Tag Archives: Vale

Vale goes in search of more mining innovations with new venture capital initiative

Vale says it is launching Vale Ventures, its corporate venture capital initiative, to support pioneering start-ups around the world and create new business opportunities and innovative technologies to incorporate into its own operations.

The $100 million fund has been setup to acquire minority stakes in start-ups focused on four themes:

  • Decarbonisation in the mining value chain – Invest in technologies that will help Vale and its customers reduce carbon emissions, supporting its goal to become carbon neutral by 2050;
  • Zero-waste mining – Reduce waste and the environmental impact of mining while supporting the circular economy and generating new revenue streams;
  • Energy transition metals – Accelerate the supply of essential metals to power the energy transition and foster emerging demand drivers; and
  • The future of mining – Invest in disruptive technologies that will change how miners operate.

Viktor Moszkowicz, Head of Vale Ventures, says: “We will collaborate with forward-thinking start-ups bringing big ideas and bold thinking to these monumental challenges. By creating a portfolio of disruptive solutions, we can generate financial and strategic return, and bring new business opportunities, insights and knowledge to our company, customers and society.”

The company added: “Vale Ventures reinforces Vale’s larger commitment to innovation, which is key to improve life and transform the future together with society.”

BluVein XL open-pit mining dynamic charging solution gains momentum

Much of the buzz around BluVein to this point has focused on its dynamic charging infrastructure for underground mining and quarries, but the company has also been gaining momentum around a surface mining project – as the most recent Charge On™ Innovation Challenge announcement indicates.

The company and its BluVein XL solution were today named among eight winning ideas selected to progress to the next stage of the competition, which is seeking to solve one of the biggest challenges in decarbonising mining operations: the electrification of haul trucks.

Within this context, BluVeinXL, the company’s new product line, will be capable of dynamically feeding power to heavy-duty mining fleets with up to 250-t payloads.

The technology leverages much of what was developed for BluVein1: a patented slotted (electric) rail system using an enclosed electrified e-rail system mounted above or beside the mining vehicle together with the BluVein hammer that connects the electric vehicle to the rail. This system provides power for driving the vehicle, typically a mine truck, and charging the truck’s batteries while the truck is hauling load up the ramp and out of an underground mine.

To this point, funding support for the BluVein1 project – being developed for vehicles up to 60-t payload and powered by Rethink Mining (Powered by CMIC) – is being provided by Vale, Glencore, Oz Minerals, Northern Star, South32, BHP, Agnico Eagle, AngloGold Ashanti and Newcrest Mining.

BluVeinXL, meanwhile, has seen the company engage with more than 10 “global mining company leaders” in progressing to a pilot demonstration of the technology. While the company plans to announce the names of these supporting mining companies shortly, it says they all see the need for an industry-standardised, OEM-agnostic, safe dynamic power feed infrastructure to suit mixed OEM open-pit fleets.

The key benefits of the dynamic power feeding solution BluVein is pushing are smaller on-board battery packs, faster vehicle haulage speeds up ramp, grid load balancing and maximum fleet availability.

“Our mining company supporters have provided feedback to us on the benefits they see with BluVeinXL over traditional overhead exposed wire catenary systems offered by other OEMs,” the company said. These are:

  • Near to the ground installation enabled by our patented Ingress Protected safe slotted rail technology;
  • Safer and faster installation;
  • Easy relocation as required to suit open-pit ramp movements over time;
  • Requires no heavy civil foundation requirements;
  • Alleviates the requirements on haul road conditions;
  • Offers purchasing flexibility on electric vehicles through the adoption of an industry-standard dynamic power feed infrastructure; and
  • Safer mine sites with no high voltage exposed overhead wires.

The company concluded: “Together with our mining company supporters, BluVein looks forward to working with all OEMs as we progress towards our planned pilot demonstration at a yet to be announced location.”

Vale’s Sustainable Sand to impact tailings generation plans

The University of Queensland – through its Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI) – and the University of Geneva recently released a report indicating that sand from the iron ore production process may contribute to solving two important environmental issues by reducing sand extracted from the natural environment and cutting the generation of mining tailings.

One of the big contributors to this report was Vale, which, itself, has developed Sustainable Sand, a co-product of iron ore processing that, instead of being disposed in piles and dams, is now being processed and transformed into a product, following the same quality controls as in its iron ore production.

This year, Vale will allocate around 1 Mt of sand between sales and donations for use in civil construction and tests in pavement, among other uses. Much of this is set to come from its Brucutu mine in Minas Gerais.

IM put some questions to Bruno Batista, Engineer at Brucutu mine, and Fabiano Carvalho Filho, Executive Manager for Ferrous Business Development, to find out more about the company’s plans for Sustainable Sand.

IM: How has Vale changed its operational practices at mine sites to make the most of the Sustainable Sand process? For instance, have mine plans or layouts been adapted to ensure it is easier to obtain and process this material?

BB: First of all, Vale has done deep research about the technical potential for iron ore tailings and the mineral processing to obtain sand from them. Despite sand generation sharing existing assets deployed for the exploration of iron ore, it is important to highlight that Vale had to obtain the mineral and environmental licence to produce, sell and donate sand. The use of new technologies for greater recovery of iron ore have been installed in our operations and, as a result, we will have better quality sandy tailings. In some cases, it was necessary to implement new stages of concentration, classification and filtration so that it was possible to produce quality sand that met market requirements. We did change the quality control, treating sand as a product, with specification, daily analysis and process adjustment in order to meet it.

IM: I think it was 250,000 t of sand set aside for sale or donation to be used in concrete, mortar, cement and road pavement last year, another 1 Mt/y this year and 2 Mt/y in 2023. What are the longer-term goals for Sustainable Sand and – at the same time – how is this impacting your tailings handling plans?

BB: Vale’s objective is to enable more sustainable mining. The figures you mention are correct. Our pace of production in the long term will depend upon several factors, such as logistics capacity and market availability. Sustainable Sand is one of the initiatives to reduce the generation of tailings. Other initiatives are being developed as such as dry concentration and tailings filtering.

IM: Is there a balance to be had here with using sand for dry-stacked tailings purposes – increasing the stability of your tailings infrastructure – and donating/selling it for other uses? Is this what could potentially put a ‘cap’ on your Sustainable Sand production for sale/donation?

BB: Coarse tailings are destined for sand production and also for dry stacking. To increase more significantly sand production there are some challenges, such as logistics capacity and market availability. Vale is advancing and we should forecast a production of 2 Mt in 2023. We are also studying applications for the ultrafine material, so we would need less coarse tailings for dry stacking.

IM: Aside from the 425-m-long road at the Cauê mine, in Itabira, and the Pico Block Factory, what other applications will the sand have?

FCF: At the moment, the focus is on the construction market, mainly concrete, mortar and cement, as it has the largest production scale and is already being sold to by Vale, and road pavement, in which we are advancing our research. Vale has a portfolio of more than 20 initiatives for the use of tailings from mining. These initiatives are the result of partnerships with universities, research centres and other companies. These are initiatives that encompass several industries, focused on civil construction, chemical industry and automotive, among others. The initiatives are at different stages of maturity and the future of the projects still depends on progress in the research being carried out.

IM: Sand is the planet’s most mined material, so what does Vale plan to do with this Sustainable Sand process to reduce the environmental impact of the wider mining industry?

FCF: Vale’s objective is to enable more sustainable mining. The UNEP report (2022), in which the Vale Sand Case has been studied, shows that substituting naturally-sourced sand with ore sand (sand from iron ore tailings) could potentially lead to net reductions in carbon emissions generated during sand production. The substitution of marine or riverine sand for ore sand could also lead to a reduction in ecosystem damage. Besides that, Vale Sand is a certified product, which can contribute to this particular industry.

IM: Is there potential for other iron ore mining companies using this process to reduce their own tailings generation? the process been patented?

FCF: Iron ore tailings beneficiation demands investments and technology; there are patents involved in the development of other products derived from the sand.

South32 becomes latest miner to join BluVein mine electrification project

BluVein has announced its ninth and newest funding partner to join the BluVein mine electrification project powered by Rethink Mining (Powered by CMIC), with South32 being the latest miner to join the cause.

BluVein is a joint venture between Australia-based mining innovator Olitek and Sweden-based electric highways developer Evias. The company has devised a patented slotted (electric) rail system, which uses an enclosed electrified e-rail system mounted above or beside the mining vehicle together with the BluVein hammer that connects the electric vehicle to the rail. The system provides power for driving the vehicle, typically a mine truck, and charging the truck’s batteries while the truck is hauling load up the ramp and out of an underground mine.

South32 joins Vale, Northern Star Resources Limited, Glencore, Newcrest Mining, AngloGold Ashanti, BHP, OZ Minerals and Agnico Eagle Mines Limited as BluVein funding partners.

Earlier this month, BluVein and Epiroc formed an MoU with BluVein aimed at fast-tracking development of the BluVein dynamic charging solution towards an industrialised and robust solution which is ready for deployment across the global mining industry. The MoU is focused on the BluVein Underground solution (BluVein1), but BluVein is also developing a solution for open-pit mining.

Vale and Nippon Steel to evaluate carbon-neutral ironmaking solutions

Vale and Japan’s Nippon Steel have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to pursue ironmaking solutions focused on a carbon-neutral steelmaking process, the iron ore miner says.

Vale and Nippon Steel intend to jointly study and explore (i) metallic usage solutions such as direct reduced iron (DRI) and pig iron produced by Tecnored technology; and (ii) usage of Vale’s green briquettes in the ironmaking process and other lower carbon footprint products such as pellets.

This initiative contributes to Vale’s commitment to reduce net Scope 3 emissions by 15% by 2035. Additionally, Vale seeks to reduce its absolute Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 33% by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement, leading the evolution process towards sustainable mining.

In April, Vale and the Government of the State of Pará held an event to mark the beginning of the construction works of the first commercial plant of Tecnored in Brazil. Tecnored’s technology allows the production of so-called ‘green pig iron’, by replacing metallurgical coal with biomass, thus reducing carbon emissions and contributing to the decarbonisation of the steel industry.

The unit will have an initial capacity to produce 250,000 t/y of green pig iron, with the possibility of reaching 500,000 t/y in the future. The start-up is scheduled for 2025 with an estimated investment of approximately BRL1.6 billion ($342 million).

Vale’s Sustainable Sand wins plaudits as miner starts construction on ‘green pig iron’ plant

Vale’s sustainability efforts are continuing to be displayed to the rest of the industry, with the major miner making a significant contribution to a report on the sustainable use of sand in mining and starting construction on a ‘green pig iron’ production facility in Brazil.

On the former, the University of Queensland, through its Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI), and the University of Geneva, recently released a report indicating that sand from the ore production process may contribute to solving two important environmental issues by reducing sand extracted from the natural environment and the mining tailings generation. Vale contributed to the report and facilitated the sampling of its Sustainable Sand produced at the Brucutu mine in Minas Gerais for an independent analysis.

Vale’s Sustainable Sand is a co-product of iron ore processing. Based on adjustments in the operation, the sandy material, previously disposed in piles and dams, is now processed and transformed into a product, following the same quality controls as in the iron ore production. This year, Vale will allocate around 1 Mt of sand, between sales and donations, for use in civil construction and tests in pavement, among other uses.

The company came up with the process after seven years of research and investment of about BRL50 million ($8.9 million), it said last year.

The SMI report carried out by the universities, ‘Ore-sand: A potential new solution to the mining tailings and global sand sustainability crises’, investigated whether sand from ore processing, described by the term “ore-sand”, could become a sustainable source of sand and at the same time reduce the volume of tailings generated by mining.

Material characterisation results from the report indicate that the sampled material is inert and non-toxic, and can be suitable for certain applications, either on its own or as a part of a blend, such as with coarser sand, in order to meet specific grading requirements. Separating and repurposing these sand-like materials before they are added to the waste stream would not only significantly reduce the volume of waste being generated but could also create a responsible source of sand, Vale said.

The report found that, from a technical perspective, sand from iron ore operations can be a direct substitute for sand extracted from the environment in brick making, pavement, in embankments and cement manufacturing. When mixed with coarser sand and other aggregates, it can be used in the production of concrete and mortar, drainage and soil improvement, and water treatment.

The life cycle assessment of “ore-sand”, based on the case of Vale’s Sustainable Sand, also shows that this material has the potential to present lower net carbon emissions during its production when compared with sand extracted from the environment. However, to get a better idea of the potential of this reduction, it is necessary to carry out an assessment of the product’s transport stage, which was not covered in this report, Vale added.

Last week, Vale inaugurated the first road in Brazil using “ore-sand” in all four layers of the pavement. The 425-m-long road at the Cauê mine, in Itabira, will be monitored for two years with pressure, temperature, deformation and humidity sensors. Tests carried out during five years in the laboratory showed an increase in lifespan of around 50% and a cost reduction of 20% when compared with the most commonly used materials for road construction, such as sand extracted from the environment, Vale said. In addition, each kilometre of pavement can consume up to 7,000 t of tailings.

‘Green pig iron’

Earlier in the month, Vale and the Government of the State of Pará held an event to mark the beginning of the construction works of the first commercial plant of Tecnored in Brazil. Tecnored’s technology allows the production of so-called ‘green pig iron’, by replacing metallurgical coal with biomass, thus reducing carbon emissions and contributing to the decarbonisation of the steel industry.

The unit will have an initial capacity to produce 250,000 t/y of green pig iron, with the possibility of reaching 500,000 t/y in the future. The start-up is scheduled for 2025 with an estimated investment of approximately BRL1.6 billion ($342 million).

Vale’s President, Eduardo Bartolomeo, said the implementation of Tecnored represents an important step in the transformation of mining, contributing to making the process chain increasingly sustainable.

“The Tecnored project is of great importance to Vale and to the region and will bring gains in competitiveness, environmental sustainability and development for the region,” he said.

Eduardo Bartolomeo greets the Governor of Pará, Hélder Barbalho, during the launch ceremony for the Tecnored commercial plant

In the implementation phase of the project, which will work in the area of the old Ferro-Gusa Carajás, in the industrial district of the municipality, it is estimated that around 2,000 jobs will be generated at the peak of works. In the operational phase, about 400 direct and indirect jobs should be created, according to progress and engineering studies.

The Tecnored furnace is much smaller in size than a traditional steel blast furnace and is flexible in its use of raw materials, which can range from iron ore fines and steel residues to dam sludge, Vale said.

As fuel, the furnace can be fed by carbonised biomass, such as sugarcane bagasse and eucalyptus. Both are transformed into briquettes (small compact blocks) and deposited in the furnace, generating green pig iron. The furnace also allows the use of thermal coal itself as fuel. In this first instance, fossil fuels will be used to evaluate the performance of the plant, Vale explained.

Leonardo Caputo, Tecnored’s CEO, said: “Gradually, we are going to replace coal with carbonised biomass until we reach the goal of 100% biomass.”

The flexibility in the use of fuels in the furnace allows operating costs to be reduced by up to 15% compared with a traditional blast furnace, Vale claims.

Developed over the last 35 years, Tecnored’s technology also eliminates the coke furnaces and sintering processes: stages prior to the production of steel in the steel mill that are intensive in their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This also reduces capital costs by up to 15%, according to Vale.

In addition, the plant is self-sustaining in terms of energy efficiency, with all the process gas reused and a portion used for energy co-generation, the company said. The slag by-product can be used as raw material in the cement industry.

Currently, Vale maintains a demonstration plant of this technology in Pindamonhangaba, with a rated capacity of 75,000 t/y, where tests were carried out to develop the technology and technical and economic feasibility.

Tecnored’s commercial plant in Marabá is part of Vale’s effort to offer its steelmaking customers technological solutions to help decarbonise their production processes.

In 2020, the company assumed the goal of reducing Scope 3 net emissions by 15% by 2035. Of this total, the company will contribute up to 25% through a high-quality products portfolio and technological solutions, including green pig iron. Today, the steel industry represents 94% of Vale’s Scope 3 emissions.

Vale also announced the goal achieving net zero Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2050 and, to that end, it is investing between $4-6 billion, as well as committing to recover and protect another 500,000 ha of forest in Brazil.

Olitek on a mechanisation mission to provide mine safety step change

IM’s Teams call with Olitek Mining Robotics’ (OMR) James Oliver and Newcrest’s Tony Sprague starts like many other meetings, with a safety share.

Centred on the experiences of a drill and blast expert, Barry Crowdey, owner of Blastcon Australia Pty Ltd, this ‘share’ goes some way to highlighting mining’s hidden safety problem.

“So often we hear about safety shares that are almost instantaneous: rock failures, rock bursts, collapses, vehicle incidents, energy releases, ground collapses, or somebody getting pinned against something,” Oliver, OMR’s Managing Director, told IM. “You have this instantaneous safety hazard you are always trying to protect against.

“The ones that don’t get reported – and are possibly creating a big stigma in the mining industry – is the ongoing wear and tear on the human body.”

Crowdey, a blasting consultant, offers direct experience here.

As a charge-up operator, he was recently side-lined for six months after major shoulder surgery. A whole host of repetitive tasks – such as push and pull activities during blasthole preparation and charge-up – conducted over the last two decades had proven too much for his body.

“A charge-up operator is a highly sought-after job,” Oliver said. “The perception is: you have to be tough to do it well. Barry never complained about this – which probably speaks to awareness around men’s mental health to a degree – and would often use his time off to recover from body soreness likely caused by these repetitive tasks.”

The injuries that don’t get reported – and are possibly creating a big stigma in the mining industry – are the ongoing wear and tear on the human body, James Oliver says

He added: “After stories like this, it is no wonder the mining industry has a stigma for wearing people out and, essentially, taking away more than it is providing – personally and from an environmental perspective.”

Sprague, Group Manager, Directional Studies and Innovation at Newcrest, has experienced some of the strains placed on the human body by carrying out similar manual tasks on mine sites, reflecting on a three-month stint on a blast crew in Kalgoorlie at the height of summer.

He, Newcrest and the wider mining industry are responding to these issues.

For the past three-or-so-years, Newcrest has been collaborating closely with OMR to develop a range of smart, safe and robust robotic systems enabling open-pit mechanised charge-up, blasthole measurement and geological blasthole sampling, as well as underground remote charge-up for tunnel development.

This suite of solutions is tackling a major industry problem that most mining OEMs focused on automating load and haul, or drilling operations, are not looking at.

OMR is addressing this market gap.

“Apart from a small number of mines and in specific applications, the mining industry is generally not ready for automation,” Oliver said. “Effective mechanisation of the hazardous mining tasks is what is needed first. This is where design thinking is crucial – process review, deletion, modification and optimisation to enable robotic mechanisation.”

Sprague added: “Most processes in mining have been designed for fingers and have taken hundreds of years to be optimised around them. We now need to mechanise these processes before we can start thinking about automating.”

The metric for momentum

The injuries that OMR and many others are looking to alleviate with mechanisation of these manual processes are not generally captured by lost time injuries or other similar safety metrics.

Most processes in mining have been designed for fingers and have taken hundreds of years to be optimised around them, Tony Sprague says

This has historically made it hard to invest in such technology – the numbers don’t typically show up in the WH&S reporting.

Yet, the risk of not confronting this issue is starting to have more sway over operational decision making at the same time as technology is reaching a suitably mature level.

“The image of Barry at home recovering from surgery to address career-induced injuries is not the image the mining industry wants to portray any longer,” Oliver said.

And with mining companies competing with other industries for skilled talent, they can no longer afford to put such stress on their people.

The idea, as OMR says, is to maintain process performance with well executed mechanised equipment. “Strain the machinery, not the people” is one of the company’s mottos.

And it will only take a few more frontrunners adopting such technology to affect real change across the industry, according to Oliver.

“Socially, people will speak,” he said. “If the mine down the road has someone in the comfort of an air-conditioned cabin carrying out remote charge-up operations, that news will soon spread. Operators will no longer tolerate being exposed to rock bursts, injuries and the like, and will leave positions where they are put in such a situation.”

It is such momentum that has, arguably, led to the industry backing innovators like OMR.

One of the company’s products, the Remote Charge-up Unit (RCU), is now the subject of a major collaborative project managed by the Canada Mining Innovation Council (CMIC).

Seeking to alleviate the issues associated with loading and priming explosives at the development face, the RCU’s core enabling technology is OMR’s innovative “Trigger Assembly” (pictured below), which enables lower cost conventional detonators to be mechanically installed safely and efficiently. This system is fitted to a modified Volvo wheeled excavator, with its hydraulic robotic boom, and is the key to moving people away from harm’s way in the underground mining setting.

The project is being delivered in a series of development phases through to Technology Readiness Level 7. This functioning prototype machine will enable personnel to move at least 4-5 m away from the underground development face and carry out efficient and effective face charge-up.

This project is moving into the procurement and build phase of the first prototype, according to Oliver.

Newcrest is also one of the major miners steering developments of the RCU, alongside Agnico Eagle, Glencore and Vale within the CMIC collaboration.

While Sprague says his company has injected early seed funding to get some of the OMR work moving, he thinks industry collaboration is key to bringing the products to market.

“What got me into wanting to do these sorts of projects is the belief that the mining industry can be so much better than it currently is,” Sprague said. “We can change this faster by finding smart, agile companies like Olitek and support them with groups of like-minded mining companies to accelerate projects. We are showing that when the industry works together, we can make solutions to our problems appear.

He added: “I’m a true believer that momentum breeds momentum. In these types of projects, I use my finite seed funds and stretch them as far as possible. I might not know how to get to the end of a project in terms of funding it, but if I can get it to a point where we have some TRL3 designs and lab testing to prove the concept, you can go out to the market and find ways to progress up through the technology readiness levels.

“It is about chipping away and progressing up through the TRLs as opposed to asking the industry to blindly invest in R&D.”

Moving up a level

And this is where most of OMR’s technology suite is at: TR5 to TRL6 level.

Oliver explained: “If we look at the RCU unit at the moment, we have a robotic excavator platform that was developed on a sister project. This modular approach we are taking has allowed us to go into new applications seamlessly because of the base technology building blocks we have created.”

Alongside the RCU, the company is working on an “Anako” suite of products, namely: Anako Sense, Anako Sample and Anako Prime.

Anako Sense is a borehole probe sensing machine allowing operators to remotely measure the depth, temperature and presence of water within blastholes. It has been designed to mechanise this quality monitoring process in the open pit, removing operators from danger and putting them in the safety of an air-conditioned cabin. The Mark 2 machine – which is now commercially available – provides faster than manual cycle times, while eliminating fatigue, repetitive strain injury and exposure risks, according to OMR. It also provides real-time data capture of borehole quality measurements.

Anako Sample provides a mechanised sampling process to collect blasthole data. It, again, removes personnel from harm’s way, while providing fast cycle times and repeatable sample quality. It also provides automated data recording. This technology is currently going through Factory Acceptance Testing, with plans to deploy to a customer site shortly.

Anako Prime – for mechanised open-pit charge-up – provides all the benefits of the other Anako products while being compatible with multiple types of explosives. It is leveraging the developments made in the underground environment with the RCU and has a Mark 1 machine completed. Progress is also being made on a Mark 2 version to achieve high productivity, fully mechanised priming and bulk emulsion placement, according to Oliver.

While more products could be added to the OMR portfolio in time, the company is focused on leveraging the proven Volvo wheeled and excavator platform that can scale up from 6 t to 60 t capacities and can move quickly around the mine.

Given the strong collaborative relationship OMR has fostered with Volvo over the years, there is also potential down the line for the Volvo network to support these machines across the globe, providing the machine uptime safety net that many remote mine operators would like if they were to take up the OMR technology option.

The inspiration

Crowdey’s role in this story does not end with the safety share. He is also now training operators on this new equipment, providing a real-life example of the reason to adopt such mechanisation as well as how easy that adoption process is.

Sprague said: “You might think you need to be an expert excavator operator to work these technologies, yet the smart controls, vision and positioning systems for hole location, for instance, means the machines do the hard work for you.”

Oliver added to this: “We say a trainable operator can be sat in that machine and, after a matter of days, be as efficient as a manual operator.”

There is an impending deadline for mine operators to confront these issues, with mechanisation of the most dangerous processes the first port of call, according to Oliver.

“The only way to stop this mining impact is about enabling machinery to do the work and going through a mechanisation process to ensure the Barrys of this world don’t have to conduct these manual processes,” he said. “A good example of that over the last decade is the installation of hose feeders on emulsion pumping units in blasthole charging. That represents a ‘step’ in the right direction, but what we need now is ‘step change’.

“Eventually there will be places in a mine that people simply cannot go, so we better start perfecting mechanisation now as automation will be needed one day. It might be 10 years from now, but, if we’re not mechanised by that point, we will simply not be able to mine these more challenging ore deposits.”

Vale adapts iron ore processing route to make sand product for construction sector

After seven years of research and investment of about BRL50 million ($8.9 million), Vale says it has developed a process for producing sand from its production processes with applications in the construction market.

After adaptation in the state of Minas Gerais’ iron ore operations, the sandy material, previously disposed in piles and dams, is now being processed and transformed into a product, following the same quality controls used in the production of iron ore. This year, around 250,000 t of sand has been processed and destined for sale or donation to be used in concrete, mortar, cement and road pavement.

According to Marcello Spinelli, Vale’s Executive Vice President for Iron Ore, the development of this product is the result of more sustainable operating practices.

“This action promotes a circular economy within our units and reduces the impact of tailings disposal for the environment and the society, in addition to being a reliable alternative for the construction industry, where the demand for sand is high,” he said.

Sustainable sand stock yard at Brucutu

Vale’s Sustainable Sand is considered a co-product of the iron ore production process. The material extracted in the form of rocks undergoes several physical processes in the plant, such as crushing, classification, grinding and concentration, until iron ore is obtained.

The innovation introduced by Vale lies in the concentration stage where the by-product of the iron ore processing is once more processed until it reaches the necessary quality to become sand for commercial use. In the traditional method, this material would become tailings and be destined to dams or piles. Every tonne of sand produced represents one less tonne of tailings being generated.

The sand resulting from the iron ore treatment is a 100% certified product, with high silica content and very low iron content, in addition to high chemical and granulometric uniformity.

According to Jefferson Corraide, Executive Manager of the Brucutu and Água Limpa Complex, the sand does not have hazardous characteristics in its composition.

“The mineral processing to obtain the sand is essentially physical, not altering the composition of the materials, so the product is not toxic,” Corraide said.

Recently, Vale’s sand had its application in concrete and mortar certified by three specialised laboratories in Brazil: Instituto de Pesquisas Tecnológicas, Falcão Bauer and ConsultareLabCon.

The properties of Vale sand are also being analysed by an independent study conducted by researchers from the University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute (Australia) and the University of Geneva (Switzerland), who are investigating whether alternative construction materials produced from mineral ores could become a sustainable source of sand while significantly reducing the volume of waste produced by mining. These researchers introduced the term “ore sand” to refer to this type of processed sand sourced as a co-product or by-product of mineral ores.

Precast concrete produced with Vale’s Sustainable Sand

Production scale

Vale has already committed to allocating more than 1 Mt of sand for sale or donation in 2022. Buyers are companies operating in four different regions in Brazil: Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, São Paulo and Brasília. It is estimated that, in 2023, production will reach 2 Mt.

Rogério Nogueira, Director of Ferrous Marketing, explained: “We are getting ready to scale up the sand destination even more from 2023. For this purpose, we have a team of professionals dedicated to this new business and adapting our operations to meet the market needs.”

Currently, Vale is producing sand for sale and donation at the Brucutu Mine, in São Gonçalo do Rio Abaixo (Minas Gerais).

Other mines of the company, also located in Minas Gerais, are in the process of obtaining environmental and mining approvals for sand production.

André Vilhena, Manager of New Businesses at Vale, said: “Our mines provide a sandy material that is rich in silica, which can be used in different industries. We are working with several institutions, including universities, research centres and Brazilian and foreign companies, to develop new solutions to give new destinations to iron ore tailings.”

In addition to using the existing infrastructure in the iron ore mines, Vale also has a railway and road network to transport the sand to markets in several Brazilian states. “With this activity, our main focus is on the sustainability of our iron ore operations, minimising the environmental liabilities, in addition to seeking to promote employment and income by means of new businesses,” Vilhena said.

Eco products

Vale has been carrying out tailings application studies since 2014. Last year, the company inaugurated the Pico Block Factory, the first pilot plant for construction products whose main raw material is tailings from mining activity. Installed at the Pico Mine, in the municipality of Itabirito (Minas Gerais), the factory promotes a circular economy in iron ore processing operation.

The Federal Center for Technological Education of Minas Gerais (CEFET-MG) provides technical cooperation with the Block Factory. Ten researchers from the institution are working on site during this period, including professors, laboratory technicians and graduates, undergraduates and technical course students. During the R&D period, the products will not be sold.

Another research initiative aims to develop the use of sand in pavement solutions in partnership with Itabira’s campus of the Federal University of Itajubá (Unifei). The focus is on the donation of sand for the pavement of local roads.

More sustainable mining

In addition to the Eco products line, Vale has other initiatives to make its mining more sustainable and reduce the generation of tailings. The company has been developing technology to increase the dry processing of its ores, which does not require the use of water. Currently, around 70% of Vale’s production is dry processed and this shall remain at this level when the production capacity of 400 Mt/y is reached and after the start-up of new projects. In 2015, this figure was 40%.

In Carajás, as the iron content is already high (above 65% Fe), the material is only crushed and screened to be classified by size (granulometry).

In Minas Gerais, in some mines, the average content is 40% Fe. By the conventional method, the ore is concentrated by means of processing with water to increase the iron content, with most of the tailings deposited in dams or pits. This is where another technology under implementation at Vale stands out: FDMS (Fines Dry Magnetic Separation). This technology sees the magnetic concentration of ores of low iron grade with no use of water, and therefore, with no need for dams.

Developed in Brazil by New Steel, a company acquired by Vale in 2018, this technology is already in use in a pilot plant in Minas Gerais. In 2023, the first commercial plant will start up in Vargem Grande, with a production capacity of 1.5 Mt/y and investment of up to $150 million.

Another technology which reduces the need of dams is tailings filtration and subsequent dry piling. Once the capacity of 400 Mt/y is reached, more than 60 Mt/y (or 15% of this total) will be processed in plants, where most of the tailings will be filtered and piled this way.

Vale has already opened a filtration plant in Vargem Grande and three more will be commissioned in the March quarter of 2022: one in Brucutu and two in Itabira. Only 15% of the production will continue to be processed by the conventional method, with wet concentration and disposal in dams or deactivated mine pits.

Vale ponders investment in China Baowu’s pilot biochar plant project as part of Scope 3 emission targets

Vale says it has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China Baowu Steel Group Corporation Ltd in which both companies agreed to pursue opportunities to develop steelmaking solutions focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The MoU comprises the discussion to produce biochar and use it in blast furnaces in order to consume a carbon-neutral material based on biomass instead of fossil energy. The MoU also intends to discuss a possible investment by Vale into China Baowu’s pilot biochar plant project, with an indicative amount ranging from CNY60-70 million ($9.4-10.9 million).

This initiative contributes to achieving Vale’s commitment to reduce 15% of net Scope 3 emissions by 2035. Additionally, Vale seeks to reduce its absolute Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 33% by 2030 and achieve neutrality by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement, leading the evolution process towards low carbon mining.

Vale and POSCO evaluating iron ore pellets, fines, briquettes place in low-carbon ironmaking

Vale has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with POSCO in which both agreed to pursue opportunities to develop ironmaking solutions focused on reducing CO2 emissions.

Vale and POSCO intend to develop solutions for decarbonisation in ironmaking and are under discussion to find the most suitable pathways by using Vale’s wide range of product portfolio, they said. This includes its high-grade iron ore products such as pellets, fines and briquettes, as a potential solution for reducing fossil fuel consumption and aim to help POSCO on its roadmap to reach carbon neutrality in its integrated steel production process by 2050.

Marcello Spinelli, Vale’s Executive Vice President, Iron Ore, and Hagdong Kim, POSCO’s Head of Steel Business Unit, attended the MoU virtual signing ceremony on November 4, 2021.

As per his speech, Spinelli said: “The decarbonisation pathway definition will be critical to set how the industry will meet Paris Agreement’s targets and deliver an important legacy to society and our planet. Vale is well positioned to lead the industry with our high-quality and world-class portfolio, and with innovative technologies.”

Kim added: “Both companies have the goal to achieve carbon net-zero by 2050, an important social responsibility that we must fulfil as members of society. Instead of trying alone, if we work together, we will create more synergy. By signing the MoU, I look forward to greater synergy between Vale and POSCO toward carbon neutrality.”

This initiative contributes to achieving Vale’s commitment to reduce 15% of net Scope 3 emissions by 2035. Additionally, Vale seeks to reduce its absolute Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 33% by 2030 and achieve neutrality by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement.