Towards a carbon neutral future

In May 2017, De Beers announced an ambitious goal of creating a carbon neutral mine within five to 10 years.

Project Minera was started in 2016, focusing on supporting academic research with studies on two diamond mines – the Venetia Mine in South Africa and the Gahcho Kue Mine in Canada.

Dr Beers’ Project Minera set off to discover the “potential to store large volumes of carbon at its diamond mines through the mineralisation of kimberlite tailings, the material that remains after diamonds have been removed from the ore,” the press release said.

Its aim was to accelerate a process which was already naturally occurring, albeit one that takes millions of years.

The process involves storing carbon through the mineralisation of kimberlite rocks, a common form of waste in the diamond industry.

De Beers said mineral carbonation at their diamond mines would occur in five steps.

The first step was to assess mine emissions. The second was to assess unintentional carbon storage and additional storage potential. This would be followed by implementing technologies to increase carbon storage in tailings, then monitoring the carbon storage amounts over time and finally rehabilitating the tailings.

De Beers CEO Bruce Cleaver said the research would have a positive impact not only on De Beers but hopefully the broader mining industry as well.

“By replicating this technology at other mining operations around the world, this project could play a major role in changing the way not only the diamond industry but also the broader mining industry addresses the challenge of reducing its carbon footprint,” Mr Cleaver said.

“We have the real potential to leave a positive, long-lasting legacy for the global mining industry.”

Nearing two years into the project, Project Minera was making good progress, according to Climate Change Specialist, DeBeers Project Minera Advisor and former Project Lead Dr Evelyn Mervine.

“The focus last year was looking at a range of different technologies at a laboratory scale,” she said.

“What we are getting to this year is progressing sites to what we call field scale trials; in other words, taking those experiments out of the lab and scaling them up to an outdoor environment in real conditions.”

A 2018 paper by the project group highlighted the positive results successful mineral carbonisation could have on carbon output.

“Tapping into the full carbonation potential of processed kimberlite (that is, achieving 100 per cent of the theoretical mineral carbonation) is not likely to be economically or practically achievable in the near future,” the paper said.

“However, carbonating even a small percentage of processed kimberlite could lead to substantial offsets or even carbon-neutral mining operations.”

While Dr Mervine acknowledged mineral carbonation was not a new technology, she said the application of these technologies to kimberlite ore was, and it offered ideal properties for the storage of carbon.

One concern many have with this technology is the potential leakage of C02 back into the atmosphere, but Dr Mervine said this project mitigated those concerns.

“That is the real beauty of this research; the carbon is going to be stored as a solid natural carbonite mineral that is non-toxic,” she said.

“There is no real risk of leakage, certainly not on a human level. Once we form these minerals in the tailings they are just going to stay there.”

Dr Mervine said the level of backing from De Beers to pursuing a carbon neutral output was unique in the industry.

“This is the first time a mining company has actually said they are going to have an in-house R&D team that will work with these experts and put serious money in to develop it,” she said.

The ideal carbon storage characteristics of kimberlite rock can also be found in rocks mined for other commodities like nickel and platinum, meaning not only diamond mines can benefit from this technology.

Dr Mervine said the research would be shared with the wider mining community.

“At the moment we are not retaining the IP,” she said. “That is being retained by the academic researchers and we are encouraging them to publish are share their results. Our hope is this work bene ts the broader mining industry.”

Dr Mervine said this research was important for the industry’s future.

“To power the renewable age you are going to need mining. There won’t be a future without mining.

“Some people see carbon mineralisation as a challenge, but it is an enormous opportunity. If you can get it correct you can have a real competitive advantage.”

Is the industry doing enough?

Digging Deep, a 2017 report by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) found the mining sector was showing signs of progress but there was still a significant risk for the sector, especially for those that supplied emission-intensive industries.

“The mining industry has significant potential exposure to carbon emissions regulation in its value chain where emissions from downstream customers are estimated at an average of 10 times and up to 30 times higher than operational emissions,” the report said.

Overall however, operational emissions showed improvement, with nine of the 12 companies featured in the report taking steps to reduce the emission intensity of their operations.

This comes at times of heightened social, political and investor pressure to transition to a low carbon-based economy.

Carbon emissions are placed into three different scopes.

Scope 1 are emissions from managed mine operations, Scope 2 are emissions from third party facilities that supply electricity to a mine operation and Scope 3 emissions are all indirect emissions (not included in scope 2) that occur in the value chain of the reporting company, including both upstream and downstream emissions.

For example, Rio Tinto’s latest climate report put its emissions at 17.8 and 10.8 million total carbon dioxide emissions (tCO2e) for Scope 1 and 2 respectively. Scope 3 was where most of the greenhouse emissions occurred, with 536 million tCO2e.

Scope 3 emissions were mostly attributed to steel production from Rio’s iron ore.

“One interesting thing about the mining industry is they are all involved in different commodities,” CDP Head of Investor Research Carole Ferguson said.

“The intensity of their emissions is slightly dictated by the type of commodity that they are involved with.

“If I am a copper company and I am trying to scale back the intensity of our operations I’d be sitting quite pretty.

“The reality is carbon capture and storage are key mitigating technologies for a number of the areas the mining area is involved in.

“This can be a huge opportunity for the mining companies if they think about this technology going forward.”

Image: Project Minera Advisor Dr Evelyn Mervine.

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