USGS Advances Study on Critical Mineral Resources in Mine Tailings

by | 8. Nov 2023 - 09:29 | Technologies

The Survey provides states with $2 million.

The U.S. Geological Survey has allocated $2 million to 14 states to map locations of mine tailings and study their potential for critical minerals contained within. Funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the study aims to give the mining residue a second chance of providing raw materials needed for, among other fields, electric vehicles and renewable energies. Former mines had material extracted that was valuable in the past, leaving tailings behind with then-worthless material in them. With the advent of modern technologies and new required minerals for them, cobalt, indium, and other critical minerals that were previously discarded have become more valuable, and countries around the world are looking for additional sources for them. Cobalt production, for example, is currently concentrated in a few countries, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo leading the field, accounting for around 70 percent of the world’s supply (PDF), while most processing happens in China. Should the study succeed in locating significant amounts of critical minerals in the tailings, it could help the U.S. become less dependent on imports of some critical minerals in the long term.

Mine Tailings as a Second Life for Former Mines

Mine tailings and other residue have moved to the center of attention for U.S. supply chains for quite some time. Especially in former coal-mining states around the Appalachians, numerous old mining sites that have closed amidst a rise in renewable energy usage still contain valuable resources. Here, research teams are hunting for critical minerals in the residues to give closed mines and ones soon to close a second life. For example, a team from West Virginia University led by Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz has made significant progress in extracting rare earth elements used in electric vehicles and wind turbines from acidic mine drainage and has received multiple funds to expand the project since. Other projects range from using algae to bacteria to turn mining waste into mining treasure.

Photo: iStock/Denis Shevchuk