Researchers Are Cracking Down on the Environmental Impact of Mining for EV Materials

Researchers Are Cracking Down on the Environmental Impact of Mining for EV Materials
Image: Tesla

Research from the University of South Australia could change the way we approach rare Earth element battery metal mining, allowing for safer extraction with fewer environmental impacts.

Rare Earth elements and battery metals, while classified as different things (for example, Yttrium is a rare Earth element while Lithium is a battery metal) both take a heavy toll on the environment when we mine for them. Both are also essential in modern electronics.

With battery-dependent technology on the rise, especially through electric vehicles, it has been advised by the International Energy Agency that mining techniques should become best-in-class, as electric vehicles use six times more minerals than their petrol-reliant alternatives. Mining rare Earth elements produce tonnes of toxic waste and can contaminate the areas where they are harvested. Lithium mining has similar side effects.

So, what can be done about mining rare Earth elements and battery metals? Well, Doctor Richmond Asamoah from the University of South Australia reckons that processing, tailings (the waste left behind in the water after mining) and wastewater treatment issues could use some development. The researcher is also developing ways to safely recycle scrap batteries and magnets.

“Rare Earth minerals and battery metals are vital for the economic wellbeing of the world’s major and emerging economies, yet, their supply is not reliable because of geological scarcity, geopolitical issues, and trade policy,” Asamoah says.

“Accumulated mining wastes are becoming an increasingly valuable source of metals and energy, but because there’s a lack of productive and economically viable extraction technologies, there’s also a notable loss of valuable metals.

“The process of extracting these critical materials is very damaging to the environment, with conventional mining methods generating large volumes of toxic and radioactive materials. Our research will identify new technologies that have the capability to both extract minerals from existing industrial wastes and mineral tailings, and recycle and source minerals and metals from spent batteries and magnets.”

Asamoah and his team will test two metal recovery processes, which the university calls “resin in pulp” and “resin in moist mix”. The team will research how the environmental impact of these methods can be minimised (as in how researchers can effectively remove damaging substances from the water and soils) and how effectively minerals can be extracted from low-grade ores.

The research is funded by the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund with mutual benefits for most countries.

“We’re not only talking about environmental benefits, but also economical and sustainable technologies that both countries can use to extract rare Earth and battery minerals from current mining operations,” Asamoah added.

“This project hopes to enable Australia to export rare Earth minerals to India, as an alternative to China, as well as to empower India to establish eco-technologies to extract minerals and metals within their own borders.”

Let’s hope, with the switch to more environmentally-friendly technologies, that we’re looking after the Earth as we mine for materials to create tech in the future.