It seems like impossible things happen all the time.  As a breather, let’s examine the first stanza of the poem, “It Couldn’t Be Done”, by Edgar Guest:

 Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,

     But he with a chuckle replied

That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one

     Who wouldn’t say so ‘til he’d tried.

So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin

     On his face. If he worried he hid it.

He started to sing as he tackled the thing

     That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

…So, why not be the very one to tackle the thing that can’t be done?  Why not dream the impossible dream, and achieve it?  It is with this “wind beneath my wings” that I pose the moonshot question:  Can there be a future of mining where no new tailings are produced?  Let’s examine how this could be accomplished.

  1. Ban mining.  This reminds me of the tongue-in-cheek bumper sticker:  Ban Mining.  Let the bastards freeze in the dark.  But on a serious note, how could we accomplish this?  Create everything through recycling.  This has already been (rightfully) dismissed, as we have a growing population and ever-growing durable goods and technology needs.  I’ll leave this impossibility in the hands of other capable moon… shooters.  I’m sorry that I said it’s impossible.  It’s just a moonshot for somebody else. 
  2. In-place minerals recovery, with no excavations.  Drilling, and potentially blasting, may be required.  And probably the addition of fluids into the ground.  In this case, I can broadly see two potential sets of categories:
    1. Chemical recovery.  This would include in situ (in-place) leaching.  This has already been done successfully with copper and uranium.  This is not too dissimilar to brine mining (extraction of underground elements or compounds which are naturally dissolved in a salty aquifer), which is successfully used on salt, iodine, lithium, magnesium, potassium, bromine, and other materials.  Of course, it may be necessary to go to great lengths to protect the regional groundwater, both during and after mining.  I’m not currently trying to solve all the issues.  And, in some cases, larger voids may be created, and their effects on the surface would have to be accommodated.  But would you be willing to live with that possibility if there were no more failures from new tailings facilities?
    2. Electro-physical recovery.  Into this “bucket”, I’m placing a lot of “possible” technologies. This includes in-place solvent extraction and electrowinning (SX/EW).  The use of the SX/EW process has been broadly used on mined copper ore, and can also be applied to cobalt, nickel, zinc and uranium.  Electrowinning requires a cathode and anode (a positively charged pole and a negatively charged pole; a current is passed from an inert anode through a liquid containing the metal and the metal is attracted onto the cathode).  To this list, let’s add electromagnetic recovery.  Things that can be attracted to a magnet.  Ferromagnetic materials are attracted to a magnet.  Examples of ferromagnetic materials include iron, nickel, cobalt, manganese and some rare earth materials.  Rather than inserting injection wells for in situ leaching, insert magnets to recover the (very specific) metals.  And, what if there is a “future magnet” for non-ferromagnetic materials?  Just because such a magnet does not exist today, does not rule out its existence tomorrow.  It’s a moonshot… remember? 
  3. Dry grinding/milling and dry material separation.  This would require the extraction of ore from the earth, but would result in a dry waste product that should be relatively simple to accommodate in a non-impounding structure.  I don’t know much about this topic, except that I understand that at least on a small-scale production level, it doesn’t seem to matter very much whether or not water is used in the milling process.  And as for dry material separation, aside from gravity separation, I don’t know much here either.  The principle there would be based on specific gravity (how many times more dense the element is than water).  Dry separation equipment has been around for more than a century.  It was originally developed for gold, but has found its way into many other dry materials markets, including seeds, peanuts, peas, beans, corn, beach sands, coal, cork, chemicals and many other bulk solids.  Gravity separation won’t work with everything, even if there is a difference in specific gravity.  For example, if a metal is physically encapsulated within another material. 
  4. A whole bunch of things that I haven’t thought about.  Like seeing if there is a market that you can sell/trade/donate your tailings into. Okay. I thought of this a little.  I don’t even know all the questions, though. How am I supposed to know the answers!

I doubt that Isaac Newton would have believed that light could bend. Newtonian gravity didn’t predict bending of light due to a gravitational pull, or anything that doesn’t have mass. Heck, heavier then air flight used to be considered to be impossible.  

Let’s frame this slightly differently, and recall the opening lyrics to the song, “To Dream the Impossible Dream”.

To dream the impossible dream,

To fight the unbeatable foe,

To bear with unbearable sorrow,

To run where the brave dare not go.

 As Mark Twain once said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect”. 

As I said at the beginning of this post, please don’t think that I am indicating that a future without tailings is even possible.  I am simply posing a “what if”.  And it is a HUGE what if.  But let’s don’t throw out the idea altogether.  We just need a moonshot.  That’s all.

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Comment (1)

  1. Deborah Goetz

    April 16, 2019 at 10:22 am

    Bryan, I like the way you think! I appreciate your willingness to “dream” differently. I share your thoughts about mining without tailings. I have been “brainstorming” ideas like this for a long time – and I am not a mining engineer. One of the things that I also wonder about in conjunction with mining without tailings is how can we mine more superficial reserves without opening a massive pit. Can we develop machinery to mine “in situ”? I have so many ideas and thoughts. But I love reading that there are others out there who believe the impossible is possible – we just haven’t thought of it yet.

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