Establishing critical minerals supply chains in the circular economy

Donald Bubar, President and CEO of Avalon Advanced Materials Inc. discusses establishing critical minerals supply chains in the circular economy.

Critical minerals supply chains are increasingly under strain. However, there is a new avenue to recover these minerals from the wastes contained in closed mine sites, argues Bubar.

With the growing interest in establishing the circular economy by encouraging more and more recycling of discarded materials that can be re-processed to re-use the materials used to manufacture them, it is now a growing sector of the newly-emerging low-carbon, clean economy. The new interest in rapidly establishing new supply chains of the many critical minerals needed in new clean technologies is creating an extraordinary opportunity to do this quickly.

Creating the circular economy in the mining industry can start by re-activating closed mine sites to study mineral potential in the wastes and design new extraction processes to recover them efficiently while fully remediating the long-term environmental liability. We should be taking advantage of closed mine sites where critical minerals were already mined but not recovered and now remain in tailings ponds and waste rock piles. Many hundreds of such sites were developed decades ago to produce one or two traditional exchange-traded commodities. Then, the resource contained numerous minerals and elements that had no value but do today.

Unfortunately, closed and abandoned mine sites have always been treated in the past as perpetual liabilities and ‘no-go’ zones because of the environmental impacts created by the original mining operation. These impacts often occur because the original resource contained sulphide minerals that oxidise when left on the surface, generating acid mine drainage, making them inaccessible to entrepreneurs interested in re-activating them to recover critical minerals from the wastes.

Adopting technologies to deliver critical minerals supply chains

While acid mine drainage can contain toxic elements such as arsenic that pollute water, it can now be looked at as an opportunity by extracting the arsenic and other dissolved rare earth elements while neutralising the acidity before discharging it from the site. Since getting the elements of economic interest into solution is typically one of the most expensive steps in hard rock ore processing, with acid mine drainage, Mother Nature has already done all the hard work for you! New technologies are being innovated to recover elements dissolved in acid mine drainage, including one using a nanotechnology-based filtration method that can passively recover the elements of interest on a selective basis. The new technology is called NanoBeads®, developed by a private US company called Precision Periodic.

One example of a traditional polymetallic mineral deposit, mined for centuries, but where only one element was recovered is tin greisens. These are now viewed as opportunities to recover lithium from waste rocks as it is typically found in the host rocks of the tin-bearing mineralised veins. Avalon Advanced Materials Inc. is examining such an opportunity at its East Kemptville Project in South Western Nova Scotia, Canada, where other critical minerals including indium, gallium, germanium and copper can potentially all be recovered from the tin mine wastes.

Critical minerals supply chains opportunities

Similar opportunities are now being investigated at closed coal mine sites in the US. There is also exceptional potential to recover many rare elements, including rare earths that were present in the host rocks and now concentrated in acid mine drainage. Even if these concentrations are relatively low compared to primary hard rock deposits, when an efficient extraction process such as the NanoBeads® can be applied, it may still represent an economically attractive production opportunity. This opportunity will be enhanced if applied collectively to the many sites in the United States.

There are abundant opportunities to apply innovative new extraction technologies to recover these critical minerals from mine wastes efficiently. It is simply a matter of completing analytical test work to determine how the various elements of interest occur mineralogically. One must then design the most efficient, innovative extraction process to recover them and turn those elements into the desired derivative products needed in new technologies.

The time has come for governments to actively encourage more research on opportunities to apply the circular economy in the mining industry, starting with allowing ready access to closed mine sites for entrepreneurs with a vision for extracting value from the wastes. With a few positive precedents on how significant value can be created whilst benefiting the environment and contributing to the future low carbon economy, greater interest will undoubtedly be inspired!

Please note, this article will also appear in the ninth edition of our quarterly publication.

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Contributor Details

Donald Bubar

President & CEO
Avalon Advanced Materials Inc.
Phone: +1 416 723 9132
Website: Visit Website
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