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Published November 15, 2012 08:30 AM

New research finds mine waste could provide an effective CO2 trap

It's time to economically value the greenhouse gas-trapping potential of mine waste and start making money from it, says mining engineer and geologist Michael Hitch of the University of British Columbia (UBC).

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Hitch studies the value of mine waste rock for its CO2-sequestration potential, or "SP." He says mining companies across Canada will, in future, be able to offset CO2 emissions with so-named "SP rock," and within 25 years could even be selling emissions credits.

Digging, trucking and processing make mining an energy-intensive industry that emits greenhouse gases. However, mine waste rock that is rich in the mineral magnesium silicate has an inherent ability to react with CO2 and chemically "fix" it in place as magnesium carbonate—an ability that can be greatly enhanced with some processing. Hitch and his colleagues note that this capacity for CO2 fixation can be five to ten times greater than total greenhouse gas production from some mine operations. Nickel, diamond, copper, chromite, platinum, palladium, talc, and asbestos mines could all be contenders. Some large mines, the researchers add, could fix 5 million tonnes or more of CO2 per year.

"I don't like waste," asserts Hitch. "I like to see efficient use of the resources."

Instead of using just 1 per cent of the materials from a big mining pit, he explains, a company could receive value from the non-commodity rock. "All of a sudden this material starts having value, and this material starts taking on a position in the company's cash flow as a byproduct," says Hitch, adding, "It really kind of changes the dynamics of the mining operation."

With the global price of carbon emissions credits expected to rise, SP rock could become even more valuable. However, in order to achieve substantial CO2 sequestration in SP rock, the somewhat sluggish chemical reactions that naturally fix CO2 require a jump start.

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Mine Waste image via Shutterstock

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