According to research, a mining method can lower the amount of energy required to obtain essential minerals necessary for contemporary energy technologies while also capturing greenhouse emissions.

The Bureau of Economic Geology at The University of Texas at Austin has pioneered a mining process that might lower the amount of energy required to obtain essential minerals for contemporary energy technologies while simultaneously capturing greenhouse emissions.

The work was published in ‘US Department of Energy’ publication.

Transitioning the world’s energy to technologies and sources with low-carbon emissions would need vast quantities of lithium, nickel, cobalt, and other essential minerals found in low concentrations in Earth’s crust. Energy-intensive and waste-generating, the extraction of these components can significantly impact the environment and generate considerable volumes of greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide (CO2).

This research might transform these emissions into a tool by utilizing CO2 to weaken the rock containing essential minerals, so lowering the amount of energy required for mining. The ultimate objective is to greatly reduce the emissions produced during mining by storing them safely in the rocks, and maybe even make mining carbon negative by piping in and storing CO2 emissions from other industrial processes.

Since ultramafic rocks, which often include essential minerals, react with carbon, CO2 storage is conceivable. The CO2 chemically interacts with the rock to break its structure mechanically, making it easier and less energy-intensive to mine the minerals. This process also partially transforms the rock into limestone, integrating carbon dioxide into the mineral structure and permanently storing it.

CO2 is used in a new mining technique to keep track of important minerals

“Mining processes produce a significant amount of CO2 as a byproduct,” said Estibalitz Ukar, a research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences. “If you can capture what is produced at the mine, then you can create a low-emission operation, which is good, but we want to use the CO2-reducing properties of ultramafic rocks to help eliminate even more CO2.”

A grant of $5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy is supporting Ukar’s team of scientists as they try to develop the mining technique. In conjunction with Canada Nickel Corporation, the three-year initiative will develop the mining technology in the lab for two years before attempting a full-scale field test. The field test is scheduled to occur in one of twenty freshly found ore deposits along the U.S.-Canadian border that are anticipated to represent a significant new supply of essential minerals in North America.

The project would also increase the economic viability of low-grade resources, a crucial step in enhancing the local supply of essential minerals.

“The demand is high now, but it will skyrocket in the next three to five years as we transition to lower-emission technologies, such as electric vehicles,” Ukar said, adding, “We must find innovative ways to reduce costs and emissions, find new sources of metals, and make the mines of the future more environmentally friendly in order to meet the demand. And we must act quickly.”

The project is a component of the Mining Innovations for Negative Emissions Resource Recovery program, a new effort that intends to create market-ready solutions that will improve domestic supplies of essential materials needed for the transition to low-carbon or carbon-free energy.

Scientists from the Bureau of Economic Geology and Department of Geological Sciences in the UT Jackson School, as well as researchers from the UT departments of Petroleum & Geosystems Engineering and Aerospace Engineering & Engineering Mechanics; Columbia University; the University of Bern; and Carbfix, an Icelandic project employing a similar method to store CO2 in basalt, have collaborated on the research.

Various Bureau of Economic Geology groups are involved in the project. Among these is the Gulf Coast Carbon Center, a global pioneer in monitoring carbon storage to ensure its safety. The team also includes experts from the bureau’s TexNet seismic monitoring system, who will assist in determining whether the new mining technique produces seismic activity.

“Reducing emissions from energy in a cost-effective and dependable manner so that the global population can afford it is the greatest challenge,” said Scott Tinker, director of the Bureau of Economic Geology, adding, “This research program, if successful, could be one of several approaches to help advance that effort. The importance of a cohesive team to success”

In addition to the MINER award, Ukar has won a second $1 million grant from the National Energy Technology Laboratory of the Department of Energy to identify locations within the United States where this novel mining technique may be deployed. If effective, the technique might have worldwide applications in mining operations.