One consequence of the transition to Net Zero via renewable energy is the resulting high demand for metals such as copper, lithium and nickel. Recycling alone wouldn’t be able to meet demand and conventional mining is both environmentally damaging and energy intensive. However, scientists at Oxford Earth Sciences have received funding to further their research into ‘Mining the Brine’ using geofluids associated with volcanoes to potentially reinvent mining as we know it.
Oxford scientists (including Earth Scientist Professors Jon Blundy, Mike Kendall, Tamsin Mather and David Pyle) have received funding from the Oxford Martin School to run a programme to re-think the challenge of our dwindling natural resources whilst supporting the transition to Net Zero, working in collaboration to also consider the social justice and environmental impacts of mining. The Oxford Martin School enables collaboration by supporting teams that cut across disciplines to research complex, global issues that cannot effectively be understood and tackled by any single discipline alone. The programme will bring together researchers from Earth Sciences, Economics, the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, the Department of Chemistry, and the Faculties of History and Law. They will work together with the Governor and Premier of Montserrat, the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO), the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), as well as with the people and communities of Montserrat to make the most of the island’s potential as a source of critical metals but within the context of the island’s complex historical and cultural setting. To read more about some of this historical context consider reading about a previous Oxford Earth Sciences project Curating Crises and the 2023 Royal Society Sensing Volcanoes Exhibit.
Royal Society Research Professor Jon Blundy and others have been using their research expertise in volcanoes, igneous petrology and experimental geochemistry to investigate how we can use our evolving understanding of magmatic systems to develop new tools for mineral exploration and metal extraction. Recently detailed in a Geoscientist article by Jon and Olivia Hogg of Cambridge Earth Sciences, hot volcanic gases and brines concentrate, transport and deliver metals to the surface. Although extracting metals from hot volcanic gas plumes is impractical, extracting them from hot concentrated brines is a possibility with further investment in technological development and by broadening our understanding of volcanic systems.
Montserrat in the Caribbean is one such magmatic system which in addition to degassing high quantities of metals, has geothermal potential which is sufficient to meet almost all energy needs in a region that currently relies on fossil fuels and in April 2023, the Montserrat government voted to licence a new geothermal power plant. Extracting metals at the same time as generating geothermal power from the hot geofluids or brines, has the potential to increase the economic viability of geothermal as a renewable energy source whilst delivering a significant portion of the critical metals needed for the energy transition.
The Oxford Martin School describe this programme as a case study project designed to inspire a reset in the relationship between Net Zero and the extractive industries whilst taking into consideration at all steps, the interconnected issues across the broad themes of Resources, Rights, Risks and Resilience.
This article was adapted from one published on the Oxford Martin School website here.