The ramp-up of renewable energy products will require a range of critical metals. One of these elements, tellurium, is gaining popularity for use in photovoltaics or solar panels. As global demand for solar panels continues to grow, so does the need for critical metals like tellurium.
Tellurium is not mined as a solo mineral. Currently, most tellurium is collected as a by-product of copper mining. “The fundamental question is: how much tellurium is there?” says Simon Jowitt, an economic geologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. He and co-author Brian McNulty are trying to find out where this tellurium is and how much metal might be there. Jowitt will present his work tomorrow at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.
Unfortunately, the amount of tellurium in a mine is rarely reported. To fill in the gaps and create estimates of critical minerals, Jowitt and McNulty developed proxies for estimating tellurium content on a global scale.
Their first approximation results from resource and reserve estimates. In these reports, a mining company uses its own survey data and estimates that there are 2 million tons of metal in the ground. These ratios are used to estimate the value of a mine site.
“We, what we do is take that information – which tells us the size of the deposit, the number of millions of tonnes of ore or mineralization – and we combine it with information published elsewhere on the concentration of tellurium and the deposit,” says Jowitt. Researchers can then calculate an estimate for tellurium.
“The second proxy is where we know the size of the deposit,” says Jowitt. In this case, the team uses quantities of related tellurium minerals like calaverite, a gold-tellurium metal. “We can estimate the amount of tellurium in this mineral, combine that with the reported size of the deposit, and again, develop a proxy.”
They examined 518 mineral deposits in active mines in the United States and Canada that are known to contain tellurium. Using their proxies, the researchers calculated that 18 gold mines in the two countries could produce ~90 tonnes/yr of tellurium from current mining, with another six copper, zinc and of nickel in Canada with the potential to produce ~170 tonnes per year. of tellurium. Jowitt says that’s a minimum estimate because not all gold, copper and nickel mines in the United States and Canada had proper data.
According to these estimates, they found that the mines move about 260 tons of tellurium, but do not collect it. “If you recover this tellurium, you could increase global tellurium production by about 25%,” says Jowitt. “That’s about seventeen and a half million dollars worth of tellurium being moved by the mining industry but being lost.”
Jowitt notes that their tellurium study is just one example of the potential for extracting critical metals from existing mining operations. “There’s a whole range of by-product and co-product elements that we move around when mining,” he says. “We need to do better to make mining operations more sustainable by extracting what we can from existing mineral deposits. And if we do that, it’s good for the environment, it’s good for the mineral industry (the way it’s perceived), and it’s good for the bottom line.”
Although their study focused on active mines, Jowitt notes that extracting critical metals from spoil piles in old mines can be another win-win situation. “There is a whole possibility of extracting all kinds of metals from mining waste,” he says. Old tailings and slag have potential for metal extraction. “There is potential for all kinds of wealth from waste,” he says. Although extracting metals from tailings can be economically profitable, there is also an environmental benefit.
“A lot of these sites have environmental issues. So what you’re doing is basically reprocessing a waste pile or a tailings pile that’s environmentally problematic, you’re removing the environmental problem and using the revenue generated by the process,” says Jowitt. “This is non-profit mining – the value of the items you extract are incorporated into the mining operations and actually reduce environmental damage.”
Jowitt says that as the need for carbon-neutral technologies grows, companies will need to consider mining multiple critical metals at once. “The demand estimates for some of these metals are just huge,” says Jowitt. “Unless we start thinking about [mineral extraction] that way, we’re going to end up with situations where metal prices start to skyrocket and climate change mitigation starts to slow.”
Poster session:Can critical metal supply problems be solved using existing but hidden material flows? Tellurium and the Canada-US Mining Value Chain
Poster session:Recent advances in economic geology
University of Nevada Las Vegas
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Airbus Ventures leads Solestial’s oversubscribed $10 million seed round
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