Rio Tinto has uncovered a new method to recover high-purity scandium oxide using waste from the production of titanium dioxide at its production facilities in Canada.
Researchers at the Rio Tinto Fer et Titane (RTFT) research and development centre developed the method last year, and have since been extracting high purity scandium oxide from by-products in the lab, with the process now being transferred to a larger Rio Tinto pilot plant.
Security of supply issues and high cost of production have held back the scandium market for several years, Rio Tinto noted.
This new method, however, paves the way for low production costs and minimal capital investment by producing a critical mineral from what was originally viewed as waste.
A combination of no direct costs from mining; recovery of scandium from by-products and independent operation from existing assets provides Rio Tinto with a valuable method of scandium oxide production.
Australia, the United States, Canada and the European Union all specify scandium as a critical mineral, with the discovery also giving Rio Tinto a chance to strengthen its scandium oxide market.
The mineral is extracted from only a handful of mines globally in regions such as Asia and Russia.
“This breakthrough on scandium is a great example of how we are looking at our operations across the world with fresh eyes to see how we can extract value from by-product streams,” Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques said in a media release.
“Finding a way to extract a new product not only delivers more value from our orebodies, it helps to reduce waste. It’s a key part of operating in a more responsible way and providing the essential materials our world needs for a sustainable future.
“Scandium, produced at economic scale, is a critical mineral that has the potential to provide unique solutions to materials science challenges and drive progress in manufacturing.
“This exciting breakthrough in processing technology leverages our existing mining operation to provide what can be a scalable, high-quality and low-cost source of scandium oxide to markets and manufacturers.”
Production of high-performance aluminium-scandium master alloy using the scandium oxid from RTFT is also being trialled by Rio Tinto.