New tech makes eco-mining a reality for Rare Earths
University of South Australia Media Release
They’re the driving force behind electric vehicles and crucial to the manufacture of many high-tech products, but while rare earth elements are highly valued across many sectors, they’re extremely hazardous to extract, posing significant issues for the environment.
Now, new research from the University of South Australia could transform the way rare earth elements and other vital battery metals are recovered from the earth, enabling safer extraction with fewer environmental impacts.
Dr Richmond Asamoah from UniSA’s Future Industry Institute is developing new ways to safely extract critical minerals from downstream ore processing, tailings reprocessing, and wastewater treatments. He is also developing mechanisms to safely recycle spent products from scrap batteries and magnets.
“Rare earth minerals and battery metals are vital for the economic wellbeing of the world’s major and emerging economies, yet, their supply is not reliable because of geological scarcity, geopolitical issues, and trade policy,” Dr Asamoah says.
“Accumulated mining wastes are becoming an increasingly valuable source of metals and energy, but because there’s a lack of productive and economically viable extraction technologies, there’s also a notable loss of valuable metals.
“The process of extracting these critical materials is very damaging to the environment, with conventional mining methods generating large volumes of toxic and radioactive materials.
“Our research will identify new technologies that have the capability to both extract minerals from existing industrial wastes and mineral tailings, and recycle and source minerals and metals from spent batteries and magnets.
“As a result, we should be able to significantly reduce the amount of waste and harmful materials that can seep into the environment.”
The project will test two metal recovery processes – resin in pulp and resin in moist mix – to extract target metals from low grade ores, fine minerals and wastes such as tailings. These processes can also be used to remove harmful substances from water and soils to minimise their environmental impact.
Funded by the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund, Dr Asamoah says that the research will deliver significant benefits to both countries.
“We’re not only talking about environmental benefits, but also economical and sustainable technologies that both countries can use to extract rare earth and battery minerals from current mining operations,” Dr Asamoah says.
“Rare earth elements contribute nearly $200 billion to the Indian economy, yet despite India having the world’s fifth largest reserves of critical metals, they mostly import their rare earth needs from China.
“This project hopes to enable Australia to export rare earth minerals to India, as an alternative to China, as well as to empower India to establish eco-technologies to extract minerals and metals within their own borders.
“Importantly, the research will build capacity for processing critical minerals in Australia and India and creating many new eco-efficient opportunities for economic growth, employment and investment.”
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If this is a goer we have a massive REE resource from the tailings at Olympic Dam…
“This project hopes to enable Australia to export rare earth minerals to India, as an alternative to China.”
But will the US permit this? What if India goes ahead with its intention to buy Russian S-400 and S-500 missile systems? The ones that can detect and destroy US stealth aircraft and drones. The US had threatened sanctions against any countries that purchase these weapons but were understandably reluctant to impose sanctions on the world’s largest democracy, especially one that was suffering so much hardship due to the COVID pandemic.
The invasion of Ukraine changes that. Russia has now been successfully demonised throughout the West, and is expected to face sanctions intended to cripple its economy. Under the “US as World Marshall’’ law any country dealing with Russia will also face sanctions. If India buys weapons that threaten the US’s capacity to commit collateral murder, sanctions will be imposed upon not only India but also on those countries that trade with India.
Has Australia ever been prepared to act against the demands of the US? Currently in order to appease the US, Australia has rapidly destroyed its trading relationship with China. If the US disapproves of Australia trading with India as well that amounts to half the world being off limits as trading partners.
So, this worthy project may be disappointed if it is relying on exports to succeed. Unfortunately Australia also has a morbid record of forcing innovators to go elsewhere with their ideas rather than use them to develop local technology and industries that would benefit and develop Australia itself. There seems to be an unbreakable rule that Australia is only permitted to be a nation dependent upon exporting raw materials rather than be a manufacturing nation that can address its own needs as well as benefit the rest of the world with its remarkable ingenuity.
Why are we talking about exporting to refine any minerals? If the refining process for any mineral is currently a toxic problem, then use our knowledge to develop new technologies that are safe.
Digging up raw minerals for processing overseas simply loses jobs for Australian workers. All mining licenses should state that primary and secondary processing should occur in Australia. Otherwise Australian voters get little benefit from their own natural resources.