Deakin researchers are looking for new ways to separate mineral particles from water as part of a major push to drive more environmentally sustainable processes within Australia’s mining industry.
Environmental engineer Dr Ellen Moon, from Deakin University’s School of Engineering, said the research will deliver faster and more efficient separation of minerals and test new ways of removing solids from tailings.
“Currently, mining waste is stored in huge, toxic ponds known as tailing dams. When these dams fail, they release millions of cubic metres of wastewater laden with heavy metals, acid and waste rock, leading to devastating impacts on the environment and local communities,” Dr Moon said.
“By driving out as much water as possible from mineral slurries, we will improve water recovery and dramatically reduce the need for tailings dams – with the ultimate goal of completely dry storage of tailings, minimising the loss of high value minerals and maximising water recovery while also improving safety and environmental impact.”
Professor Karen Hapgood, Executive Dean in Deakin’s Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment, said global urbanisation and the emerging green and digital economies have resulted in unprecedented global demand for metals.
“Low carbon technologies require lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and copper while smart phones alone contain up to 62 different metals including rare earth minerals,” Professor Hapgood said.
“The challenge for the mining industry is to find more sustainable ways of meeting the ever increasing demand for these metals.
“Our work will help us better understand the mechanisms responsible for improved water-repellence and we will use that knowledge to design and improve new separation processes.
“We will develop new types of particles, emulsions and foams that can be used to make mineral surfaces more water-repellent, with a specific focus on separating fine hydrophobic particles from the water streams, using novel ‘liquid marbles’.”
The research effort at Deakin University is part of an international collaboration led by the University of Newcastle at the new Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Enabling Eco-efficient Beneficiation of Minerals.
The work of the centre will aim to reach zero-emission mining by doubling energy and water productivity and reducing the loss of high value metals during processing by up to 90 per cent.
“The centre is a national effort to transform the minerals processing industry and train the next generation of scientists and engineers in eco-efficient minerals recovery,” Professor Hapgood said.
“Australia’s minerals industry will benefit from these outcomes through significant reduction in cost, higher metals recovery, reduced environmental impact, and lower energy and water consumption.”