Tackling Tailings: Prevention

A likely goal for the Zero-Waste Mining XPRIZE is the complete elimination of tailings.

One possible approach to tackling tailings is** preventing the creation of tailings** during the mining process.

What are some recent innovations that are attempting to eliminate the creation of tailings? What barriers to widespread implementation are they encountering?

And why hasn’t this issue been dealt with already? What important aspect of the issue isn’t being worked on?

Share any ideas, links, articles, or projects that you have seen!

Our research has pointed to in situ mining operations as one possible track for preventing tailings in different commodities during the mining process.

How can this process be improved and is it a realistic assumption that a comprehensive in situ mining approach could eventually prevent all tailings?

Similarly, I’ve proposed the adoption of in situ extraction and refinement of materials. We’d be looking at an innovation challenge that leads to the creation of new machines that can process raw material, while returning waste to the mine, in situ. Processes that do not require water, or can efficiently recycle the water, would probably be beneficial. (It’s also bearing in mind that “waste” can often be used as a resource.)

@akb Thanks so much for your response! We’re curious if you know of any promising technologies? Do you have any ideas concerning the barriers these technologies would have to overcome to see widespread adoption?

@"DavidPoli " Hi David. I’m not aware of any suitable technologies (but that’s perhaps my limited knowledge in this specific topic). I do envisage robots and machines working in mines, above and below ground. That might be a useful first step.

Perhaps over the next couple of decades we might start making progress in actual nano-robotics to process materials and extract chemicals. (I remember attending a lecture on this several years ago, but progress seems to be slow to date. These hypothetical robots would extract and build materials, atom by atom.)

Related to this topic, my company is embarking on a Canadian government funded project to develop a new concept for crushing and grinding rock into a proof of concept. This project is targeted at reducing the energy consumption of rock comminution (crushing and grinding - both highly inefficient and incredibly wasteful from an energy standpoint - using 3% of the entire globe’s energy budget ), yet I can see the potential for it to also apply for in-situ mining. Our concept uses no water, has no mechanical steel on rock compressive crushing or grinding using instead non-explosive gas permeation and expansion within the rock, and has the potential for modular design and deployment. I can envision this concept may be more easily suited to in-situ comminution at the extraction zone either above or below ground than traditional rock crushers and grinders, which are not typically modular and may not scale economically to have a number of smaller units at the extraction points around a mine. Note that comminution is just one part of the extraction of minerals from gangue, and there will still be a need for in-situ concentration processes which we have not yet conceptualized. However, even having the potential to target one necessary extraction process may be a good starting point and may help lead to further innovations to reach the goal.

Comments, ideas and feedback welcome!

Prevention of generation of tailings is a difficult area as we are moving more and more towards mechanical excavations we generate more tailings. As long as it did not hinder with production processes we have learnt to live with it. Robotics like manual mining may pave a way in the direction of elimination or minimization of such fines. As long as it is not fully developed we have to be satisfied with dust palliatives and burying the resultant deep somewhere in the mining areas.

It’s near impossible to process ores with grades below 1% and do not produce huge amounts of tailings. By tailings we need to consider all material without economic value at the moment. For some ores this could be feasible, but not all of them.

@cedwards @RPSINGH @ancarsil Thank you all for your insights! Has anyone seen or heard of other minimally-invasive approaches to mining in addition to the in-situ approach? Processes that do not generate tailings to begin with.

@ndmanser and @jortiz you may be interested in this discussion, given your expertise in AI and sustainability!

@BryanNamba we have many different kinds of mines. I work manly with metals and, in this case, our approach is to maximize the number of co-products and develop a environmentally and economic viable market for them. By doing this we can move toward the concept of zero-waste/zero-tailings mine.

Hi @akb @ancarsil and @RPSINGH - thank you for your input on this discussion, it’s been helpful! We have a new discussion posted on zero-footprint mining, which was a potential direction identified at the CESCO conference in Chile. Any thoughts you might have there would be appreciated! And again, thank you for all of your contributions so far.