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Resource Fix: X-ray vision finds invisible resources

Hundreds of millions of dollars of gold is dug up but then discarded each year because it's not detected in ore. Researchers at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Resource Association have developed a new method to find tiny amounts of gold in ore. Their gamma-activation analysis (GAA), similar to hospital x-rays, is faster and more accurate than the chemical analysis that's currently used in the mining industry. Current methods also require heating ore to 1200 degrees C and involve the use of lead. Researchers plan to adapt the GAA process for silver, lead, zinc, tin, copper, and the platinum group metals.

Better detection of metals means better resource recovery and less waste. It will be interesting to see how the same technology also might be applied to finding tiny amounts of valuable materials in discarded tech and other products.



Resource Fix: Molecular sorting to recover materials

Mining above grade, or recovering materials already in service, is growing more important every day, as demand for raw materials increases and supplies decrease. Unfortunately, it's often an energy-intensive and difficult - or even impossible - process to recover materials from finished products, including complex electronics, composite auto parts, or even treated wood. "Molecular Sorting for Resource Efficiency," a new project from the Fraunhofer Institute aims to change resource recovery. Scientists are working on methods to separate materials out at the molecular level so those materials can be used again and again.

For more on how it works and potential applications, visit the Institute's Beyond Tomorrow page here.



Mining Above Grade: A dMASS imperative

We focus most of our attention in this blog on mass reduction through resource performance because it is the overarching requirement for achieving sustainable development, including both a viable economy and environmental quality.   We need to drastically reduce the rate at which virgin materials (fuels, metals, minerals, biological and earth aggregates) are introduced into the economy while simultaneously increasing the wealth-producing benefits from each ton.  The key to achieving higher resource performance is improvements in product and building design.

Still, dramatically reducing the quantity of resources required to produce wealth can only work in conjunction with recovering and reusing every possible ton of resources already in service. 

Reusing and recycling materials are important aspects of a dMASS economy.  But these terms are not far-reaching or descriptive enough.  Resources that are freed when buildings, infrastructure, or products are replaced need to be mined for reuse and recycling, but they also need to be redeployed to yield the same or higher wealth-producing value.  Buckminster Fuller coined the term Mining above grade to communicate the process of recirculating resources in the economy while achieving higher performance.

So, while we need to think about ways to reduce resource use - to design in ways that deliver more benefits with less mass - we also need to focus on ever better ways to isolate, capture, and reorganize resources already available to us above grade.

Currently, many materials are degraded during the recycling process and eventually become unusable.  Other valuable materials are built into products in ways that make it difficult and expensive to recover them.  There are certainly opportunities both in materials science and design to improve the recoverability of materials.

Mining above grade will become a major industrial sector and a critical segment of national and global economies.  Ventures like RecycleMatch connect companies with "waste" to companies that can use that waste.  RecycleMatch’s goal is to “create an industrial ecosystem in which the use of energy and materials are optimized, waste is minimized, and there is an economically viable role for every product of a manufacturing process.”  D-Build focuses specifically on building deconstruction and offers a marketplace for exchanging reclaimed materials and finished products made from reclaimed materials.

Waste Management, responding to more and more major corporate clients with zero-waste goals, is shifting its business model to search for ways to “extract value -- energy or materials -- from the waste stream.”

This is just the beginning of an important shift toward mining above grade.  Where do you see the biggest needs in your line of work?  The biggest opportunities?