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Circular Economy in Mining and Metals

It is no secret that with the rising demand of Critical Minerals, particularly in the Clean Energy & High Tech Industry, and limited scope of primary production due to economic and geopolitical factors, secondary production of raw materials using mine waste recovery and innovative bio-refining and chemical extraction is developing into a growing business opportunity.

While there is rich extant literature on India’s dependence on and its long-term need for natural gas and coal, there is not a similar understanding of non-fuel minerals, particularly the critical minerals. In this part of the article series on CE & Raw Material Industry we look into some of the leading mining and metallurgy companies that are adopting a more circular approach to production and also look at some new start-ups that are developing exciting technologies to directly contribute to the secondary value chain.

The key element of a circular economy is the rational management of raw materials including that of metals, energy, chemicals and industrial raw materials as well as water and biomass. The aim of the circular economy is to boost economic growth without increasing the consumption of resources.

The mining and metals industry has a significant role to play in a circular economy. Mining represents the initial investment that makes valuable, durable and recyclable materials available to society such that human wellbeing can be improved overall. Minerals and metals are ideal technical nutrients and already display a significant degree of circularity in the economy today[1]. But more opportunities exist and designing products, policies, buildings and infrastructure, and transportation systems with circularity in mind are critical to optimising the value of metals to society.

Rather than cutting down on waste itself, companies are now investing in new industrial processes to extract and re-use some of the useful materials that are often dumped among tonnes of less useful mining waste. With platinum group metals (PGMs), base metals, and even rare commodities such as gold among these unintended by-products of mining, there are several initiatives across the mining industry to improve the reclamation of resources and push the sector towards a truly circular economy. At the same time recent accidents, such as the collapse of a tailings dam at Vale’s Brazilian operations near the town of Brumadinho, have also shone a spotlight on existing waste storage and treatment facilities, with growing concern that simply collecting vast reserves of solid and liquid waste is both unprofitable and highly dangerous. As demand for minerals, particularly rare earth and other uncommon commodities, grows, this problem is set to only increase.

The circular economy concept is an important contribution to our efforts to achieve sustainable development. It has the potential to bring together many sustainability concepts and ideas in a logical model and strategy, including understandable objectives that can often reveal new positive business cases.

Early Adopters of Circular Economy Principles in Primary Value Chain

Mineworx and Platinum Group Metal Recycling

Canada-based Mineworx has been involved in the mining industry for some time, having entered into the sector in 1975 with the acquisition of the Cehegín iron ore project in Spain, which produced four million tonnes of ore in its first fourteen years of operation. Since then, the company has moved into the development of more advanced technologies, aiming to increase the environmental viability of both its operations in particular and mining in general. The business reached a major milestone in April when it announced an agreement with Tennessee’s Davis Recycling Inc. to construct a pilot plant; the operation will see platinum group metals (PGMs) recycled from used catalytic converters. The move is a critical step in demonstrating the efficacy of the technology, which builds on the work of another partner, EnviroLeach. This company has developed a water-based process to extract PGMs from catalytic converters, with up to 90% of the precious metals being recovered. The process removes the need for harmful substances, such as cyanide, to be used in the extraction process, which have been an industry standard but pose significant risks to human health and environmental safety

This collaborative approach could help share information that could be beneficial across the mining industry, a sector which could see an increased demand for innovative waste treatment in the future. EnviroLeach notes that global electronic waste is predicted to increase to 78 million tonnes by 2026 as electronic devices become more widespread, and demand for gadgets increases[2].

VTT’s collaborative project MetGrow to strengthen the recovery of waste minerals and improve EU Supply security

Many of these mine waste projects are collaborative, and this is especially true for VTT’s MetGrow+ project, a collaboration with 19 companies, research organisations, and universities from nine European companies. The project was a four-year, $8.7m initiative to find ways to improve recovery of several waste minerals, such as cobalt, nickel and zinc, and improve Europe’s self-sufficiency about metal production. The project focused more on supply chain optimisation than technological innovation, and VTT reports that miners could see waste mineral recovery increased by up to 20% by following the initiative’s recommendations[3].

A key challenge for the project was developing a robust framework that could be applied to the mining industries of several European countries, each with a different balance of mineral exports and imports. The researchers overcame this by developing the “MetGrow Calculator”, an online tool that works out the optimal waste recovery process for a mine or region based on characteristic input by the user. VTT claims this system can take into account factors such as local access to mineral reserves and will recommend an appropriate waste management system. In addition to supply chain optimisation, the researchers completed work into the best uses for residual material from which metals have already been recovered. VTT noted that many recovered materials can be repurposed for use in building by being reworked into concrete, highlighting the project’s broad scope and attempts to improve efficiency across the breadth of the mining and construction industries.

Scandium International Mining Corporation and its Ion Exchange Project

A project at an earlier stage of development, and one seeking, rather than benefiting from, industry support, is Scandium International’s ion-exchange project. The initiative will use ion exchange technology, a process usually used in the purification of drinking water, where ions are moved between two electrolytes to separate a compound into its parts. Scandium International[1] expects to extract cobalt, nickel, and copper from mining waste. The miner also noted that the technology could be used to extract other minerals, such as rare earth elements, but that this would depend on the financial viability of the process itself.

This need to demonstrate technological and economic viability is a key challenge for Scandium International, and it has put out a call for copper miners and processors to sign up for involvement in the project. The miner seeks a partner with a functional copper plant, which can be used to demonstrate the efficacy of the technology on a demonstration-scale, before being scaled up to larger productions, or expanded to include other resources.

BHP’s ‘green copper’ push

Mining giant BHP is looking to take a leading role in the environmental rehabilitation of copper[5], both in terms of direct savings in energy and water consumption and in improving the transparency of the supply chain. The company is using data analytics to drive down freight emissions in its copper supply chain, and the massive new seawater desalination plant for the Escondida copper mine in Chile, which opened last year, is part of a broader plan to eliminate freshwater usage at the mine by 2030.

ICMM’s Member companies Circular Economy Approach

Three of ICMM’s member companies based in Japan[6] have taken multiple steps to embed a circular economy approach in various areas of their business and operations:

References [1] ICMM, Mining and Metals and the Circular Economy




[5] [6]

About the Author

Utkarsh Akhouri (LinkedIn) is an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and has over 5 years of experience in the field of Mineral Economics, Governance, Raw Material Security and Circular Economy. He is currently leading a European Mineral Policy Think Tank as its COO and has participated in several inter-governmental projects promoting sustainability in the mining sector.

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