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

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Camborne School of Mines

Abstract

Cobalt is an essential element for modern world. Its use in metal alloys, rechargeable batteries, electronics and high-value chemicals make it critical for a low-carbon society. Cobalt has the largest global market value of any of the individual e-tech elements (US$2.1 billion in 2013).
Cobalt is largely recovered as a by-product from the mining of other major metals and as a result, cobalt has not been the focus of study in ore-forming systems on its own. To address this knowledge gap we propose a systematic geological, geochemical and mineralogical approach to understanding the residence of cobalt in a range of important current and future ore minerals in diverse geological environments. A specific focus for this study are deposits forming in the Critical Zone of the Earth's crust where biological activity and weathering coincide and where cobalt is redistributed into forms where innovative bioleaching could change the way deposits are processed. Using new knowledge gained from the study of natural biological systems, advanced bioleaching techniques will be systematically applied to a range of deposits formed in the Critical Zone. Bioleaching also has great potential for reduced, sulfide-rich ores, particularly complex sulfide and often arsenic-rich ore-types where significant bioleaching has not yet been tested.

This COG3 proposal builds on our catalyst grant which developed a multi-institute and multi-investigator consortium with internationally recognised expertise across the geosciences including geology, geochemistry, mineralogy, microbiology and bioprocessing based in leading UK academic institutes: Herrington (NHM), Schofield (NHM), Johnson (Bangor), Lloyd (Manchester), Pattrick (Manchester), Coker (Manchester), Roberts (Southampton), Gadd (Dundee), Glass (Exeter), Mosselmans (Diamond) and Kirk (Loughborough), with in-depth expertise on geology, geometallurgy and geomicrobiology applicable to developing recovery strategies for cobalt from natural deposits. This group is underpinned by the Partners including the major mining companies Glencore, FQML and KGHM; a mid-tier European-based mining company Oriel; a junior UK-based mining SME Brazilian Nickel, an internationally accredited commercial research laboratory RPC and finally the Cobalt Development Institute representing the cobalt industry throughout the supply chain. They have all pledged to engage with the project, some through direct involvement in research activities, some with financial support for research and training and others by facilitating access to natural deposits and datasets. Further support comes from research colleagues at CSIRO in Australia.

Specific research will be delivered through a series of work packages which will address: 1) Geology and mineralogy of cobalt in natural systems; 2) Natural biogeochemistry of cobalt; 3) Bioprocessing of cobalt and development of new products; 4) Improving the cobalt supply chain through integrated studies and dialogue with stakeholders representing the supply chain. This research directly addresses the NERC Security of Supply of Mineral Resources (SoS Minerals) initiative Goals 1 & 2 with a fundamental aim to recognise the mineral residence and chemical cycle of cobalt (Goal 1) and provide geometallurgical information that will facilitate new opportunities for improvements to current recovery, minimising waste through geometallurgy; and thoroughly testing innovative, benign bioleach technologies for the extraction and downstream bioengineering of novel cobalt products (Goal 2). Through the collaboration of the PIs, Co-Pis, Partners and the development of PDRAs and PhDs, the program will produce high impact scientific publications for the international literature, highly significant public outreach and education on behalf of the NERC SoS programme and establish the UK COG3 consortium as a world leader in research into innovative cobalt recovery from natural mineral deposits.

Planned Impact

This project has already built a consortium of unrivalled depth and breadth with the skillset needed to deliver evidence for the decision-making needed to secure the supply of cobalt for the 21st century and beyond. The project will deliver a range of answers to the key science questions that delay such security, delivering a range of tools that can be applied to the identification and definition of new cobalt resources and the application of novel and benign bioprocessing options to the extraction and recovery of cobalt from a range of mineralization types found in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

This project has the ambitious plans of providing (i) New geological and mineralogical knowledge from existing and potential deposits of cobalt that will underpin new, more efficient exploration and mining activities (ii) A clearer understanding of the natural biochemical cycle of cobalt better defining the pathways that make and break cobalt-bearing compounds in natural systems (iii) An assessment of a range of bioprocessing pathways, at a range of scales, in both reduced and oxidized ore systems, targeted towards more benign biorecovery methods for cobalt (iv) Insights into new methods capable of (bio)engineering compounds for use by the broader the downstream cobalt user community.

The project will provide new knowledge relevant to both UK and international researchers as well as cobalt producing companies and end users of specific cobalt products. The research is also relevant to an understanding of the geology, mineralogy and biogeochemistry of the terrestrial environment, specifically the processes that underpin the biogeochemical cycling of metals. The project will also lead to cross-disciplinary awareness and will train a cohort of new scientists with skills to take the research further.

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 and the public 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 and project members will be able to add new material to the website on a regular basis. We will specifically engage with the public through the public learning programmes at individual consortium institutions and we will engage with schools targeted at Key Stages 3 and 4, encouraging pupils to engage with research science via direct relationships with individual young researchers in the SoS programme.

Publications

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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
NE/M011372/1 01/05/2015 31/03/2020
1715491 Studentship NE/M011372/1 01/03/2016 31/08/2019 Paulina Pazik
 
Description The pathway for improving the economic and environmental friendliness of metals recovery from primary sources through geometallurgy has been demonstrated in the case of cobalt hosted in copper and nickel ores.
Exploitation Route Mining companies may increasingly consider the by-product recovery as a result of increased awareness that sustainable practices are valued by customers.
Sectors Environment

 
Description The recovery of cobalt at mining operations is secondary to the recovery of primary metals such as copper and nickel. The project has devised methods to optimise the by-product recovery of cobalt, creating a pathway to improved resource efficiency and reducing environmental impact.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Environment
Impact Types Economic