Cobalt: the roles of Geology, Geomicrobiology and Geometallurgy in its mineral formation and recovery (CoG3)

Lead Research Organisation: Bangor University
Department Name: Sch of Biological Sciences

Abstract

Cobalt (Co) has been highlighted as a metal of great strategic and economic importance, both by the NERC Security of Mineral Resources (as an "E-tech" element) and by the European Union's Raw Materials Initiative (as a "Critical element"). Around 55,000 tonnes of cobalt are produced globally each year, though less than 0.1% of this within Europe. In contrast, EU countries use ~30% of global cobalt production. However, there are large untapped reserves of cobalt within Europe, such as the black shale ores in Poland, which are mined for copper, and in Co-bearing nickel laterite ores in Greece, Macedonia and Kosovo. Cobalt is not recovered from either of these. One of the primary difficulties facing cobalt recovery from copper ores lies in the flotation of cobalt when using conventional process for copper flotation. In order to recover cobalt, increasingly complicated chemical additives are being considered. The toxicity of these chemicals decreases the potential environmental friendliness of the process, both in terms of volatilisation and leakage into the surroundings. Lateritic (and other oxidized Co-bearing ores, such as marine nodules) also pose significant technical challenges in developing economically-viable and environmentally-benign approaches for extracting this metal, though recent advances, e.g. in bio-processing ores and mineral concentrates, have highlighted potential new techniques that could be utilized.
There is a need to identify not only new extraction and recovery processes for cobalt, but also to understand how cobalt minerals and ores are formed and how the metal behaves in the earth's crust. To facilitate this, a consortium of internationally-acknowledged researchers encompassing a wide range of scientific disciplines has formed, to carry out a comprehensive study of cobalt. This will include investigating how this metal behaves in geological materials and its behaviour in the environment, and also to devise new "green" approaches for extracting cobalt from recalcitrant ores and recovering it from process liquors. These are highly intertwined aspects, for example understanding how and why cobalt establishes residence in silicate, sulfide and oxide phases is an important first step to the design of novel extraction methodologies.
Recent reports in the literature, often authored by members of the consortium, have highlighted new (bio)technologies that can be harnessed in the current proposal. For example, the journal "Scientific American" recently (December 2011) highlighted the bio-processing options that will be used in the project as one of "10 world-changing ideas". The project has already attracted great interest and support from industries and research organisations involved in metal mining. Although focused on cobalt, much of the research to be undertaken would be generic and have application in parallel studies with other valuable metals and metal ores.

Planned Impact

The Catalyst stage proposal focuses on improving understanding of the distribution and behaviour of Co prior to a full grant proposal. It will yield information that has impact on strategies for Co extraction and recovery.
Output from the Catalyst stage will be summarized as a briefing document which will be distributed to potential industry partners, and Catalyst stage partners. Publishing of the preliminary experimentation will be considered. Workshop discussions and preliminary data will be incorporated into the full grant proposal.
Implications of this research are:
(i) Reduction of the environmental impact of Co mining via bioleaching/bioprocessing
(ii) Maximizing recovery of Co and therefore sustainable development
(iii) Development of an extraction strategy applicable within UK/Europe, and elsewhere
(iv) New knowledge to underpin Co exploration activities in Europe/World

The project will provide new knowledge relevant to UK/international researchers and Co-producing companies. The research is also relevant to an understanding of the mineralogy of the terrestrial environment, and the processes that underpin biogeochemical cycling of metals. The project will also lead to cross-disciplinary awareness and the training of personnel with skills to take the research further. The research is of world-wide impact in view of the critical importance of cobalt and the necessity to improve efficiencies for its recovery.

Commercial development with one or more industrial partners will lead to obvious economic and societal benefit. In addition, various national environmental agencies could benefit from the results of our study particularly those concerned with land management.

User groups will be engaged through organised workshops as well as specific meetings. The primary mechanism for knowledge exchange with academic colleagues will be publication of papers in international refereed journals and conference presentations. We will also organise symposia through selected learned societies. We will establish a project website that describes the research in accessible terms. Project members will be able to add new material to the website on a regular basis. The website will also include hyperlinks to pertinent learned society websites, partner Institutions and Companies.
 
Description confirmatory and preliminary data only. This was used by the consortium to put together a case for a full grant award, which was awarded by the NERC
Exploitation Route n/a
Sectors Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

 
Description This was a catalyst phase grant, and the results have been included in a full scale proposal that is currently being evaluated by the NERC
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Environment,Other
Impact Types Economic

 
Description NERC Security of Materials Supply
Amount £2,300,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2015 
End 04/2019