How Australia plans to unlock value from mining waste

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  • Billions of tonnes of mining waste called tailings are generated by the mining industry every year.
  • According to research, tailing materials could contain valuable minerals, including critical minerals.
  • Instead of developing new mines, miners could use advanced technologies to extract useful minerals from waste pits.

The discarded mining dumps and tailing materials lying near mining sites may seem to be of little use, but they might hold the potential to generate billions of dollars.

The mining operation produces a lot of waste, which is in general, known as ‘tailings’. As per the regularity norms, dump sites need to be taken care of properly to prevent pollution and other environmental issues.

Normally, these stripped materials discarded as waste are stored near or at location of mining operations. Sometimes, mining companies fail to take care of these dump sites and invite environmental catastrophes. In fact, the failure of tailing dams has caused numerous issues in the past.  

Mine site rehabilitation can be expensive. However, the burden of safe storage of the scrap mining materials could be lowered if the mining space players start looking them with a different perspective. One has to start viewing these discarded materials as potential resources and not as waste as these could be recycled and reused for various industrial applications. Tailings dumps can be a gold mine of opportunities for critical minerals, which are vital to high-tech industries.

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How is Australia trying to make the most of mining waste opportunities

Geoscience Australia has teamed up with premier institutions to prepare a ‘Atlas’ for Australia’s mining waste storage locations. The Geological Survey of Queensland, RMIT University, and the University of Queensland are participating in the program.

The aim is to recover valuable minerals through a concept of secondary prospectivity. The new Atlas is being designed under the Australian government’s AU$225 million ‘Exploring for the Future’ program. The objective is to come up with a national database which would have all the data and information regarding mine waste sites across Australia and the mineral that could be potentially present in them.  

The team is also tasked with creating a methodology to evaluate if secondary mining of any of these minerals is economically viable. The methodology will then be included in Geoscience Australia`s Economic Fairways tool, which would aid in making investment decisions by the Australian resources sector.

Geoscience Australia believes that mine waste sites could become a prominent source of critical minerals. Critical minerals have become essential for development of modern technologies used in the defence, aerospace, space, battery and other industries.

This secondary prospectivity from the existing mines presents a new opportunity for the mining companies. This will not only improve the sustainability and social licence of their operations but will maximise the returns from the project, without substantial expenses.

The Atlas project was originally brought forward to explore the potential for cobalt in copper tailings in the Mount Isa area. Gradually, the investigation moved forward to the tailings dams and waste storage facilities throughout Queensland.

Studies have indicated that secondary mining of tailings and waste mine materials could make more sense than rehabilitation programs, financially and environmentally. For instance, the pyrite-rich tailings can hold up to 3% cobalt, which could easily fetch up to US$23,000 per tonne in the international markets.

Re-mining or secondary mining can help protect the environment from toxic waste. There are nearly 50,000 abandoned mines in Australia that contain varieties of reactive mining waste such as sulphide minerals, which on mixing with water can cause acid mine drainage (AMD). The potential risk is really high and can cost more than AU$100,000 per hectare to clean up.

With technical challenges associated with appropriate disposal of mining wastes, including flooding or covering them with vegetation and other rehabilitation options, secondary mining seems somewhat apt in the present context.



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