Global research

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Australia will head a global research program to find radical new ways of extracting minerals from the earth.

In one of the biggest developments in the mining and minerals industry since Australia discovered the flotation process more than 100 years ago, the program will explore highly experimental new science to develop more efficient and low-impact ways of mining minerals such as zinc, copper, coal, platinum and titanium.

“This research is vital to safeguarding the future viability of Australia’s $75-billion-a-year minerals export industry,” said Peter Høj, Chief Executive Officer of the the Australian Research Council (ARC). “It could revolutionise the global mining industry and have major applications in the massive food and pharmaceuticals industries.”

The head of the research program, Professor John Ralston, from the University of South Australia, said: “It’s time for a new way. Growing pressure for much greater efficiencies and much less impact on the environment mean radical and novel new methods must be found.”

The research program, believed to be the biggest of its kind in the world, involves industry giants BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Anglo Platinum, Phelps Dodge, Orica Mining and Xstrata Technology, the Universities of South Australia, Queensland, Newcastle and Melbourne and a global network of 24 collaborating organisations. That’s in addition to a team of top Australian and international scientists in physics, chemistry, engineering, bioscience and earth sciences, including the winner of this year’s Prime Minister’s Science Award, Professor David Boger from the University of Melbourne.

The Australian Government will provide $8.6 million to the $22.6 million research program. The minerals companies are contributing $7.5 million (brokered by AMIRA International), the Universities of South Australia, Newcastle, Melbourne and Queensland are contributing $4 million and the South Australian Government is contributing $2.5 million.

One of the new approaches to be examined is “in situ extraction”, flowing special fluids through natural cracks in rocks to collect the minerals underground and bring them to the surface.

Another method to be explored is “dry processing”, separating particles by changing the charge of their surface, requiring no water.

“It’s unthinkable for BHP Billiton to achieve its growth plans without a strong involvement in fundamental science,” BHP Billiton’s Vice President of Technology Dr Megan Clark said. “To do something new, to create significant economic value, needs scientific discovery and breakthrough. “This project brings together the two things needed to make the breakthroughs; basic scientific research and cross-disciplinary teams.”

The project was one of 1,214 new research projects announced in November by the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Brendan Nelson. The new projects start in 2006. The Australian Government will provide $370 million for the projects over the next five years. The projects are awarded on the advice of the Australian Research Council.

Details of the AMIRA research program and the full list of ARC grant recipients can be found at www.arc.gov.au.