Want to know if we’ve found kryptonite?
We discovered a new mineral, jadarite, an important source of lithium which is used to power electric vehicles
Nenad Grubin has vivid memories of the moment he and his Serbian-based team discovered a new mineral that British scientists would later dub kryptonite (more of that curious story later).
By September 2004 they’d found sufficient evidence of the in-demand metal to justify the expensive process of exploratory drilling.We had enough money to drill two holes. In the first one we found what we hoped would be there – a substantial intersection of boron mineralisation. It was a phenomenal moment.
- Nenad Grubin, Rio Tinto scientist, SerbiaThere were more sensations to come. In the second drill hole, they found a substance that contained both borates and what would become one of the world’s hottest metals, lithium, which is an important component of lithium ion batteries.
The discovery of a world-class deposit of borates and lithium, which was named Jadar after the Serbian valley in which it was found, was later supported through the work of a dedicated Rio Tinto project team.
What makes the Jadar deposit unique is that both boron and lithium are contained in one mineral, which was new to science and which was later confirmed as a new mineral by the International Mineralogical Association. Rio Tinto’s Serbian team named it jadarite (pronounced “yadarite”).To discover a new mineral is not that rare. But to find a new mineral in the large quantity as we have in the Jadar Valley is remarkable. It is truly a great discovery, which also implicitly suggests that there must be more jadarite on this planet.
- Nenad Grubin, Rio Tinto scientist, Serbia
Jadarite hit the headlines in 2007 when the BBC ran a story claiming that Rio Tinto had found Kryptonite.
The scientists from the British Museum who’d done the analysis of jadarite found that it’s chemical composition was very close to Kryptonite as described in the movie Superman Returns (Kryptonite is the fictional substance that saps the power of the Man of Steel). There is no association between Rio Tinto and the Superman franchise but this remarkable coincidence of the like chemistry with Kryptonite led to media coverage across the world commenting on the similarity.
“So far we haven’t found it has a similar effect on the superheroes who discovered jadarite,” laughs Nenad.
The science of discovery
While the discovery of jadarite gives us that glorious Eureka moment it does not live up to our movie-ish fantasies of fortune hunters stumbling upon a deposit and “striking it rich”.
The journey began many years before when Nenad was working as a research assistant for Professor Jelena Obradovic at the University of Belgrade.
Their series of journal articles about the potential for borate deposits in Serbia was read by researchers at Rio Tinto Borates in the United States, kicking off a relationship that has eventually, many years later, resulted in the company studying the potential of building a mine near Loznica (140km west from Belgrade).
“Exploration for mineral deposits is not a matter of chance and neither is it a pure science. Exploration is a business. It progressively utilises science and resources to achieve economic return. It takes many years of research and fieldwork before we drill and find a new deposit,” says Nenad.
“Famous geologist Siegfried Muessig once said, ‘IQ gets you there, but it’s NQ [drill bit diameter] that finds it,” says Nenad, who continues to head the geological team in Belgrade as Rio Tinto works through studies to assess the feasibility of developing a mine at Jadar.
Jadarite – a global project
The story then unfolded at Rio Tinto’s boron operation in California, where scientists began the process of establishing the best way of separating the borate and the lithium, supported by the company’s research facility in Melbourne.
“Finding a mineral with such high concentrations of borate and lithium is extraordinary but we still have to find a commercially viable means of breaking it down into its component parts,” chemical engineer Gary Davis, a key member of the jadarite processing team.
“We’ve assembled a pilot plant in our Melbourne support facility that demonstrates the process of separating the elements. It’s been constructed inside a large shipping container so it can be sent to Serbia and used as a model when they build on the mine site,” says Gary.
While borate is an extremely important metal for the modern world – it is used in fibreglass and has allowed television, computer and telephone screens to become thinner – the jadarite project is exciting interest around the world because of increased demand for lithium.
“Lithium is extremely reactive and the lightest of all the metals. So it has become important in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries, especially batteries for electric cars where weight is a crucial factor,” says Geoffrey Boddy, Melbourne team leader of the jadarite processing team.
Geoff says that the process of helping to bring the Jadarite online has been the most exciting project of his professional career.
“We’re helping to develop a process that will not only be good for humanity but create jobs for generations to come. Our children’s children will benefit from the work we’re doing here today,” says Geoff.