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Welcome to Mining 2.0 — Towards Net Carbon Negative?

Against the backdrop of the accelerating global push towards a low carbon energy future, which as followers of ARPN well know will be mineral-intensive, the mining industry — which currently accounts for between 4% and 7% of man-made greenhouse gases according to a McKinsey & Company report — has in recent years taken significant steps towards reduce its carbon footprint.

Over the past few months, ARPN has been highlighting several industry initiatives to harness the materials science revolution to sustainably green the future — ranging from overhauling supply chain policies to ensure suppliers conform to certain environmental and social standards, to incorporating renewable power sources into their operations to offset some of the carbon costs of resource development.

As columnist Andy Home outlines in an incisive new piece for Reuters, the latest push in this realm involves the concept of carbon capture, which he posits “could allow some to move beyond neutrality to become net carbon negative.” 

Home notes that while “[t]he technology for industrial-scale carbon capture and storage is still in its infancy and largely untested,” there are certain minerals that “do it naturally,” and harnessing their potential could in fact turn miners — who “tend to be the perennial villains in the environmental debate,” into “the unlikely pioneers of large-scale and permanent carbon storage.”

Enter an Icelandic energy company — Carbfix — that has found a way to not only harness the properties of basalt rock formations which are capable of trapping the gas in a stable form by converting it into carbonate minerals, but also reduce the mineral reaction time of what otherwise “plays out in painfully slow geological time,” as Home puts it. By injecting as much carbon dioxide as possible into water before pumping it into basalt rock, the company has successfully captured more than 73,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from a local geothermal power plant and pumped it underground.

With its ISAL aluminum smelter also sitting on Icelandic basalt rock formations, global miner Rio Tinto is looking to leverage this process for its operations, entering into a cooperative agreement with Carbfix, which is currently building out onshore infrastructure for its Coda Terminal — the world’s first “cross-border carbon transport and storage hub” — with pilot injections to commence in 2023 and commercial operations scheduled to start mid-2025.

Meanwhile, the mineralization process harnessed by Carbfix and its partners can also be leveraged when working with magnesium oxide, as evidenced by findings made by researchers at BHP Group’s Western Australian Nickel West operations, where tailings “have been capturing around 40,000 tones per year ‘accidentally and unknowingly’” — which could make the company’s nickel — already billed as “green nickel” with a significantly lower carbon footprint, even “greener still thanks to its tailings dam,” writes Home.

While carbon capture via tailings could significantly “shift the carbon dial down towards neutrality,” industry collaboration with carbon transport and storage hubs like the Coda Terminal in Iceland may well pave the way for making mining operations net carbon negative.

Moving from Iceland and Australia to the U.S., Talon Metals Corp is studying ways to harness the carbon capture potential at its Tamarack nickel, cobalt and copper project in Minnesota, both via tailings and rock injection.

As Home argues, the significance of the carbon capture opportunity cannot be overstated, and could inject “a whole new dimension into the heated debate around new mines and metals plants” as the Biden Administration grapples with reconciling its green credentials with the acknowledged need for domestic resource production.

Thanks to the ongoing materials science revolution the future may have arrived. Welcome to Mining 2.0.

Concludes Home:

“Mining is ‘the most toxic industry in America’, according to Becky Rom, national chair of The Campaign To Save The Boundary Waters, an environmental group opposed to the Twin Metals project.

Would new projects attract such venom if they could prove that they were part of the environmental solution rather than the problem?

We may not have long to find out.

The idea of a nickel mine or aluminium smelter being net negative in terms of carbon emissions may seem far-fetched, but the reality may be coming sooner than you think.”