Highlights

Jadarite is a new lithium sodium borosilicate mineral discovered in 2006

Jadarite contains both lithium and borates, materials that are highly valuable in many modern applications

If you’re reading this article online, you’re almost certainly being helped by lithium and borates. These two substances have a crucial part to play in the high technology products that are so important to sustainable prosperity in the future. Lithium’s best-known application is in high-performance batteries for laptops, mobile phones, electric vehicles and energy storage systems. Borates have many uses, including making the tough cover glass in smartphones, tablets and other electronic displays. So it was particularly exciting when in 2004, Rio Tinto discovered a new source of these materials in Serbia – a discovery that was even more significant as both were contained in a new mineral, which was to be called jadarite after the area in which it was found.

Significant find

The announcement in July 2017 of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Government of Serbia is the latest chapter in the progress of the Jadar Project.

“[The MOU] lays the foundation to progress the project through future stages and brings Serbia and Rio Tinto closer to becoming a leading source of global lithium and borate production,” said Simon Trott, managing director of Rio Tinto’s Salt, Uranium and Borates division.

Rio Tinto had been funding exploration for borates and evaporites when experts found a paper from the University of Belgrade that led them to explore Serbia’s Jadar river basin. Exploratory drilling with a local team in this area 140km west of Belgrade discovered the new mineral jadarite, which contains both lithium and borates. Richard Storrie, general manager of Rio Tinto Serbia, explains why the find was so significant: “It was exciting for our geologists because this mineral is unique, found nowhere else in the world. It’s also unusual to find a new mineral in such quantities: it’s estimated that there are over 100 million tonnes in the Jadar deposit.”

Project life cycle

Since the discovery, Rio Tinto has invested about US$90 million in the early stage of developing this project, which involves understanding the orebody in greater detail and assessing its economic viability as well as its social and environmental impacts and benefits. Jadar is now at the pre-feasibility stage, an important step in Rio Tinto’s project life cycle.

Ingredients of the future

Ingredients of the future

Lithium and its compounds are used in heat resistant glass and ceramics, and high-strength aircraft alloys.

Lithium and its compounds are used in heat resistant glass and ceramics, and high-strength aircraft alloys.

However, the fastest-growing application for this mineral is in lithium batteries that power consumer and industrial systems, notably electrified vehicles. The world market for electrified vehicles is expected to increase to more than ten million vehicles a year by 2022 – approximately ten times the market size in 2014.

Borates are essential building blocks for heat resistant glass, fibreglass, ceramics, fertilisers, detergents, wood preservatives and many other household and commercial products. They are used in insulation that makes buildings energy-efficient, and to produce TV, computer and smartphone screens.

Image: Lithium is used to make high-performance batteries for a range of applications, such as electric cars

Building confidence

As Richard Storrie confirms, “Where we are now, the focus is on building confidence in the various aspects of the project, in particular our orebody knowledge.”

Richard explains how the 3D seismic survey carried out in 2015 has helped to build a more complete picture of the Jadar resource: “Using drill holes is like looking down a 300 metre-long straw at a single point and extrapolating from it. The 3D survey fills in the gaps and importantly, helps us to understand structural complexity of the resource and helps us to select the most efficient mining methods.”

3D seismic surveys require high-tech equipment and significant investment. They use a grid of geophones and vibration source points to gather data over an area resulting in a 3D picture of subsurface conditions that helps geologists estimate the depth and thickness of rock layers, and identify water sources and quantities as well as fractures and faults.


What is jadarite?

What is jadarite?

Jadarite is a new lithium sodium borosilicate mineral discovered in the Jadar Basin by Rio Tinto geologists and officially confirmed as a new mineral by the International Mineralogical Association in 2006 (IMA2006-36).

Jadarite is a new lithium sodium borosilicate mineral discovered in the Jadar Basin by Rio Tinto geologists and officially confirmed as a new mineral by the International Mineralogical Association in 2006 (IMA2006-36).

Jadarite’s chemical composition is very close to the fictional kryptonite from the Superman stories, but the similarity ends there. Jadarite contains both lithium and borates, materials that are highly valuable in many modern industrial and technical applications. It is very unusual for a new mineral to be discovered on this scale: an estimated 100+ million tonne resource. To date, jadarite has not been discovered outside Serbia. If developed, the resource could supply a substantial part of global demand for lithium and borates.

Image: Jadarite’s chemical composition is very close to the fictional kryptonite from the Superman stories.

Overcoming challenges

As well as refining knowledge of the orebody, the pre-feasibility stage considers fundamental questions: how will we mine and process this resource? How will we take it to market? What will the impact be on the local area – people, environment and water resources?

In the case of jadarite, Richard Storrie said, the process of extracting the valuable lithium and borates is a key challenge: “It’s a new mineral, so the production process will be unique. We have been running pilot plants to help us understand the issues of scaling up to full production."

Pilot tests were carried out at Rio Tinto Borates' mining and refining operations in California and more recently at Rio Tinto's Growth & Innovation facilities in Bundoora, Australia. These will provide the design parameters to develop full-scale process facilities.

According to Richard, who has worked at Rio Tinto operations around the world, one of the most important challenges of a new project such as Jadar is communication: “We need to communicate clearly with local people and local and national government about the project, ensuring at every stage that what we’re doing is acceptable and within the boundaries agreed. So far we have built up a lot of trust – and we intend to maintain it.” The team at Rio Tinto Serbia, 90 per cent of whom are Serbian nationals, includes local geologists who have been there since the original discovery, as well as a communities expert who knows the area well.

Sustainable development

An important part of the pre-feasibility study is the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA), which will be completed in 2018. The ESIA will look at the environmental and social impacts of the Jadar project. It will describe how Jadar will minimise and manage its environmental and social impacts, as well as maximise the positive benefits of the project.

Preserving Serbia’s cultural heritage

Preserving Serbia’s
cultural heritage

The Jadar River valley’s significance as a source of valuable minerals has a long history. Around 4,000 years ago it was believed to have been among the few sources of tin in the world.

The Jadar River valley’s significance as a source of valuable minerals has a long history. Around 4,000 years ago it was believed to have been among the few sources of tin in the world.

Tin was essential to bronze, which catalysed social and economic change across the region. Today, before the region becomes part of a next wave of change – this time with materials that drive green, knowledge-based societies – the exploration sites’ rich heritage must be preserved. Jadar Museum archaeologists, with support from Rio Tinto, have been excavating and preserving Bronze Age tombs called tumuli necropolises. Artefacts from these sites, including bronze and amber jewellery, pottery vessels and bronze weapons are being exhibited across Serbia. Together, Rio Tinto and the Jadar Museum are preserving and protecting Serbia’s cultural heritage.

Image: Jadar Museum archaeologists have been excavating and preserving Bronze Age tombs called tumuli necropolises.

A resource in demand

Today, progress at this potentially important resource continues.

“Rio Tinto sees Serbia as an attractive investment destination and the Jadar project is an important part of Rio Tinto’s growth portfolio,” said Bold Baatar, chief executive of Rio Tinto’s Energy & Minerals business.

“A project of this magnitude requires time and expertise to design and bring into operation. We can only do this with the support of the Serbian government and local community.”