Forging a Sustainable Growth Pathway for Mining: the Role of Value Recovery from Waste

Features Published: December 12, 2023

The energy transition is underway – solar, wind, electric cars and grid batteries are being deployed at record rates. While these technologies are undoubtedly clean to operate, questions remain about how clean they are to manufacture. The Energy Transition Commission estimates that nearly 6 billion tons of steel, copper and aluminum will be needed for clean technology deployment by 2050. The mining and manufacturing of these materials has not historically been very clean. But that’s changing.

New technologies that turn mining waste into value can help ensure our transition to a clean economy is truly clean, through and through. Mining companies will now have the opportunity to embrace the circular economy, forging a sustainable pathway for growth, while delivering on demand.

The Problem

Accumulating vast volumes of waste has long been a controversial facet of mining. The University of Queensland’s Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation unveiled staggering figures: around 3,500 large-scale mining projects collectively produce over 110 billion tons of solid waste annually. To add perspective, the Global Tailings Review estimated a mind-boggling 280 billion metric tons footprint across 8,500 tailings storage facilities worldwide that potentially contained over $3.4 trillion worth of precious metals. 

The cost of storing and managing waste is a blight on mining company’s P&L statements, and the implications can extend beyond monetary value. Landfilling, a common disposal method for industrial slags, poses well-understood environmental threats. The leaching of heavy metals and other toxins from slag landfills, coupled with escalating costs and diminishing landfill space, underscore the urgency for innovative solutions. Additionally, unforeseen disasters such as the collapse of tailings dams or recently, lingering toxic contamination from a century of copper smelting in Montana, amplify concerns around traditional waste management practices in mining.

The Solution: Unearthing Value from Waste

As part of the shift towards sustainable mining, new technologies are in development that enable companies to not only curtail waste, but to recalibrate their processes to extract value from it. Vale and similar firms are at the forefront, generating eco-friendly sand for consumers while diminishing the amount of tailings directed to dams.

Major players, too, are echoing the importance of value recovery from waste. Rio Tinto’s partnership with RESOLVE birthed Regeneration, an initiative aiming to rehabilitate natural environments and derive value from mine waste. Such ventures not only restore ecological balances but introduce new revenue streams, emphasizing the financial and environmental symbiosis achievable through advanced value-recovery technology.

Our Brazilian subsidiary, Boston Metal do Brasil, is home to the first commercial deployment of our Molten Oxide Electrolysis technology for recovery of high-value metals from mining waste.

Technological advancements, like our Molten Oxide Electrolysis, are also reshaping the industry’s approach to slag. Instead of merely managing waste materials, companies can now tap into them as already-mined deposits, thereby completely bypassing the traditional exploration and mining processes. By utilizing electricity to selectively extract high-value metals, like niobium, tantalum and tin, from these low-concentration waste materials, the company is not just maintaining the same waste volume, but is also unlocking new value streams. In essence, what was once seen as a liability is now a valuable resource waiting to be harnessed.

Recycling and Beyond

While value recovery from waste is gaining momentum, recycling still has a major role to play. The rates at which metals are recycled vary considerably; while 86% of gold finds its way back into the economy, the numbers stand at 42% for aluminum and a mere 32% for copper. This variation underscores untapped potential in enhancing recycling for certain metals. Interestingly, recycling also promises substantial energy savings. For instance, repurposing scrap aluminum uses about 90% less electricity than its production from raw bauxite ore. That said, the development of a domestic supply chain for metal recycling is important, considering the transportation emissions caused by the import and export of scrap.

Economic incentives are further aligning in favor of recycling, as evident from surging scrap prices. Within the past year, used beverage cans saw a price spike of 78%, trading at $1.38 a pound, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights. Such financial drivers, coupled with the environmental benefits, emphasize that recycling, together with value recovery, is crucial in shaping a sustainable and circular mining economy.

A Circular Vision for Mining’s Future

As electrification and industrial growth take hold all over the world, the opportunity for mineral-rich nations, like those in the “lithium triangle” and others with vast reserves of cobalt and bauxite, is immense. With anticipated global mining investments surpassing $1.7 trillion, directing a significant share to these developing regions could transform their economies and societies for the better.

The future of mining now depends on rigorous environmental, social and governance standards that protect communities and their surroundings. Organizations like the International Council on Mining and Metals are paving the way by offering guidance for nations and industries at this critical junction. Deploying innovative new technologies that recover valuable metals from mining waste and driving more sustainable recycling practices will play a critical role in facilitating this necessary transformation.

About Boston Metal

Boston Metal is commercializing Molten Oxide Electrolysis (MOE), a tonnage metals technology platform powered by electricity, to decarbonize steelmaking and transform how metals are made. MOE provides the metals industry with a scalable, cost-competitive and green solution for the production of steel and high-value metals from a variety of feedstocks and iron ore grades. Backed by visionary investors and led by a world-class team, Boston Metal is headquartered in Woburn, Massachusetts and has a wholly owned subsidiary in Brazil.

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