Tackling the challenges of mine waste

1 December 2023
Professor Longbin Huang

University of Queensland (UQ) researchers have been awarded over $500,000 in government funding to develop eco-engineering technology capable of creating useful soil from the tailings derived from a range of minerals.

As society transitions to greener energy sources, growing demand for critical minerals is resulting in more mining and more waste. Developing solutions for how best to manage this mine waste, and therefore reduce the environmental risks it poses, is a priority for industry, governments, and communities.

The Ecological Engineering of Mine Wastes research group at UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI) has been developing new technologies to rehabilitate metal mine tailings for several years.

Group lead Professor Longbin Huang said the recent Australian Research Council Discovery grant will allow the team to return to the lab to develop a technology that is adaptable to diverse mineralogies.

“This funding allows us to focus on the establishment of fundamental mechanisms driving interactions of minerals and organic molecules, which is fundamental to the development of soil aggregates and physical structure,” Professor Huang said.

Plants grown in soil formed from Fe-ore tailings
Plants grown in soil formed from Fe-ore tailings

ARC Discovery funding recognises the importance of fundamental, ‘blue sky’ research to Australia and is designed to support innovative research to build 'new' knowledge and a knowledge-based economy.

“Knowing the fundamental relationship between mineral nature and organics will enable us to adapt tailings-soil formation technology to a wide range of tailings.

“This is urgently needed to address the challenge of sustainable rehabilitation of tailings.”

The Discovery Grant is the latest success for the Ecological Engineering of Mine Wastes group. In October, team member Dr Jing Zhao secured an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) to investigate microbes that have the potential to significantly accelerate alkaline mine waste rehabilitation.

In early November Dr Fang You received funding through Australia’s Economic Accelerator (AEA) Seed Grants to standardize production and application procedures of a bioproduct for effective treatment of alkaline waste from refining alumina in the field.

These projects will build on the group’s expertise and knowledge to mediate and stimulate key biological processes in tailing-soil towards a functional 'technosol' or artificial soil.  

Professor Huang said the group is focused on improving economic and ecological sustainability.

“We aim to do this by creating new knowledge on the biogeochemistry of engineered tailings-soil formation, ecophysiology of native plants and ecological linkages in soil-plant systems.”

One of their key projects has been a 10-year partnership with Rio Tinto and Queensland Alumina Ltd to create a useful soil from bauxite residues also known as ‘red mud’, which is currently being tested at scale on a Queensland site. Learn more.

Media: Connor Pound, c.pound@uq.edu.au, +61 447 812 081.