Australian miners are global companies that are leading the search for critical minerals and materials to enable the green industrial revolution. At a local level, Queensland is encouraging miners to prepare for the time when coal is no longer their main product.

But there is also a lot of movement on the international stage. Anglo Australian multinational mining and resources corporation Rio Tinto is a good example — not just mining, but developing alloys and processes to move industry forward.

As part of its focus on future facing commodities, Rio is planning to increase its copper production to take advantage of the increase in demand as the manufacturing of electric vehicles increases, targeting one million tonnes of annual copper production within the next five years.

Australia is currently the world’s sixth largest copper producer, exporting $12 billion during 2021–2022, and claims the second largest copper reserves in the world. Copper is critical to the world’s decarbonisation goals. To achieve net zero by 2050, miners will have to double their output — from 25 million tonnes today to approximately 50 million tonnes by 2035. This will support the technologies critical to achieving net-zero goals by 2050.

“These technologies, including electric vehicles (EV), batteries, solar panels and wind turbines, require up to 12 times more copper than their fossil-fuel counterparts. The EV ecosystem is only expected to expand, recording approximately 11 million sales in 2022, with a three-fold growth forecast of approximately 30 million units by 2028,” Australian Resources & Investment writes.

Rio Tinto’s response to this increase in demand is expanded mines, better management of mining waste, and the development of new metal alloys.

Rio is expanding activity in Mongolia, in the southern Gobi Desert. “Rio Tinto said Oyu Tolgoi was on track to reach 500,000 tonnes of annual copper production by 2028, which would coincide with a boost in head grade to about 1.25 per cent copper.” This would supply enough copper to support the build of “6 million electric vehicles annually, while supporting a total workforce of 20,000 people, 97 per cent of which are Mongolian.”

By 2030, Oyu Tolgoi is expected to be the fourth largest copper mine in the world. “The company produced 28,100 tonnes of copper from Oyu Tolgoi in the first quarter of 2023 at a head grade of 0.49 per cent.”

Rio Tinto’s Nuton Project in the USA plans to boost copper recoveries to 80% from a base of 23–35% from traditional heap leach. The Nuton project will unlock copper sulphide resources and also recover copper from waste and tailings.

“Nuton is an innovative new venture that aims to help grow Rio Tinto’s copper business,” Rio Tinto writes. “At the core of Nuton is a portfolio of proprietary copper leach-related technologies and capability – a product of almost 30 years of research and development. Nuton technologies offer the potential to economically unlock copper sulphide resources, copper bearing waste and tailings, and achieve higher copper recoveries on oxide and transitional material, allowing for a significantly increased copper production. One of the key differentiators of Nuton is the potential to deliver leading environmental performance, including more efficient water usage, lower carbon emissions, and the ability to reclaim mine sites by reprocessing mine waste.”

Rio’s Kennecott mine in the USA is trialling underground battery electric vehicles to improve employee health and safety, increase productivity, and reduce carbon emissions from future underground mining fleets. They are using a battery electric haul truck and loader to evaluate performance and suitability as part of underground development work.

“Trialling underground battery electric vehicles is an exciting step in our work to create a safer workplace for our employees, increase the productivity of the mine and reduce emissions from our operations. We look forward to seeing their potential for deployment,” Rio Tinto Copper chief executive Bold Baatar said.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, Rio has partnered with Everest Metals to explore for lithium in Western Australia in the North Rover Project. “Rio Tinto Exploration will complete approximately 1400m of reverse circulation drilling across seven drill holes, with each extending up to 200m deep,” Australian Resources & Investment writes. “The North Rover project spans a total of 460 square kilometres and covers two linear Archean greenstones in the mid-west region of WA. This region has been generating plenty of exploration interest of late, with the likes of Ramelius Resources, St George Mining and Venus Metals all actively exploring the area.”

The North Rover Project is part of Rio’s international lithium strategy, which includes the development of the Rincon lithium-brine project in Argentina and the Jadar lithium project in Serbia. “The major miner aims to initially build a small 3000-tonne-per-annum battery-grade lithium carbonate plant at Rincon to start with, with further investment going towards early works to support a full-scale operation.” The Jabar project has been blocked by the Serbian government, due to protests from green groups. The Serbian Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic, has said that she “held regrets regarding the mine, given the commercial opportunities that could stem from the project.”

“If developed, Jadar would be Europe’s largest lithium mine, with the potential to produce 58,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate per annum.”

Rio is also lending the expertise of its metallurgical experts to design and bring to market a new generation of aluminium alloys in partnership with Canada’s Comptech. The alloys are designed for the semi-solid Rheocasting process offered by Comptech to meet the requirements of producing large, specialised, single-piece designs.

“Rheocasting is an emerging semi solid casting process that allows the production of low-cost aluminium components with high strength, extremely low porosity and a broad range of possible alloys. Comptech has seen a breakthrough in uptake of the process over recent years, with orders for high volume deliveries to the automotive industry as well as supplying equipment supported with technical expertise.

The Rheocasting process is ideally suited to giga-castings for electric vehicles, where a single large aluminium part is produced to significantly reduce the number of components, weight and assembly time and cost. The alloys offer high strength, electrical and thermal conductivity properties, while Rheocasting allows fast, low cost production of advanced lightweight designs.”

Rio Tinto Vice President of Sales and Marketing Aluminium Tolga Egrilmezer said: “Through this partnership, we are delivering a new range of specialised alloys designed to deliver high performance, lower cost solutions for advanced applications like electric vehicles and 5G antennas. “

Comptech Group CEO and owner Per Jansson said: “This partnership positions us to offer customers the combined advantages of our casting process expertise and Rio Tinto’s technical strength and preferred alloys suite.”

Rio’s Rheocasting is seen as a possible answer to some of the issues with giga casting — read more here regarding the production of Rivian’s door hinge pillar using 100% post-consumer scrap as an example. The use of high recycled content improves sustainability.

Although there is concern about “big holes in the ground,” without mines and the critical metals they produce, the world will not be able to stem the wild weather produced by anthropogenic climate change.


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