In critical minerals, the opportunity in extraction from electronic waste
Why countries like Australia and India, and others, could successfully cooperate not only in critical minerals mining but also mass extraction from waste, including electronic waste.
This map depicts the skewed distribution of critical minerals resulting in asymmetrical production across the world.
The issue of critical minerals lies at the intersection of science and technology, policy, environment as well as international relations and geopolitics. The vast potential that these critical minerals possess in allowing the economies to transition towards green energy makes it a valuable resource and this value would only increase in the times to come. What makes them ‘critical’ however is another important factor relating to the processing capabilities and the densely concentrated deposits spread unequally across the world that makes some countries more central to their availability while the others create new ways to secure the supply chains for themselves.
Countries like Australia and Chile come to the forefront when we consider the deposits of these critical minerals, however the availability is one thing but the extraction and processing capabilities are a whole different ball game altogether. It’s the latter that has come to dominate the sensibilities of the nation states when it comes to critical minerals. Over time, mining has become an important tool for extraction of these minerals in order to be processed further. As the demand of the minerals increases, the countries like Australia that have become the hub of the deposits like lithium and cobalt have been trying to tap on to this method even more in order to meet the rising global demands.
When we look at the issue from an Indian vantage point, Australia becomes an important partner in this regard solely because of the strong basis that has already been created between the two countries for bilateral cooperation. Cooperating further in the critical minerals sector would only seek to diversify the partnership even more. Australia has also become immensely aware of the central role it will play in the production of the critical minerals and over the past few years the country has categorically focused on the potential to extract, process and produce these minerals.
Before we try to understand the potential for India-Australia cooperation and the scope for diversification in this area, it is important to set the context straight.
It was in 2021 that Australia became one of the leading producers of Lithium with the production reaching about 53 per cent as per Australia’s Identified Mineral Resources Data and Geoscience Australia. Geoscience Australia has created a vast database to map the existing critical mineral resources and mining facilities across the country.
This map is a combination of data derived from the critical minerals map 2021 and the mining facilities data as well. One important aspect to consider while understanding this data is the potential that exists in the diversification of extraction capabilities of these critical minerals. The operating mines to extract the mineral resources from the deposits are spread all across the country which makes them the primary source of extraction.
For countries like India that have budding resources and still an untapped potential on the extraction capabilities, it is very likely that India would also follow suit to use mining as the main source of critical mineral extraction.
However, constantly depending on heavy mining of these critical and rare earth minerals might be counterproductive to the green economy agenda and the final goal of creating net zero carbon emissions. This heavy dependence on mining for even environmentally sustainable purposes has not sat well with the environmentalists and climate activists since decades. This points us to the question, are there any alternate extraction processes that can be considered?
Mine waste -an alternate resource
The potential for mine waste utilisation and secondary extraction of critical minerals is an emerging sub-field in the area of critical minerals and their use. Work has already started into initiating a shift towards sustainable utilisation of mine waste, especially in Australia where companies like the Cobalt Blue are coming to the forefront for commercialising the mine waste and it was in 2022 that the New South Wales deputy premier even announced the mine waste re-utilisation initiative that would not just cover the active mines but also the abandoned ones.
Now that Australia has become an important producer of the critical minerals and rare earth elements, it implies that the major chunk of the mining of these resources has already been done. This in turn also implies that there has to be a huge accumulation of mine waste from these projects. Utilising this waste could be the one revolutionary way to develop a coherent and environmentally sustainable strategy for critical mineral production.
However, what does mine waste mean?
Whenever the minerals are being extracted from their deposits through the process of mining, it may also produce certain materials and substances that are essentially removed from the resourced materials. The ‘topsoil overburden’ for example, is an accumulated substance that sits on top of the mineral being mined and it is essentially discarded in order to reach the desired mineral. Apart from this there are left over materials also at the bottom of the mines as the process of extraction gets completed, these are called tailings.
Over the years, these things called ‘waste’ have become a potential resource in themselves and even though a lot of attention has been paid over the conventional means of extracting these required critical minerals, it is the need of the hour now to consider the potential that these mine wastes have.
Mine waste and critical minerals
The interest in the potential of mine waste for extracting these rare earth elements and critical minerals is not without a firm basis. Sweden’s iron ore mining firms have found that the tailings from the mining of iron ore contains large deposits of rare earth elements (REE). This makes the region one of the key areas in Europe with the deposits of rare earth elements. Waste materials generated from phosphate production also contain thousands of tonnes of these rare earth elements. The same is true for waste materials in the copper deposits that contain traces of cobalt and indium. Minerals like vanadium and other rare earth elements also exist in the residual after coal burning also called the ‘coal ash’.
Australia has recognised this immense potential that exists in the reprocessing of mine waste and the re-utilisation of these resources for the production of critical minerals. Geoscience Australia has also embarked on a special project in partnership with the University of Queensland, Geological Survey of Queensland and also the RMIT University towards creating a database map of potential mine waste sites that can be targeted for the secondary production of the critical minerals.
The government of Queensland has been very active in identifying the potential sites and also attracting foreign investments wherever necessary, this is where India can step in. The Queensland government had already partnered with Japan in this regard to be able to diversify the resources of cobalt supply in particular. This also paves the way for a potential involvement of the Quad grouping, which can recognise the importance of a multilateral cooperation in the development of alternate processing mechanisms in order to also diversify the existing supply chains.
How India can enter this field
It was recognised in Australia’s critical mineral strategy of 2022 that there lies a potent need of increasing the country’s downstream processing capabilities. While Australia could become a major exporter or producer of these minerals, the downstream processing usually happens elsewhere. This opens a potential scope of India’s further engagement with Australia into building a rusted market that would be mutually beneficial for both the countries towards their transition to green energy.
However, from India’s point of view, just engaging with the foreign sources to meet the demands rising domestically would not be a viable strategy in the long term, especially for the country looking to become self-sufficient in the production and manufacturing of major resources. While India does not have the vast range of mine waste that may exist from the mining of critical minerals that Australia possess, it is important to look towards the other important tool that India has - electronic waste.
The reprocessing of the accumulated electronic and electrical equipment waste can generate a vast potential for diversification of the production of critical minerals within the country itself. The spent batteries that already contain lithium can be potentially further reprocessed to produce the residual mineral. It has been projected that the recycling of the spent batteries containing cobalt, nickel and lithium could serve to reduce the global supply requirements by 10 per cent in the next ten years. India, leading in the accumulation of this e-waste can also use this as a currency for supremacy in the existing critical mineral supply chains.
The news of the newfound lithium deposits in Jammu and Kashmir was revolutionary in terms of India’s rising role in the critical minerals as not just the consumer but also the potential producer. However, in order to become a major producer in this regard, India needs to work towards developing sustainable ways of extracting these resources while also meeting its target of reaching net-zero carbon emissions in the near future. While Australia can become a powerful partner to India in developing these extraction strategies, India can contribute towards Australia’s aim to develop a downstream processing capacity. This symbiotic relationship then also needs to be translated into developing the mining waste reprocessing and re-utilisation capabilities.