Mining for carbon: an innovation to turn an environmental hazard into a solution

Last January the Nori team caravaned from Seattle to Vancouver. We were on en route to the first company ski trip for a few days in Whistler/Blackcomb, but wanted to make the most of our time in Vancouver for the days prior, so we set up a few meetings and podcast interviews, interspersed with eating copious amounts of sushi. A highlight of the trip was at the University of British Columbia when we visited Greg Dipple to have him on the podcast.

Dipple is a geologist. He studies the driving forces for mineral reactions with a focus on fluid rock interactions. His latest work has focused on how those reactions at mining sites can store carbon dioxide (CO2). He discovered that tailing piles in mines were highly reactive to CO2 and were naturally storing it. For those not familiar with mining processes, it’s important to keep in mind that 99.9% of what is mined is waste. This waste is of two types 1) rock that needs to be moved and 2) the material the needs to be crushed to extract the metal or diamonds. This leaves it very reactive because of the high surface area. As Dipple thought about different ways to get CO2 to these tailing piles he realized that he had come across a process that could remove 100s of millions of tonnes of CO2 per year, offset 10 times the emissions that are generated across the mining industry, and could cost as little as $10/ton. While this work has just recently moved from lab scale into demonstration sites with different mines, he is working in one of those ideas where it’s not a question of if it’s going to happen. It’s a question of when.

At the most basic form, these tailings can react to CO2 just by spreading them around more surface area. Using a fan to blow the air also can work. More advanced schemes would capture CO2 from on site fossil power plants, or from devices which are directly capturing the atmosphere (direct air capture) which are then piping concentrated forms of CO2 over the tailings. These sorts of materials could create concrete like materials, which could buttress dams with CO2 treated tailings. Or it could be used to make new roads. Along with creating valuable products that now have carbon which was either previously in the atmosphere or would have escaped to the atmosphere, the technology also has an added value to deal with a dust problem at mines because it becomes a sort of sealant.

If you ask Greg, he thinks the time will come when companies who are not mining companies come in will start leasing the tailings piles to put CO2 in them. Crazy idea, right? As an entrepreneur, not at all! And in fact, if there were a company that wanted to start take mine tailings and use them to remediate mine sites while removing CO2 from the atmosphere, well they could work with Nori to develop a methodology and use our platform to get paid for the carbon removal service (hint hint). The types of mine sites that work particularly well for this process are copper, diamond, and platinum (more hints).

At the end of the day, like everything that can remove carbon from the atmosphere, if you can’t measure it, you can’t get paid. It’ll be quite some time before these managed mine tailings are showing up as a methodology on the Nori platform due to the pace of development (cue corny joke about Geologist working at Geologic time scales), but as we think about how to build a carbon removal methodology for this space, it would probably include Greg’s work on X-ray diffraction. The idea is to take cores and samples at discrete depths. Then you randomly chose rocks to take measurements from. You can then use a 3 isotope system to fingerprint where all of the carbon is coming from. Multiple isotopes will finger print the entire space.

The mining industry is one that is typically slow to innovate and last to move. With innovations such as this, they have a chance to not only innovate, but to be a leader in the global carbon drawdown.

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