Tag Archives: mining

A perfect marriage of geothermal and mining

Geothermal developers often struggle to make their projects economically viable, while mining companies are finding it increasingly difficult to get social license for new projects.

Given these two market challenges, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is taking a closer look at the idea of recovering minerals from the hot brines that geothermal power plants pump out of the ground. These mineral-rich fluids contain a variety of rare earth elements and other valuable metals, but at conventional geothermal plants the only thing that gets extracted today is the heat.

A wasted opportunity? That’s what the DOE thinks. In summer 2014, the department committed more than $4 million to nine geothermal projects aimed at recovering both heat and minerals from brines. Work on those projects started in October, with results expected by fall 2016 or earlier.

“This is effectively ‘solution mining by nature’, and minerals dissolved in these fluids represent potential resources,” according to a DOE paper presented in January at a geothermal energy workshop at Stanford University.

For geothermal developers, added revenues from harvested minerals represent a way to move projects forward that might otherwise lack a business case – for example, if the heat resource at a particular site isn’t quite high enough. For mining companies, geothermal mineral recovery represents a sustainable path forward for an industry under pressure to reduce its environmental footprint.

“This is the future of mining,” said Gary Billingsley, a director with Saskatoon-based Star Minerals Group, a partner in one of the DOE-funded projects. “It’s a natural step in the evolution of mining, and certainly something I’m pretty keen on.”

No such research is being funded by the Canadian government, despite the country’s vast mineral resources and efforts by the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA) to raise awareness of the opportunity.

“We are delighted that Star Minerals received DOE support for their innovation, but what can the Canadian, provincial and territorial governments do to create these opportunities at home with our own world class resources?” said CanGEA chair Alison Thompson.

Star is working with Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL), the University of Oregon, the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and consultancy Barr Engineering on the testing of advanced sorbent materials that can separate certain minerals from brine flows.

The two-year project will look specifically at ways to extract rare earth elements and precious metals. The sorbents already show promise based on preliminary tests conducted by PNNL, according to the DOE.

The sorbent is, in essence, a designer molecule attached to a substrate. The molecule has an affinity for grabbing specific metals out of the fluid that flows over it. It’s not an entirely new activity – the mining industry has been using a similar approach with what’s called “solution mining” for many years.

The innovation, explained Billingsley, is being able to strip those metals off the molecules at the kind of flow rates, volumes and low mineral concentrations characteristic of a geothermal power plant.

Star Minerals is particularly interested in rare earth elements such as dysprosium, a name derived from a Greek word that means “hard to get.” It’s one of several rare earth metals used to create permanent magnet alloys for use in electric vehicles, wind turbines and other green technologies. China dominates the market, so finding new domestic sources has grown in importance.

“If you’ve been in the industry for as long as we have, which is about 40 years, there are getting to be fewer and fewer places to mine, and fewer places to look for these particular types of metal,” Billingsley said. “To us, it’s a lot better if you can target recovering them from waste streams or geothermal brines or oil-field brines. It makes a lot more sense.”


It’s a message that Thompson of CanGEA has been sending to the mining industry over the past year. By working together, geothermal developers and mining companies can help each other out, she said. The association recently released a chemical analysis report showing the best places in western and northern Canada to mine for both heat and minerals. “It’s hard to get companies to take it seriously,” Thompson added.

One seven-year-old company that has taken it seriously is California-based Simbol, often considered the poster child of geothermal mineral recovery. Operating in the state’s Imperial Valley, it has partnered with several geothermal power producers, which after extracting heat from hot brine flow have agreed to let Simbol extract lithium, manganese and zinc compounds from the fluids before they’re injected back into the ground.

Based on the operations of a pilot plant between 2011 and 2014, Simbol knows its process works – at least for producing high-purity lithium carbonate, an essential ingredient of lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars – but efforts to break ground on a large-scale commercial plant this year have reportedly stalled.

Last February, it was reported that Simbol – which was one of the company’s that received DOE research funding last fall – had dismissed most of the employees working at its demonstration plant. It was a sign, some observers said, that the company is having a difficult time raising capital for its commercial plant, which at full production capacity is designed to produce enough lithium for more than a million electric cars.

Simbol co-founder Luka Erceg, who was chief executive before leaving in early 2013, said he has completely severed ties with the company but continues to believe in the larger mission.

“I’ve always been bullish on mineral extraction from brines,” he said. “This is clearly an area with a lot of potential.”

If it can be made to work with geothermal brines, the DOE believes the approach can also be used with fluids that are co-produced with oil and gas operations.

GDP doesn’t accurately reflect the true impact — positive and negative — that mining has on our collective wellbeing

miningpollutionThese days, the “North” is talked about more as a bank account full of easy money than as a beautiful and biologically diverse part of Canadian geography that should be cherished and protected.

The challenge is to make it both.

No question, the riches are there. A recent report from the Conference Board of Canada touts how mining in the North is expected to nearly double by 2020, both in terms of the value of minerals and metals we retrieve and the number of jobs created.

Mining in the North is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 7.5 per cent, compared to an average of just 2.2 per cent annually for the Canadian economy as a whole.

But Scott Vaughan, federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, is worried about what will be sacrificed in the rush to make withdrawals. Environmental oversight is sorely lacking, he concluded in a report tabled this week to Parliament. There are also big information and infrastructure gaps.

“We know that there’s a boom in natural resources,” he said. “I think what we need now, given the gaps, given the problems we found, is a boom in environmental protection.”

In the North, real mining gross domestic product (2002 dollars) was $4.4 billion in 2011, and is expected to grow to $8.5 billion by 2020, according to the conference board.

It’s an impressive figure, but like all values attached to GDP, it’s also misleading. It accounts only for the one-way flow of minerals out of the ground and into marketplace. It ignores any of the health or environmental costs incurred over the next seven years, or the long-term economic implications of emptying yet another resource-filled bank account.

As Natural Capitalism author Paul Hawken said during a speech this week in Toronto, “Our current economic system steals from the future, sells it in the present, and calls it GDP.”

Many of Canada’s major mining companies are, to be fair, making an effort to reduce their environmental footprints. They’ve seen the writing on the wall for more than a decade. With social media acting as a kind of global watchdog, ducking responsibility is becoming riskier business.

Organizations and programs have sprouted up to support efforts, including the Mining Association of Canada’s Toward Sustainable Mining initiative, which established principles for environmental performance, and the Green Mining Initiative, which has a similar mandate but is led by Natural Resources Canada.

Then there’s the relatively new Clean Mining Alliance, which was founded to promote and share information about new clean technologies that can help mining companies operate more efficiently, make less of a mess, and more effectively clean up the messes they do make.

“Notoriously conservative mining companies and their shareholders are starting to realize that the capital expenses of new clean technologies can be offset by reduced operating costs and the potential for new revenues,” according to Dallas Kachan, managing partner of Kachan & Co. and executive director of the alliance.

In his start-of-year outlook for 2013, Kachan predicted there would be a much higher adoption of clean technologies in the mining sector, particularly in areas such as water purification, remediation of tailings, advanced mineral separation and products that reduce the use of water and power.

Of course, simply using renewable energy such as geothermal or storage-backed wind can help lower pollution and carbon emissions at mining sites, which are often so remote that renewables become a more cost-effective option than, say, running dirty diesel generators. It helps, and we need much more of it, but it’s not nearly enough.

What’s also needed, Hawken said during his talk, is a “whole different pallet” of technologies that don’t just reduce the impacts of industrial operations, but fundamentally change how industries operate.

He pointed to the amazing advancements taking place in a new discipline known as biological mining. The idea here is that there are molecules and bacteria found in nature – including the human body – that are designed to selectively grab specific minerals, heavy metals and other toxins.

Hawken described a time when we’ll use these molecules and bacteria to “mine” and concentrate the residual but highly demanded minerals from, for example, the tailing ponds of old mining sites. Instead of digging up new stuff, we can find it in the pollution we’ve already left behind.

The approach offers remediation and revenue-generation at the same time. Toronto-based BacTech Environmental is an example of a company playing in this emerging space.

“We can now run the industrial age backwards by doing what nature does,” said Hawken, adding later, “The breakthroughs are ubiquitous and they’re coming at us fast.”

Can they reach us fast enough, and at a cost low enough to motivate? Will the federal government and mining sector – which prefers to stay clear of risk – wake up and realize that leadership on this front is becoming an issue of long-term survival?

We may be on the path to doubling mining GDP in the North. But we’re also emptying the bank account, and incurring charges we don’t yet recognize but, sooner or later, will have to pay.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.