The CSIRO says it has discovered a new, potentially environmentally friendly mining breakthrough that may end up replacing the traditional means of digging in the mining industry.
The CSIRO, alongside researchers from the University of Western Australia, Technical University of Denmark and University of Exeter discovered that the use of electric fields to extract metals from rock could ultimately replace traditional mining techniques.
The researchers say that by deploying electric fields, rare earth minerals and metals can be extracted underground, in a new, environmentally friendly mining breakthrough.
According to Professor Henning Prommer of the UWA’s School of Earth Sciences, the technique works by placing electrodes within the ore body, which have an electric current sent through them. This is said to “induce the transport of electrically charged metals” like copper, in a process known as electromigration.
“The metals are extracted within the ore body, instead of the traditional means of having to dig them out and milling huge amounts of material, a technique which traditionally has placed huge pressure on the environment.”
“Traditional methods of excavating ore material result in a large amount of solid waste brought to the Earth’s surface which needs to be disposed of, whereas this new method dramatically decreases wastage,” Professor Prommer said.
The Professor added that the technique can be made even more environmentally friendly if the power supplied to the electrodes is sourced from renewable technologies.
“This is really exciting because we can use our intermittent power sources such as solar and wind to extract minerals,” he said.
Meet the CSIRO’s New Environmentally Friendly Mining Breakthrough
The environmental benefits of this breakthrough are potentially huge, with the CSIRO stating in a release that “digging methods are currently used in 99 per cent of mining activity, often resulting in significant environmental degradation and huge quantities of solid waste.”
“Global estimates of waste are of the order of 100 gigatonnes per year, significantly larger than any other form of waste generated by humans.”
The potential breakthrough has been published in the latest edition of Science Advances, with the CSIRO confirming that the technique will be further developed and refined alongside the Minerals Research Institute of Western Australia.
Professor Andy Fourie from the University of Western Australia’s School of Engineering says the researchers have successfully tested the technique with laboratory experiments and computer simulations.
The team managed to successfully extract copper from “very tight rock samples” and they are “confident the idea will also work in the field, not only for copper but also for a wide range of other metals.”
Professor Fourie said that “it will not only improve mining outcomes, it will help us shift towards a more sustainable way of mining.”