Atlas of Australian Mine Waste Puts Secondary Prospectivity on the Map

​Geoscience Australia has teamed up with The University of Queensland, RMIT University and the Geological Survey of Queensland to develop an Atlas of Australian Mine Waste, highlighting new opportunities to recover valuable minerals – a concept known as secondary prospectivity.

Mine tailings sampled from north-west Queensland. Image Credit: Anita Parbhakar-Fox

This new Atlas from the Australian Government’s $225 million Exploring for the Future program will, for the first time, create a national database of mine waste sites across the country and the minerals that could potentially be present.  

The team will also create a methodology to assess if recovering any of these minerals is economically viable. This methodology will then be incorporated into Geoscience Australia’s Economic Fairways tool, helping to inform investment decisions from the Australian resources sector.  

Geoscience Australia’s Minerals, Energy and Groundwater Division Chief Dr Andrew Heap said in addition to new discoveries, mine waste sites could provide additional sources of critical minerals, which are essential ingredients in many modern technologies including smartphones, batteries and electric vehicles. 

Maximising the secondary prospectivity potential from existing mines also presents a new opportunity for mining companies seeking to improve the sustainability and social licence of their operations, Dr Heap added. 

“Critical minerals such as cobalt and platinum group elements can be recovered as by-products from processing the ores of major commodities like copper and nickel,” Dr Heap said. 

“Geoscience Australia’s scientists will partner with experts at The University of Queensland, RMIT University and the Geological Survey of Queensland to build the Atlas of Australian Mine Waste to highlight these opportunities on a national scale. 

“This will further Australia’s reputation as a world-leading supplier of critical minerals, while ensuring the country retains its best-practice environmental, social and governance credentials.” 

The Atlas will build on an approach pioneered by The University of Queensland and the Geological Survey of Queensland’s Secondary Prospectivity Project, which identifies sites for mine waste recycling across Queensland.  

“This project originally focused on the potential for cobalt in copper tailings in the Mount Isa area, before our investigations widened to tailings dams and mine storage facilities throughout Queensland,” Geological Survey of Queensland Director of Minerals Geoscience, Dr Helen Degeling said. 

“We are delighted that this concept will now be applied across the country to help meet the growing global demand for new economy metals in a more sustainable way.” 

The University of Queensland’s Associate Professor Anita Parbhakar-Fox said reprocessing mine tailings could make more financial and environmental sense than other mine rehabilitation options, particularly in the pursuit of critical metals. 

“Based on some of our field investigations, we have demonstrated that you could turn waste into a gold mine, literally,” Associate Professor Parbhakar-Fox said. 

This activity will also incorporate the world-leading expertise within the research team at RMIT, led by Associate Professor Gavin Mudd. 

“Assessing how mine waste could be reprocessed to generate a potentially large new resource stream is one of the best ways of creating a sustainable supply chain, especially for critical minerals,” Associate Professor Mudd said. 

“The reprocessing of mine waste can also support further remediation of historic mines to modern standards, which is a great outcome for Australian communities and the environment.” 

Mining companies are encouraged to help build this Atlas by allowing researchers to sample mine waste at their sites. To participate, get in touch via the Exploring for the Future website.

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