Friday 6th December 2019

Resource Clips


Mining for the future

Saskatchewan Research Council R&D fosters innovation and sustainability

by Greg Klein

Predictably for a jurisdiction so rich in potash and uranium, mining plays a prominent role in the Saskatchewan Growth Plan, a 10-year economic program announced last week. Skeptics, however, might question the goal to extract lithium and rare earths locally and even set a near-precedent in non-Chinese commercial REE separation. But it turns out that some of that work has been underway for years, while other targets have already been in the planning stage. That’s just part of a wide range of mining expertise developed and applied by the Saskatchewan Research Council.

Saskatchewan Research Council R&D fosters innovation and sustainability

SRC employees look over the remediated Lorado mill site
in northern Saskatchewan. (Photo provided by SRC)

SRC figures strongly in the province’s new agenda, whose mining-related initiatives include a continuation of the PST exception on drilling, streamlining permitting, creating a Geoscience Data Management System, boosting annual uranium and potash sales, upgrading and building road, rail, pipeline and power infrastructure, and developing nuclear energy.

If some of the mining-specific plans sound over-ambitious, it’s reassuring to learn how few of them are actually new. “The fact that the projects have been promoted in an integrated growth plan is in some ways new, and some of the projects themselves are fairly new in the public domain,” says SRC president/CEO Mike Crabtree. But a surprising amount of work is well underway at his organization, which plays an integral role in the growth plan, in Saskatchewan industry and, increasingly, on the global mining scene.

A Crown corporation with over 340 employees, 1,400 clients in 23 countries and $75 million in annual revenue, SRC focuses its largest division on mining and energy. Mining-related R&D covers everything from early exploration to remediation, with growing attention to sustainability and innovation.

Saskatchewan Research Council R&D fosters innovation and sustainability

Rare earths solvent extraction helps develop another
source of critical minerals. (Photo provided by SRC)

The SRC boasts the largest potash, uranium and diamonds labs in the world. Most Canadian diamond production and a substantial amount of kimberlite from around the world passes through the Saskatoon facility.

“With uranium we test tens of thousands of ore samples per year, predominantly for Saskatchewan but also on a global basis. In terms of that, we’re very much the largest laboratory in the world and, for very similar reasons, for potash.”

But SRC’s work goes far beyond assays. “We’ve also used those laboratories for designing and modelling mine feasibility, through to diagnostics and optimization of ongoing mine operations, and then monitoring and remediation for closure,” Crabtree explains. “That’s full-cycle mining and minerals, making SRC probably one of the largest integrated testing, research and development facilities for mining, certainly in Canada and possibly in the world.”

One sustainability project focuses on comminution, the highly expensive and energy-consuming practice of breaking, crushing or grinding rock for further processing. SRC’s advanced ore sensor and sorting techniques can greatly reduce the procedure with no loss of production and sometimes even an improvement.

Saskatchewan Research Council R&D fosters innovation and sustainability

The SRC’s mineral processing labs handle extensive
work in addition to assays. (Photo provided by SRC)

“We’re already seeing the opportunity to reduce energy costs and therefore the carbon footprint by anywhere from 20% to 40%. That’s huge given that often 40% of operating costs are in energy. That kind of sustainability and economic optimization really just shows different sides of the same coin.”

Remediation work applies leading edge expertise to former mines through SRC’s Project CLEANS, which takes on the challenge of mitigating some 37 former uranium sites that shut down during the 1960s and earlier.

On another front, Crabtree says SRC oil and gas expertise brings “a lot of synergies” to the development of in-situ mining, a method that’s being tested on potash and uranium projects in Saskatchewan.

As for strategic minerals, the SRC harbours some surprising ambitions: local lithium and rare earths extraction, along with processing in both areas including commercial-scale REE separation. That last goal could give Saskatoon a key role in challenging China’s near-monopoly on rare earths supply chains.

Looking at lithium, Saskatchewan has two potential sources, the continental brines of the southern province, as well as oil and gas-produced waste water.

Starting with lithium levels of 50 ppm to 150 ppm, “SRC has developed technology to concentrate those brines up to maybe 2,500 or 3,000 ppm while excluding the contaminants, which makes processing to lithium hydroxide or lithium carbonate much easier and financially viable,” Crabtree says.

Saskatchewan Research Council R&D fosters innovation and sustainability

SRC oversees the Cowessess First Nation Renewable
Energy Storage Facility. (Photo provided by SRC)

Another possible source of critical minerals from waste comes from the world’s highest-grade uranium resources, which offer rare earths potential from tailings.

Of course with rare earths, the greatest challenge remains processing and separation. SRC plans to develop technology that could be applied to liquid raffinate from waste, or to the bastnasite or monazite minerals often associated with RE deposits.

Phase I begins next year. Working with industrial partners, SRC intends to produce a concentrate of 99.95% mixed rare earths oxides or rare earths carbonate.

Phase II, subject to funding from industry and government, will be to separate the concentrate into individual elements. He foresees “a smaller-scale commercial plant that would demonstrate the commercial viability of that technology. We can see a plant operating within about three years, assuming we can get funding. If no other plant is built by 2003, it would be the first commercial plant in North America.”

And a momentous achievement. Except for the Lynas facility in Malaysia and possibly a small-scale operation in France, there’s currently no commercial RE separation outside China, he points out.

Additionally, “we believe the process will be substantially more economically viable and much more environmentally sustainable than current techniques.”

Saskatchewan’s Growth Plan also calls for nuclear power. By becoming a consumer of its own uranium, the province hopes to drastically cut its dependence on coal and natural gas-fired electricity.

Saskatchewan Research Council R&D fosters innovation and sustainability

Staff operate SRC’s Centre for the Demonstration of
Emissions Reductions Mobile Facility. (Photo provided by SRC)

Again, SRC can offer a range of expertise. “We have experience not only with mining and processing uranium but also with an operational research reactor, which we just de-fueled in September. So we are the only entity in the province that has a nuclear reactor operating licence. In addition, other parts of SRC are highly skilled at environmental assessment and engineering assessment, so we hope SRC will be playing a role in Saskatchewan for small modular reactors.”

What comes up repeatedly in SRC’s work is the convergence of economics and sustainability as researchers find newer, less expensive and greener methods of producing materials that are, in turn, crucial to economic and environmental well-being. Ongoing innovation, of course, plays a vital role.

So it’s not surprising that a growing SRC priority is artificial intelligence—“specifically for industrial and resource processes in Saskatchewan,” Crabtree emphasizes.

“A lot of the processes that we’re talking about, whether it’s rare earths, lithium, sensor-based sorting, in-situ mining, all these things are going to have a significant deep data analytics and artificial intelligence component. That’s something we’re working very closely on.”

Looking ahead, he adds, “It will be difficult to envisage major projects like these in the next five years that don’t have a significant AI component.”

Read more about mining’s role in the Saskatchewan Growth Plan.

Read the Saskatchewan Research Council blog.


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