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Rio Tinto finds critical mineral hiding in the desert

rio tinto finds lithium from the waste rocks
Three cheers for sustainable lithium! Meet the team responsible for this ground-breaking discovery.

“A few years ago, we started looking into what metals we could extract from our waste,” said Alex, a Senior Engineer at Rio Tinto Boron operations in California, US. “We were looking for gold… but we found something better than gold: battery-grade lithium – and the potential to produce a lot of it.” 

Lithium opens the door to a whole new world. This critical mineral powers everyday life: charging smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles. And as demand grows for these battery-fueled goods, the world will need more of it.

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Rio Tinto has figured out how to chemically process nearly a century’s worth of mining waste to unearth battery-grade lithium. And the company looking at the potential to build a full-scale production plant that, once up and running, could produce enough lithium to power 70,000 electric vehicle batteries – without the need to mine anything else. 

Since it involves separating lithium from the waste rocks that have already been mined, this breakthrough process is a low-energy alternative to everyday lithium. 

It’s the latest in a range of breakthroughs where Rio Tinto extracting valuable materials from waste rock or by-products – including scandium from titanium dioxide production, and anhydrite and Alextra from our aluminium operations.

And by using waste to create something the world needs, the company can play an important part in the growing renewable energy market and contribute to a more sustainable future too.

“We’ve been mining here for nearly 100 years now,” Alex said. 

“We’ve seen carts become haul trucks and pickaxes become dig units. And with the growing green and sustainable energy market, we hope to adapt again by producing battery-grade lithium carbonate from our waste streams.”

When you combine curiosity, hard work and a little bit of luck, you’ll be amazed at what you can find. We can’t wait to see what the Boron team come up with over the next hundred years.

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AMSJ April 2022