As the world prepares for a transition to renewable energy and net zero emissions, demand for metals like copper, cobalt, and nickel will increase tremendously. Mining and metal companies need to ramp up production fast, but these industries are inherently energy intensive. The latest research suggests global mining activities consume approximately 3.5 percent of the world’s total energy.
In my role as a research scientist for global chemical company Solvay, I help develop new chemicals for the mining sector. I started playing around with digital simulation software for chemical design back in 2016. Recognizing its value as a tool to visualize complex molecular interactions, I made the business case that we should invest in this technology. Any mature chemical company should have a simulation presence if it wants to keep churning out new products, and the mining industry is ripe for chemical innovation.
There are two main ways to extract metals from ore. The first and most prevalent is a process called flotation. This involves crushing up ore into tiny pebbles and dumping them into tanks the size of Olympic swimming pools. The next step is to add water and chemicals developed by companies like Solvay. Some minerals are naturally hydrophobic—they float to the top. Some are naturally hydrophilic—they sink to the bottom. The chemicals we design help take advantage of that separation process. The other method is called solvent extraction. Here, the process is to crush up the ore, dump it into tanks, flood those tanks with acid to leach out the metal ions, and pump that acidic stream into other tanks where the solvent extraction occurs.
Any mature chemical company should have a simulation presence if it wants to keep churning out new products, and the mining industry is ripe for chemical innovation.
In both methods, the chemicals involved are harsh on people and the environment. Part of my job is to use digital simulation to design chemical reagents for the flotation approach. The goal is to develop reagents that are milder, while still being selective, and to help make the whole operation more efficient.
A flotation reagent cell operates at the intersection of air, water, and solid particles. There are many complex physical interactions to consider, which is why digital simulation is such a game changer. As we visualize the interactions and understand more about how the entire process works, we can design reagents that target a certain face of a crystal structure, or a specific crystal lattice on a particular mineral. Milder reagents that are still selective enough to target the area of interest on a mineral surface represent a major win-win, driving efficiencies and adding value for our customers.
Mining is a mature industry. Humans have been digging stuff out of the earth for centuries, and mining companies can be firmly set in their ways. I’ve found that our customers in the mining sector don’t always understand the value of digital simulation—until they see it for themselves.
A couple of years ago, a mine opened up in rural Latin America. The company purchased a certain coagulating reagent from us to clean up a water supply pipe. Before long, they realized the cleaning process wasn’t working efficiently. To help them correct the problem, we captured all the physical properties of their operation, plugged them into our simulation software, ran Computational Fluid Dynamics calculations, and showed them a visual representation of what was going on. The simulation revealed why the reagent wasn’t mixing properly and allowed us to troubleshoot by recommending some modifications. We ran those simulations on a computer in Stanford, Connecticut to solve a problem in the jungle of Panama. The customer loved it.
Digital simulation can play an essential role in extracting the most value and efficiency from the earth, creating milder chemicals for the earth, and giving everyone on Earth access to clean, renewable energy.
In a perfect world, digital simulation works in tandem with experimental activities, helping scientists run fewer lab tests. This technology can enable companies to achieve goals more efficiently, whether by identifying a key chemical candidate or just failing faster so scientists can move on to the next idea.
Working with the mining industry, I’ve learned that every operation is a little different. Digital simulation can take all these unique configurations into account, helping us provide solutions that are tailored to each plant’s needs. To meet the energy demands of the future, even the long-established mining industry needs to innovate. Digital simulation can play an essential role in extracting the most value and efficiency from the earth, creating milder chemicals for the earth, and giving everyone on Earth access to clean, renewable energy.