Major £1.7m funding to clean up Philippines mineral extraction

Credit: Cris Reven Gibaga

Leicester researchers have been awarded part of a £1.7 million grant for their work in reducing the environmental impact of mineral extraction in the Philippines.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Leicester forms part of an international consortium – including the University of the Philippines, University of Reading, British Geological Survey and Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter, plus partners from the mining industry – awarded funding by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to identify new techniques to increase the sustainability of mineral extraction.

Mining is a highly contentious issue in the south-east Asian nation, after past cases of mismanagement have negatively impacted the environment and surrounding communities. The Philippines are thought to be one of the most mineralised countries in the world, with substantial gold, copper, chromite, nickel and zinc, elements which will be critical to a global economy with lessened carbon footprint. 

Now, researchers from the worlds of Geology, Geography, Chemistry and beyond will pool resources to discover new ways to manage metal mine wastes, clean up pollution, and generate soils which support plant growth and allow the land to be reused.

Gawen Jenkin is a Professor of Applied Geology at the University of Leicester and leads the Philippines Remediation of Mine Tailings (PROMT) project alongside Professor Carlo Arcilla of the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute.

Professor Jenkin said: “We aim to make a big impact in this area by bringing together for the first-time research on new environmentally-friendly methods of metal extraction along with cutting edge geophysical imaging of the subsurface and new ways of looking at the development of plants and soils in mine wastes.

“We have shown previously how we can recover metals in the lab, but this is taking the technology to the mine site.”

Traditional mining and mineral processing technologies consume large quantities of fresh water, produce carbon dioxide, can contaminate water, and compete with local communities for resources.

Credit: Cris Reven Gibaga

They also produce large amounts of mine waste; uneconomic rock, and wet slurries of finely-ground minerals left over from mineral processing, known as tailings. These are deposited behind constructed dams as tailings storage facilities.

It is estimated that in the Philippines about 33 million tonnes of tailings are produced annually – about six times the weight of the Great Pyramid. Tailings storage facilities at both operational and closed mines pose environmental hazards, where failure could cause contaminated materials to be released affecting people and ecosystems. The risk of failure is increased in the Philippines due to the rugged topography, high rainfall, and frequent earthquakes.

Professor Carlo Arcilla, Director of the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, added: “The Philippines, having experienced some challenges from past mining activities, faces the need to balance income from minerals with responsible environmental management.”

The project brings together three science areas that are vital for innovation:

  • real-time monitoring of tailings storage facilities to allow reactive management to environmental changes, using emerging technologies in geophysical tomography and remote sensing to monitor and understand tailings behaviour in 4D
  • investigation of novel environmentally-benign solvents as a new method to dissolve metals from modern and abandoned tailings and test their application at mine sites; this will allow more metals to be recovered with economic value and also benefit tailings management by decontaminating hazardous components
  • study of how plants and microbes colonise mine wastes, how this is affected by the use of solvents, and identification of the best ways to promote biological growth; this will not only rehabilitate the land and allow it to be reused for agriculture or wildlife, it also minimises environmental hazards by improving the stability of the tailings and decreasing their toxicity

Beth House, Head of Productive Environment at NERC said: “Developing a whole system view of sustainable mineral production, and discovering innovative solutions that have minimal impacts on the environment are both crucial to sustainably meeting the growing global demand for mineral resources used in green technologies such as electric vehicles, wind turbines, and carbon capture and storage. NERC are committed to supporting research that improves interactions between economic and environmental systems.”

University of Leicester experts play a prominent role in world-leading research which is helping to build a more sustainable world.

Examples include the study of peatlands and how better management could provide a potential global reduction of 500 million tonnes of CO2, using remote sensing techniques to measure the impact of the destruction of habitats, and working with local businesses to improve carbon literacy and environmental sustainability.

Leicester is part of the COP26 Universities network and also hosts the NERC-affiliated National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO).