Valuable metals such as copper, used in electrical wiring, or nickel, used to make stainless steel, are becoming increasingly hard to find and recover using traditional mining methods.
The Rio Tinto Centre for advanced mineral recovery will develop a range of new mining technologies that use less energy to mine more minerals from hard to reach places. It will also develop more efficient techniques for block caving. This exploits the natural fractures in rocks so that they break under gravity rather than by using explosives, making the mining process cheaper and safer.
Research will be undertaken to develop a deeper understanding behind the science of rock fracturing. It will also design new sensing technology for use in block caving to measure the underground area containing minerals and the size and shape of these deposits.
New ways of mining minerals that use acids to dissolve metals in rocks below the Earth’s surface will also be explored. These dissolved metals could then be pumped above ground and extracted from acids. Researchers believe this method would use less energy and remove the need to disturb land in open cut mines.
Scientist will also work on improvements to current froth flotation technology that is a process for separating the valuable minerals from waste rock. Researchers hope to develop a froth flotation system in which coarser rock particles can be separated, which would reduce the amount of energy needed and lower costs.
The £6m fund will be used over a five-year period and will see six postgraduates and twelve other research staff employed at Imperial’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering to carry out research in this field.