencing production of battery-grade lithium from waste rock at a lithium demonstration site at its Boron mine site in California in 2021, Rio Tinto last fall began partnering with CR Minerals Co. LLC in an effort to extract a material called pozzolans from the facility’s tailings, which can be substituted for or combined with cement to decarbonization construction materials. In Canada, the miner is producing scandium from titanium waste, becoming the first North American producer of scandium in the process.
Meanwhile, as Australia’s Financial Post reported earlier this summer, the Australian government has launched the “Atlas of Australian Mine Waste,” a mapping project of sites containing mine waste with reprocessing potential.
Acknowledging the potential held by mine waste and tailings, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) earlier this spring solicited proposals for FY2023 grants to collect data on mine waste, using funds from Bipartisan Infrastructure Act in the context of the Earth Mapping Resources Initiative (Earth MRI).
At a time when geopolitical tensions are rising along side ever-increasing pressures to accelerate the shift towards renewable energy, the materials science revolution — thankfully — continues to unlock new technologies and techniques allowing for the safe and commercially viable recovery of critical minerals from a variety of previously largely untapped sources, including mine tailings. It’s ARPN’s view that stakeholders should embrace and further these developments in the context of a comprehensive all-of-the-above approach to bolster critical mineral supply chains.