The Fuse

Supply Chain Crunch Encourages Miners To Look Closer To Home

by Alex Adams | @alexjhadams | November 01, 2021

From gridlock at U.S. ports to a looming shortage of Christmas trees, supply chain disruptions are causing headaches for businesses and consumers across the country. But while the slowdown is causing problems for a variety of industries, it is also giving other sectors fresh impetus to explore new solutions to meet consumer needs.

This trend is clearly being seen in the mining industry. For example, Rio Tinto has set in motion plans to retrieve critical minerals from waste tailings at its vast Kennecott copper mine near Salt Lake City, Utah.

The company is building a plant at Kennecott that will recover tellurium, a mineral vital for solar panel manufacturing, from ore that has been dug up for its copper. The United States relies on imports of tellurium, including from China, which dominates global production.

The reassessment of mineral recovery from tailings comes as supply chain disruption has made previously niche minerals—discarded and deemed not worth developing in favor of the more commercially viable mineral, such as copper in the case of Kennecott—become more valuable as companies scramble for supply.

“Suddenly you see some pretty extreme demand for certain things,” Rio Tinto CEO Jakob Stausholm recently said in an interview.

Total mining

The company’s plan mirrors the ‘total mining’ or ‘whole-concept’ approach toward mineral extraction that is detailed in the infrastructure bill. The legislation calls upon the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), as part of a comprehensive minerals survey, to take “a whole ore body approach rather than a single commodity approach, to emphasize all of the recoverable critical minerals in a given surface or subsurface deposit.”

The bill also calls for the USGS to “map and collect data for areas containing mine waste to increase understanding of above-ground critical mineral resources in previously disturbed areas”.

As permitting for new mines remains a lengthy, expensive process, revisiting the tailings that have already been mined is a sensible move for mining companies. And if it helps clean up mine tailings at the same time, the process could be a win-win for everyone.