Brownfields, byproducts and tailings are South Africa’s biggest growth opportunity

27th October 2022 By: Nadine James - Features Deputy Editor

Brownfields, byproducts and tailings are South Africa’s biggest growth opportunity

Orion Minerals CEO Errol Smart

Mining stakeholders ought to do more to capitalise on existing resources, such as available geological and mining data, Orion Minerals CEO Errol Smart noted at the 2022 Council for Geoscience Summit, on Wednesday.

He explained that he felt that brownfield exploration, based on historical data supplemented by new research using newer technologies and methods, could result in South African explorers finding metals fast enough to meet current demand for critical metals. 

“The reality is that anywhere where there’s data, you're more likely to have success, because a big portion of the risk has been mitigated. The geoscience and the initial exploration work has already been carried out.”

He commented that this century would be the ‘century of energy’ characterised by energy generation technologies and electronics that are “hungry” for minerals.

“We need more minerals than have ever been mined before. In terms of copper, for instance, in the next 25 years, we need more copper than what's been mined in the history of the human race.” He added that, to enable sustainable development, the globe was going to need four times more minerals than it previously produced. If the globe was to meet Net Zero by 2050, mineral production would have to increase sixfold.

He emphasised the enormity of the task ahead, stressing that the looming metals deficit would be the legacy of underinvestment in exploration. However, he reiterated that local players could alleviate some of that market pressure by building on existing geological work and developing brownfield projects.

Smart also noted that the international Energy Association identified 50 critical minerals, which were used for a variety of applications across the energy value chain. Two such metals were germanium and indium, both used in the manufacture of solar panels and, importantly, both byproducts of zinc mining.

“Who knew South Africa is one of the biggest germanium producers in the world? We’re also one of the biggest indium producers, because we happen to be one of the biggest zinc producers.”

He expressed frustration at the lack of understanding around byproduct qualities. “Indium is a critical component of photovoltaic (PV) panels,” he noted, adding that while relatively small quantities were used in the manufacturing process, without indium, “you cannot have photovoltaic panels”.

He stressed that if the country did not produce more zinc, there would not be enough indium and germanium to meet the projected demand from PV panel manufacturers.

“Do we as geoscientists know this? Are we teaching it to our students? Is the Council for Geoscience telling [the public] that we better sort something out, either by substitution or finding a way to optimise our current resource?”

He also pointed to the potential of tailings and waste streams, stating “some of the stuff that was discarded as waste in the past, is where our biggest opportunity lies.”

Smart cited the “mountains” of the rare-earth mineral monazite lying on “waste heaps” along the West Coast and pointing to State-owned diamond mining company Alexkor rejecting tonnes of monazite during its activities. Moreover, the mineral sands along the West Coast have “millions of tonnes of monazite”.

He noted that part of reducing one’s carbon footprint was reducing the physical size and scope of mining operations, through proper rehabilitation. The remaining waste and tailings, with attendant rehabilitation, could physically shrink or restrict a mine’s carbon footprint.

As such, the geoscience community and mining houses could potentially lobby for the creation of carbon credits for companies that mine suboptimal mineral deposits, found within existing footprints, which, in addition to bolstering mineral production, would also aid the development of a circular economy and rehabilitation tailings and waste sites.