A cleaner future
A Cleaner Future

Mining innovations put out multiple environmental and social fires.

By Alexandra Cain

The shift to more environmentally friendly extraction techniques is one of the biggest and most pressing challenges in mining. This is taking place concurrently with skyrocketing demand for metals, such as copper – an essential component in many products and devices supporting the shift from fossil fuel–powered energy to renewable sources, such as batteries for electric cars, windmills and solar cells.

There is an array of projects happening across the public, private and university sectors to address this complex dynamic. A good example is the new Copper For Tomorrow Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) bid.

The University of Adelaide’s Michael Goodsite, Director of its Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Resources, is helping to lead a project to set up this new CRC. ‘The initiative will explore how to extract copper from low-grade deposits in a more environmentally friendly way compared to current practices,’ he explains.

Faster, better, stronger

There’s a sense of urgency around establishing mechanisms such as the Copper For Tomorrow CRC to expedite the transition to a cleaner mining future.

According to data published by management consulting firm McKinsey, by 2050, renewable energy will account for almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of global power generation.

Copper takes centrestage in this transition, given its role in cabling and heat exchange in generating energy from renewable sources. Wind farms alone can incorporate between 1.8 million and 6.8 million kilograms of copper. Moreover, solar farms require about 4000 kilograms of copper to produce one megawatt, which is approximately enough to power 800 homes for a year.

‘When we figure out how to efficiently get to lower-grade metals, we can return to abandoned mines, extract the remainder of minerals and, at the same time, remediate and improve the environment,’ Goodsite explains.

The realities of achieving this are complex. ‘There’s no one single answer, other than mining should be part of the solution, not the problem,’ he says.

Solutions include keyhole mining that extracts the mineral rather than the ore. The water required for this process could also be recovered and improved for agricultural purposes or used to generate hydrogen.

‘When we figure out how to get to lower-grade metals, we can also go back to abandoned mines, extract the remainder of minerals and, at the same time, remediate and improve the environment,’ Goodsite explains.

Money in muck

Over at The University of Queensland (UQ), a team of researchers from the Sustainable Minerals Institute’s International Centre of Excellence in Chile (SMI-ICE-Chile) is investigating new ways to manage copper tailings. This is the detritus left after ore has been processed to extract copper.

New techniques, such as keyhole mining, should lead to less waste being produced when minerals like copper are extracted from ore. But there’s still a need to explore better ways to deal with tailings from existing mines.

UQ’s SMI-ICE-Chile is leading the Solar Tailings Transformation Consortium. This initiative is developing solar energy–powered processes to convert copper tailings into pellets and high-quality water.

Tailings are complex and difficult-to-handle mine waste. Repurposing this material could create new products for the construction and road building sectors, with wastewater going to benefit agriculture.

Another project from the Sustainable Minerals Institute is working out more environmentally friendly and socially responsible ways to separate other products from copper tailings, the disposal of which is one of the main challenges with which the mining industry is grappling. The aim is to change the way the industry deals with tailings, and also deliver social and economic benefits to the communities where mines are located.

Getting mining’s freak on

Innovative mining is just one area where new thinking is driving different ways to approach greener power solutions. There is substantial work taking place right across the energy-generation spectrum, with some mind-bending advances happening, at least from the layperson’s perspective.

Innovative mining is just one area where new thinking is driving different ways to approach greener power solutions. There is substantial work taking place right across the energy-generation spectrum, with some mind-bending advances happening, at least from the layperson’s perspective

One area that is yet to gain major public attention is advanced biomanufacturing, and systems and synthetic biology. Advanced biomanufacturing involves engineering biological systems to make products, including new fuels. One project by UQ researcher Esteban Marcellin Saldana, from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, uses gas fermentation to convert greenhouse gases into fuels. The technology helps lessen dependence on finite fossil fuel resources, and improves sustainability for Australia and the chemical industry.

Another UQ-backed initiative, Pure Battery Technologies, refines electric vehicle (EV) battery material in an environmentally superior way. The technology can refine raw materials with up to 85 per cent fewer carbon dioxide emissions than traditional processing methods.

Pure Battery Technologies was set up in 2017 to address heightened global demand for more environmentally friendly materials to make EV batteries. It has developed technology to produce more affordable, superior nickel and cobalt materials for EV batteries. The materials achieve better environmental outcomes compared to existing inputs into EVs. Its technologies allow existing battery metals, also known as black mass, to be recycled.

The company recently announced that it is building a $460-million refinery hub in Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, with construction due to start in late 2023. This follows the acquisition of a German production facility, Königswarter und Ebell Chemische Fabrik GmbH, in September 2020. ‘The refinery is in the process of being expanded to produce 10,000 tonnes of metal from late 2023,’ says Pure Battery Technologies spokesperson Collette Hetherton-Gwinn.

‘We are replicating our business globally, using our repeatable plant design to capture the growth in the lithium-ion markets. Our ability to refine raw materials and recycle from existing battery stocks is a game changer for the drive towards a truly circular economy,’ she adds.

Concern for communities

While there is an incredible amount of work taking place to whip the mining and resources sectors into better environmental shape, real innovation also involves better engagement with the communities where mines are located. It’s especially important to ensure that any vulnerable and Indigenous communities benefit from, and are not exploited by, the introduction of new technologies.

This is important, because as global demand for minerals critical to the clean energy transition soars, there is pressure to extract more metals from the sensitive lands and seabeds across fragile and remote areas, including inland and coastal Australia.

While leaders may be attracted by the prospect of royalties and economic development through new approaches to mining, the transition to a low-carbon economy cannot be at the expense of environmental and social justice. The UN is calling for what it terms ‘just transitions’ to tackle climate change and biodiversity, and to support inclusive economies and societies in the future.

It’s an essential posture for the mining sector to adopt as it rapidly transforms through innovations aimed at better outcomes from its work for communities and other stakeholders. 

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