While the potential for the discovery of new high grade resources exists, it is almost inevitable that the ore resources used to provide society’s ongoing demand for primary metals will deteriorate over time as the higher grade reserves are exploited first and are progressively depleted. This deterioration in quality of metallic ore resources will bring about significant interactions with other resources such as energy and water, resulting in an increase in the amount of these resources required per unit of primary metal production. In this paper it is shown that as ores deteriorate in quality, the contributions of the mining and mineral processing stages to the life cycle-based embodied energy and water of primary metal production will increase significantly. Therefore efforts to reduce the impact of deteriorating ore resources on energy and water consumption should focus on these stages.
The results from life cycle assessments of the production of various metals by a number of different processing routes, particularly copper and to a lesser extent nickel, have been used to identify a number of opportunities and technologies for reducing the energy consumption in the mining and mineral processing stages, including:
- comminution, eg high pressure grinding rolls, stirred mills,
- ore sorting, preconcentration,
- advanced blasting techniques,
- advances in diesel technology for loading and hauling,
- alternative processing routes, eg heap leaching, in situ leaching,
- water treatment and re-use,
- water quality ‘fit for purpose’,
- dry processing,
- floating modules to reduce evaporation, and
- paste thickeners.
All the above and existing developed flotation technologies can impact on the mineralogy of the concentrate supplied to the smelter. Removal of gangue minerals early on in processing may have further downstream process implications on fuel and water requirements. The above technologies are in various stages of development, with some more advanced than others. However, all can be expected to play their part in improving the sustainability of the Australian mining industry.