Nose to tail mining
Making the most of what we take from the ground
Over the past few years, our scientists and engineers have been hard at work looking for ways to reduce waste from our mines. How? By finding a use for every material we dig out of the ground and using the by-products of our metal processing operations too.
And while we need to do more to eliminate waste completely, we are making progress.
By extracting valuable minerals from waste – or creating new products from the waste itself – we can reduce the amount sent to landfill, make useful products, create new revenue streams and help our customers meet their sustainability goals.
We need to be better stewards of the orebodies we mine. Our existing orebodies and tailings could actually become resources of the future. It’s about looking at this idea of full value mining: how we can extract more than the classic commodities we produce. There’s already some good examples of the work we’re doing in this area – and we can keep building on this.”
Nigel Steward, our Chief Scientist
Here are six useful materials we’re extracting from waste:
At our Boron Operations, California, US, we’re testing a process to extract lithium from waste rock created from over 90 years of mining boron. If our demonstration plant is successful, we could scale up production to 5,000 tonnes of lithium a year – enough to make batteries for around 70,000 electric vehicles.
Our scientists at our Critical Minerals and Technology Centre in Sorel-Tracy, Canada, found a way to get high-quality scandium oxide from the waste created from making our titanium dioxide products. Considered a “critical mineral” by countries including the United States, Canada and Australia, scandium is used is a range of industries including aerospace and defence and clean energy technologies like solid oxide fuel cells. We’re currently trialling a commercial-scale demonstration plant, which can supply approximately 20% of the global market.
At our Kennecott copper operations, Utah, US, we’re building a plant to recover around 20 tonnes of tellurium a year from our copper refining process. We also extract seven other minerals and metals from the copper smelting and concentrating processes: gold, silver, lead carbonate, platinum, palladium, selenium and molybdenum.
Tellurium – one of the rarest elements on Earth – is an efficient converter of sunlight into electricity, so it’s used to manufacture thin film photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. Tellurium can also be added to steel and copper, making them easier to cut, and to lead to make it stronger.
We have created a new cement product – Alextra – by working with leading sustainable construction materials company Lafarge Canada. Alextra is made from used pot lining – part of the electrolysis process, where alumina is turned into aluminium – that has been treated to make it safe. Today, all pot lining waste from our Quebec-based aluminium operations is treated to make it safe, and around 80% is recycled into new products.
In the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, Canada, we’re working with blueberry growers to make a safe and effective fertiliser from anhydrite. The mineral is normally found in rocks – but we produce around 85,000 tonnes a year in Quebec, Canada, as a by-product of our aluminium production process.
At our QIT Madagascar Minerals operations, we’re creating extra value from around 25,000 tonnes a year of sand by extracting monazite – this is in addition to our core product of ilmenite, used in titanium dioxide production. Monazite is a rare earth mineral with many uses, such as heavy magnets for electric vehicles and wind turbines.
How we’re contributing to a circular economy
The circular economy is based on reducing the consumption of finite resources by reusing and recycling materials and designing out waste.
Our valorisation work – where we create products from waste – is one way we’re contributing to the circular economy. We’re also looking at ways we can recycle materials. In the US, our Kennecott copper operation recycles scrap metal – in 2018, we recycled enough to provide the electrical wiring in 6,400 new homes. And in Canada and the US we’re offering our aluminium customers high-quality alloys made with recycled content.
But we know there’s more to do. We are also partnering with industry and academic experts to tackle challenges: in Australia, for example, we’re partnering with the University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute to develop technology for rehabilitating waste, known as red mud, created by refining bauxite into alumina – the main ingredient in aluminium.
Stéphane is part of our team whose job is to find new uses for waste.
Doing right by the planet has always been a big part of Stéphane’s life. Growing up, he was taught to never let anything go to waste. Recycling and composting became second nature to him, and got him thinking, “if waste isn’t acceptable at home, why would it be acceptable at work?”
Now, Stéphane brings his passion for sustainability to his role as a leader in our Aluminum business’s Environment and Sustainability team, based in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec, Canada. Alongside his multidisciplinary team, he’s focused on finding ways to reduce industrial waste production or convert them into new products.
“If we’re not sustainable, one day there won’t be anything left for the next generation.”