Our Research

Teams from iCRAG and the NHM are interested in finding out more about minerals and metals in order to support a sustainable future for our society. They do this through researching a wide array of topics, all of which contribute to our understanding of the overall goal of finding solutions to support a sustainable society. Find out more by watching out lightning lecture, or reading our research spotlights below!

Learn more about our research in our lightning lecture which features five early career researchers based at iCRAG, the NHM and the University of Bangor. Each researcher works on a different, fascinating aspect of mining a sustainable future.

Minerals for a Sustainable Future

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What materials do we need for a sustainable future? 

Dr. Aileen Doran, Postdoctoral Researcher, iCRAG

The future of our society will be closely entwined with expansion of our renewable energy infrastructure. But, this brings forward the question of what materials we will need to facilitate this move towards greener technologies, and where will we find them?

Zinc (found in sphalerite, you can see a picture of sphalerite below) will have an important role in this transition as it currently looks like a potential solution to energy storage issues connected to solar energy generation. Ireland is currently one of Europe’s largest suppliers of zinc, but we still only have one active zinc-lead mine.

Much of my research involves studying these Irish zinc-lead deposits, using geochemical techniques, helping to further our understanding of how these metal occurrences formed. The resulting insights can add to active exploration efforts by helping to predict where more zinc-lead deposits could be. Finding more zinc will be important to our future development and so developing new strategies to find metal occurrence is vital.

What's hiding in Cornish Granites?

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Energy Critical Metals (Tin and Lithium) Hiding in Cornish Granites  

Dr. Alla Dolgopolova, Senior Researcher, NHM

Have you ever wondered what metals help to power your smartphone and where can we find them?

Lithium (Li) is one of the most important metals needed for batteries powering many portable electronic devices that we all use in our everyday life. It will play a very important role in the next decade as we switch to electric vehicles, and demand for lithium is expected to grow exponentially.

Cornwall is best known for its tin mining, which was at its peak in the 19th century. Apart from tin, substantial volumes of other metals have also been recovered from Cornish mines, including copper, tungsten, arsenic, lead, zinc, silver, cobalt, and nickel. However, the last Cornish tin mine closed its production more than 20 years ago. As we move towards renewable energy sources, tin (Sn) is becoming very important again due to its use for solders! We can already see rejuvenation of tin exploration in Cornwall!

Cornwall has also great potential for sustainable production of lithium for electric-vehicle batteries. Lithium can be found in hardrock and geothermal waters in Cornwall. Providing a domestic supply of lithium, to replace the need for carbon-intensive transport from Australia, Chile and China, will significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the lithium compounds, along the value chain from source to product.

But where do tin and lithium come from in Cornwall? Interestingly, both metals are associated with granitic rocks. Granite is the most common igneous rock in the Earth's crust. It was formed almost 300 m.y. ago when magma (molten rock) intruded. When the magma cools, minerals crystalize. Granite is composed of many different minerals: quartz, feldspar, mica, and sometimes hornblende. During crystallization of granites hot fluids bearing dissolved metals ascend from depth through the magma and circulate along fractures in and around the cooling granite and leading to mineralization. Lithium is forming various types of Lithium (Li) mica whereas tin (Sn) forms cassiterite (Sn oxide) and stannite (a Sn sulphide).

In my research I study distribution of metals in granitic rocks and characterize their host minerals, trying to decipher where these metals come from and how different minerals interact with one another. This aims to aid decisions if certain minerals can be easily separated from others when we need to extract their metal content from them.

 

Copper and Volcanoes!

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Energy - Critical Metals hiding in Copper Ores  

Dr. Matthew Loader, Postdoctoral Research Associate, NHM

Have you ever wondered what makes your phone or computer work? What about the toaster or kettle? All electric devices work because they contain copper cables which transmit electricity. Copper is really the best metal to use for this purpose – an excellent conductor of electricity, flexible, lightweight and relatively abundant. We’re going to need lots more copper for wires as we move to a greener society, because green technologies and clean energy sources use lots of copper. So where do we get it from?

Copper is dug out of the ground at huge mines across the world. To find new deposits of copper, we have to look in a rather unexpected place – inside the heart of dead volcanoes. Volcanoes are the very tip of a complex plumbing system which extends deep into the Earth’s crust. Liquid rocks – magma – rise through the Earth’s crust and, in some cases, reach the surface to form a volcano. Often magmas never reach the surface and are trapped kilometres underneath the volcano. Deep underground, the cooling magmas go through lots of physical and chemical changes. One possible outcome is the formation of lots of valuable copper-rich minerals. Over millions of years after it stops erupting, the volcano can erode away to its roots, revealing its hidden treasure.

Scientists have studied lots of these volcanic roots around the world and have found something interesting: these copper-rich deposits are very rare, found in only a few locations. So why do we find this at some volcanoes and not others? This is what I work on – I study the roots of ancient magma plumbing systems to figure out why how major copper deposits form, and what makes them different. I use the chemistry of minerals in these frozen magmas to understand how copper deposits form, and to help guide us to discovering future deposits.

Metals from Mine Waste?

Searching for energy critical metals in the Irish Zn-Pb deposits  

Dr. Lingli Zhou, Research Fellow, iCRAG

I am Dr. Lingli Zhou, a Chinese Research Fellow working at iCRAG/University College Dublin, Ireland - funded by the Geological Survey Ireland.

 

I research energy critical metals. These are metals that are critically important to the production, transmission and storage of green energy. In particular, I am interested in understanding the life cycle of energy critical metals, including where the energy critical metals are from, how they get accumulated in Earth’s crust to become a deposit, and whether we can recycle mining waste for the recovery of critical metals.

 

My current research project explores the energy critical metal potentials of the Irish Zn-Pb deposits in the Irish midlands. The critical metals I am particularly interested in are those that can be recovered as by-products from processing the chief zinc ores, sphalerite, and these metals include germanium, gallium and indium.  The image to the right is an example of how the Irish sphalerite looks like under optical microscope (1 inch by 2 inch in view).

 

We use a laser-based technique to analyse the critical metal contents of the sphalerite, as well mine tailings. This will give us very accurate information of how many critical metals there are in the Irish zinc ores and tailings. I am really excited that my knowledge and skills can help to develop smart solutions to address challenges such as sustainable use of mineral resources and circular economy!

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Energy - Critical Metals hiding in Copper Ores

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Energy - Critical Metals hiding in Copper Ores 

Maurice Brodbeck, PhD Researcher, iCRAG

Have you ever wondered where these tall white windmills are coming from? Although they seem to sprout up like mushrooms, they are made of inorganic materials that need to be dug out from the ground, i.e. mined. It’s not just windmills that require huge amounts of resources to get manufactured, other technologies like photovoltaic cells and energy system components do too. These technologies are all crucial to powering our planet sustainably. So what are the resources that are required to make sustainable energy technologies? Imagine building a photovoltaic cell is like baking a loaf of bread. You have to be very selective with your ingredients, or the mixture won’t work! To ‘bake’ a modern thin film photovoltaic cell, you need silica (the flour). Silica is not sufficient on its own though, we have to add other minor components, such as tellurium, or selenium (the yeast) to improve the characteristics of the mixture. In the same way that yeast is important to a fluffy loaf of bread, tellurium or selenium are crucial to the efficiency of our photovoltaic cell.

Selenium and tellurium are among the so-called energy-critical elements, because a shortage of them would stop the large-scale application of renewable energy technologies. Energy-critical elements are almost exclusively produced as by-products in the copper and zinc refining process. Copper ores contain a number of energy-critical and precious metals, however their distribution and mineralogy is not well understood. Therefore, the by-product metals cannot be extracted efficiently at present.

This is my motivation for studying the distribution of energy-critical and precious elements in copper ores. I am determining the by-product potential of four different copper deposits in Chile and the USA and comparing them together. I aim to contribute to an enhanced supply of urgently needed components for renewable energy technologies and to prevent an unnecessary waste of resources.

Essential for batteries, and human health!

From colour to strength - in search of cobalt: A critical and strategic metal essential for the green economy.

Dr. Agnieszka Dybowska, Researcher, NHM

Cobalt is an important element for humankind. Not only is it an essential component of vitamin B12 which catalyses the regeneration of red blood cells, but it is also a critical metal essential for green energy technologies. You may be surprised to find out how much you rely on cobalt in everyday life. None of our portable devices including phones, tablets and laptops could be powered without the use of cobalt which is an essential component in rechargeable batteries. In fact, 10-20g of cobalt is needed for a mobile phone rechargeable battery while 10-20kg is needed for a battery which powers an electric car. That’s a lot of cobalt considering this element occurs in relatively minor quantities in nature. Indeed, there is only one active mine worldwide in which cobalt is the primary target; most cobalt is recovered as a by-product from mining other metals such as nickel and copper. As green technologies become  more and more commonplace, the demand for cobalt increases at a phenomenal rate, and with no established suitable resource of this metal in Europe we are forced to rely on other parts of the world to secure a reliable supply of cobalt for European industries.   

The motivation for my work on the cobalt focused projects - COG3 and CROCODILE (funded by the EU Horizon 2020 framework under grant agreement No 776473) is to develop efficient technologies for recycling cobalt bearing materials, to secure new and novel sources of this metal and investigating innovative, zero-waste, bio-extraction technologies to recover it from existing natural resources. The projects are undertaken in collaboration with waste collection companies, technology innovators, the mining industry and academic partners providing expertise in chemistry, geology and geomicrobiology. To help achieve our ambitions I work within international teams with collaborators from many parts of the world.

An important part of my work involves analysing cobalt-bearing ores from a range of different deposits from all over the world to understand which minerals contain the cobalt and how it is bound within these minerals at the atomic scale. I use a range of state-of-the-art analytical instruments to analyse the samples, but often seeking cobalt in some of these is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. Once we understand the geology of cobalt and the mineralogy and chemistry of the natural ore samples, we can use this knowledge to help develop innovative, low-energy, carbon-neutral, zero-waste biotechnologies to efficiently extract cobalt from a vast array of natural sources.

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