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Critical Materials Institute announces partnership with Rio Tinto

October 12, 2016

The Critical Materials Institute (CMI) - a U.S. Department of Energy Innovation Hub led by the Ames Laboratory - announced today an important new research initiative in partnership with Rio Tinto, a mining and metals company. The new initiative aims to ensure that the United States fully leverages domestic mineral and metal resources necessary for global leadership in clean energy manufacturing.

The Rio Tinto-CMI research partnership will combine Rio Tinto's operational expertise with CMI's research capabilities, materials science expertise and computing power. Focused on the efficient extraction of critical materials from the copper smelting process, the research will have three core work-streams:

1. Improving recovery rates of critical minerals and metals (rhenium, selenium, tellurium, scandium, etc.) from samples sourced from Rio Tinto's operating Kennecott Copper Mine in Utah and the Resolution Copper project currently under regulatory review and permitting in Arizona.

2. Exploring potential for increasing recovery rates of rare minerals and metals through processing waste tailings.

3. Examining process improvements that would facilitate the blending of processed electronic waste ('e-waste') with copper concentrates to substantially increase the recovery of valuable metals such as gold, copper, silver, platinum, lithium and rare earths present in spent cellphones, computers and solar panels.

The research will utilize the facilities and expertise at Rio Tinto's fully-integrated copper mining and refining operations in Salt Lake City, Utah. Rio Tinto Kennecott Copper operates the Garfield smelter, one of only three operating in the United States. Rio Tinto Kennecott Copper meets approximately 20 percent of U.S. annual copper demand, along with gold, silver, and molybdenum. The Resolution Copper Mine project, according to the company, could provide an additional 25 percent of U.S. copper demand and may be a source of other rare metals such as molybdenum, scandium and rhenium.

Finding new ways to access the mineral wealth of the United States is important because today the U.S. imports more than 50 percent of the 41 metals and minerals key to clean energy applications.

CMI Director Alex King commented, "One of the most exciting aspects of the partnership with Rio Tinto is the prospect of increasing rare mineral and metal recovery by blending processed electronic waste into the current smelting process. Recycled e-waste has vastly higher concentrations of valuable metals than the materials that are dug out of the ground. This research has the potential to discover new ways to meet rising demand for materials that are critical to the development of the clean energy economy - all from domestic sources of recycled material."

Rio Tinto Copper & Diamonds Operations Managing Director Dr. Nigel Steward said, "CMI's focus on the materials required for the U.S. to be a global leader in clean-tech manufacturing fits well with our operational expertise in mining and smelting. We know there is potential to recover more rare metals and minerals in our current smelting process; we just need to find ways to do it more efficiently and economically. We are excited to be working with CMI to find innovative solutions."

The CMI-Rio Tinto research program began in July 2016 and will continue for two years.

CMI's membership program is designed to strengthen its think-tank approach to technological challenges by creating a network of partnerships. Benefits may include notification of technologies available for licensing, license options, early access to research results, and opportunities to interact with researchers. Benefits are based on the type of membership the partner elects. Contact Stacy Joiner at joiner@ameslab.gov or 515-294-5932 for more information.

The Critical Materials Institute is a Department of Energy Innovation Hub led by the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory and supported by DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's Advanced Manufacturing Office. CMI seeks ways to eliminate and reduce reliance on rare-earth metals and other materials critical to the success of clean energy technologies.
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Ames Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science national laboratory operated by Iowa State University. Ames Laboratory creates innovative materials, technologies and energy solutions. We use our expertise, unique capabilities and interdisciplinary collaborations to solve global problems.

Ames Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

DOE/Ames Laboratory

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