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The Drift: Sudbury has the solution for Canada's mine waste problems

Mining innovation CEO proposes $17.3-million biotechnology centre to advance environmentally sustainable mining

One of the mining industry's biggest financial and environmental liabilities can be turned into a huge resource opportunity, said Sudbury environmental microbiologist Nadia Mykytczuk.

Canada's mining sector generates more than 650 million tonnes of tailings every year from its 200 operations and spends over $10 billion for the ongoing treatment of this waste, not to mention about 10,000 abandoned mines that's managed by government.

"The mining industry is actually a waste management process," said Mykytczuk, interim CEO-president of MIRARCO Mining Innovation in Sudbury.

"For every tonne of metal that we are extracting and producing, we're depositing about 20 to 200 tonnes of solid waste into these tailings."

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In Sudbury, there's an estimated $100-billion worth of nickel, cobalt and other valuable minerals buried beneath millions of tonnes of rock at tailings sites, held by the city’s two largest mining companies, that's ready for extraction.

But it makes no economic sense to reprocess these massive volumes of rock through conventional milling to squeeze out the remaining low-grade minerals.

However, the adoption of biotechnology can be a game-changer, said Mykytczuk. It can create a kind of circular economy that will make the mining industry truly sustainable while feeding the raw material to the electric vehicle industry for years to come.

Armed with a feasibility study and a business case, Mykytczuk raised the bar at the recent BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle) Conference in Sudbury when she took the wrapping off her "blue sky idea" of a $17.3-million Centre for Mine Waste Biotechnology. It’s the culmination of her 17 years of research work at Laurentian University.

"I start fundraising today," said Mykytczuk, moments before stepping onto the podium to deliver her presentation on why Sudbury is the ideal place to be Canada's hub of bio-mining and bio-remediation.

Ambitiously, she wants to break ground on construction of this centre within two years.

Her proposed bricks-and-mortar complex would be a dedicated space to offer biotech innovators and entrepreneurs, specializing in mine waste strategies, to pilot-test their technologies, supported by world-class expertise and the lab infrastructure.

It would also fast-track these technologies to commercialization and the market.

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Mykytczuk’s case is that the electric vehicle revolution is coming up on us fast.

The global demand for the metals mix needed to make the EV batteries will soon outstrip the available supply of mineral resources. The clamour for batteries is expected to triple the available supply by 2030.

But the hanging, open-ended question is, where are all these minerals going to come from?

New mines aren't permitted and constructed overnight. Existing operations face challenges to go deeper and mineral exploration is a painstaking, high-risk, high-reward process.

"So, where are we going to find that missing supply?" asked Mykytczuk.

In century-old mining camps like Sudbury, low-grade minerals are dumped on surface in the form of tailings, next to the mines and mills. It represents an estimated $8 billion to $10 billion in value, she said.

These materials are often very reactive and can pose a potential threat to the environment.

"As the demand for battery metals increases, I think you can agree that we'd be fools not to look those mine wastes as a readily available resource that's sitting at the surface and is actually costing us a lot of money just to maintain,” said Mykytczuk.

Vale's expansive Copper Cliff tailings area in Sudbury's east end is one of the largest tailings deposits in Canada. It's a discarded stockpile of waste rock, smelter emissions, seepage, dust and slag, all byproducts of the smeltering process. 

From her visits to the site over the years, Mykytczuk and her graduate students have been cultivating nature's version of Scrubbing Bubbles. She's nurtured a collection of ravenously hungry microorganisms trained to eat through sulphur and iron in rock with the ability to release those valuable minerals in a controlled, lab setting.

A company she is advising, BacTech, a Toronto green technology and bio-mining firm, is bringing its patent-pending pyrrhotite bio-leaching process to Sudbury for piloting in conjunction with Mykytczuk and MIRARCO. A pilot-scale plant is being assembled on the Laurentian campus.

BacTech has enjoyed great success at applying their bio-leaching technologies in South America to extract precious metals from waste piles generated by artisanal miners.

The approach they use, bio-leaching, has been kicking around for a half century, she said. There are mines around the world engaged in various forms of this process, but it’s always remained a niche “black box” kind of technology.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, scientists like Mykytczuk have gotten better at controlling the outcomes. Researchers have made great advances in agriculture and health care in being able to extract the DNA of micro-organisms to study genomic sequencing.

In bringing these approach toward tackling the building mine waste problem, Mykytczuk has scanned the microbes native to the Copper Cliff tailings, identified certain bacteria, understood their traits and capabilities, and optimized their ability to extract minerals.

Bio-leaching accomplishes two things: it safely and cheaply breaks down the rock and extracts much-needed minerals while cleaning up the chemical nasties in the process — like the sulphide which produces acid mine drainage — and separates them out in solution as benign waste.

To speed up the piloting of these biotechnologies, a centre for mine waste is necessary. The timing is certainly right, she said.

With exploding demand for mineral commodities for EV batteries, renewable energy and clean technology, Ottawa and Queen’s Park are offering financial incentives to advance the processing of battery-grade metals.

The federal government recently put out a call for proposals to fund pilot plants and projects that support mineral processing, emphasizing technologies with reduced energy consumption and a low carbon footprint.

"The time is really now to position ourselves," said Mykytczuk later in an interview.

The consultants of her feasibility study interviewed more than 50 stakeholders ranging from industry academics to incubator business park operators, in Canada and abroad, for feedback about how the centre should be structured to give it the best chance of success.

Established as a not-for-profit, the centre would be an innovation park, the first of its kind in Canada, focussed on piloting biotechnologies for mine waste extraction.

At 45,000 square feet, the building would house companies, entrepreneurs, biologists, chemists, mineralogists, and all the technical support staff to conduct pilot programs and demonstration-scale projects. It would create a stimulating environment where innovation would happen organically.

“We want to have an open door and engage larger mining companies, SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and technology companies to come together and feel that they can engage in what’s happening at the centre,” she said.

The project’s return on this one-time, $17.3-million investment would be paid back in 10 years through federal and provincial taxes generated by construction ($4.8 million) and in revenues created from operations in the form of memberships, services and programs. About 144 jobs would be created.

A number of brownfield sites would be considered, including the Coniston Industrial Park in the city’s east end, the site of a former Inco smelter.

The centre would also encourage development of technologies for a futuristic zero-waste mine where, conceivably, all the mill concentrate would have the valuable minerals and harmful elements removed before it heads to the waste pile.

But the idea will founder unless there’s buy-in from the mining industry, senior levels of government and the community to be part of the vision and the operation, she said.

Expect to see Mykytczuk on the road this year, delivering her pitch again at the PDAC (Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada) mining convention in Toronto in June and at other related industry events.