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What is In-Situ Recovery? Mining in a National Park with no environmental footprint

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Natural view in New Zealand
In-Situ Recovery (ISR) has potential to revolutionise the metal mining industry

While trolling around for something interesting, I came across the term In-Situ Recovery (ISR). According to Wikipedia, In-Situ Recovery, In-Situ Mining or In-Situ Leaching is a mining process used to recover minerals such as copper and uranium through boreholes drilled into a deposit, in situ.

In situ leach works by artificially dissolving minerals occurring naturally in a solid state. As such, ISR reminds me of fracking and the fishbone technology for the crude oil extraction industry.

Samso describes the process as drilling holes into a known deposit and injecting a substance they call lixiviant. This acts as a solvent to 'dissolve' and 'act as a medium to transport' the intended metal or commodity.

ISR is what people would call a disruptive technology that will revolutionise the whole metal mining industry. This is what fracking has done to the crude oil industry and opening up shale oil and allowing competition to disrupt decades of OPEC stranglehold on oil pricing.

The disruption to the industry that I mentioned could potentially open up sources of mining where it previously was not viable due to cost or geopolitical issue constraints.

The process of In-Situ Recovery/Leaching

This process involves pumping of a lixiviant into the ore body via a borehole, which circulates through the porous rock dissolving the ore and is extracted via a second borehole.

"The lixiviant varies according to the ore deposit: for salt deposits, the leachate can be fresh water into which salts can readily dissolve. For copper, acids are generally needed to enhance the solubility of the ore minerals within the solution. For uranium ores, the lixiviant may be acid or sodium bicarbonate.

"A lixiviant is a liquid medium used in hydrometallurgy to selectively extract the desired metal from the ore or mineral. It assists in rapid and complete leaching. The metal can be recovered from it in a concentrated form after leaching.

"Lixiviants may work by altering the redox state of ore, or by altering the pH. Acidic lixiviants, such as sulphuric acid, are commonly used to leach base metals such as copper, whereas basic lixiviants such as a solution of sodium cyanide are used to leach precious metals.

“In the United States, lixiviants which contact the environment are almost always oxidisers of neutral pH because this minimises risk to the environment.

“The origin is the word lixiviate, meaning to leach, to dissolve out, deriving from the Latin lixivium.” (Source: Wikipedia)

All of this is very new to me, but when you do the research into the technology and the current knowledge, there is not that much 'Star Trek' about it. There has been extensive industry work to show that this could potentially be a game changer in mining metals as opposed to just the hydrocarbons.

(Source: Mining3).

History of ISR

"References to ISR date back to 177 BC and the Chinese used ISR to recover copper in 907 AD. ISR has been used extensively in the recovery of soluble salts, such as halite (NaCl), trona (Na3(CO3)(HCO3)·2H2O), potash (various salts that contain potassium in water-soluble form, such as potassium hydroxide, carbonate, chlorate, chloride, nitrate, sulphate and permanganate), boron and magnesium minerals.

"The first trials of uranium ISR were initiated in the 1960s in USA and Russia and, by 2013, almost half of the world’s uranium was being mined from ISR operations, including those in Australia, China, Kazakhstan, Russia, USA and Uzbekistan." (Source: Mining 3)

As usual, whenever there is a need to save money and make money, the Chinese are at the forefront. As I mentioned, the idea is not new, and the technology has been around for a long time. It is just the refinement that needs to be sorted out.

It seems that the key in Australia is the research by Mining3. They have been doing a lot of work in establishing the requirements to extract more conventional commodities.

Mining3 is a partnership between CRCMining and the CSIRO Mineral Resources group formed in July 2016. Mining3 comprises all CRCMining’s activities and CSIRO’s hard rock mining research capability. The partnership brings together significant mining research capabilities to effectively deliver research and innovative technologies for the members and the global mining industry. (Source: Mining3)

As Australia’s national innovation agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has been pushing the edge of what’s possible for almost a century. CSIRO Mineral Resources works closely with industry partners and delivers innovation to grow Australia’s resource base, increase productivity and drive environmental performance.

Photo by Lucas Vasques on Unsplash.

Mining3

Mining3, previously trading as CRCMining (Cooperative Research Centre for Mining Technology and Equipment (CMTE)), was established and supported under the Australian Government’s Cooperative Research Centre’s Program in 1991.

It brought together, for the first time, Australian and international leading mining organisations in a cooperative effort to develop innovative mining and processing techniques as well as supporting equipment for the industry.

ISR mining at the Kapunda Copper ISR Project in South Australia (Source: Mining3).

The centre was successfully refunded in 1997 (CMTE 2), in 2003 (CRCMining 1) and 2009 (CRCMining 2). Under the agreement, funding from the Commonwealth ceased in June 2014, marking a milestone of 23 years delivering world-class research outcomes. Today, it is an organisation that is entirely funded by industry.

What are the benefits of ISR?

ISR is a bit like the Fishbone extraction theory that I mentioned previously in the article I wrote, Doriemus PLC (ASX:DOR) – Fishbones Stimulation Technology. The implications are similar. Projects that were not viable could come online, parts of the mine that were 'left behind' could be extracted.

It’s kind of like sucking the last little bit of your bubble tea, digging that last pearl that is mixed in among the ice in the bottom of that bubble teacup. It’s like licking the very last drop of your favourite icecream from the bottom of the bowl. It’s like drinking that last drop of your favourite Sarawak Laksa gravy.

The benefits of ISR are simple. Almost every issue that stops a mining process could become a non-issue if this technology was working as it is intended to do. All the cost, the geopolitical, environmental issues could be overcome with such a non-invasive method of mining.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that ISR will change the mining scene, but as usual, the significance that this technology will create will take time.

Will it create an economic factor? Well, that is going to be the problematic variable as there has not been any real test to extract metals commercially.

For me, I think to dissolve gold in a vein and then transport that to surface and mine it as we know the meaning of the word today, that is going to be tough.

Fishbone Technology for the crude oil industry is very dependent on the characteristics of the hosting rock. This requirement is also going to be the same for this method.

Do I think that in time, this will be a plausible scenario? I think that could well be a yes. I believe the path for this technology will allow mining of individual deposits, but it will be limited to specific geological conditions.

It could be that particular ore types, like vein-hosted deposits could be the one that is specific enough, usually high grade and contained in chemistry. This style could be the one that is easiest to reach.

Vein-hosted deposits that are usually high grade in nature and usually not bulky could be the benefit of this technology. Lower cost, less environmental imprint, less geopolitical issues and less social implications could be perfect for ISR.

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Samso has nearly 30 years of experience in developing business ideas and concepts in the Australasian region.

Samso has worked primarily in the mineral resources industry, capital markets and corporate finance. Noel Ong is the founder of Samso.

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