Metal Tech News - December 12, 2022
Could microbursts of electricity be used to discover hidden mineral deposits, drill down into those discoveries for sampling, and then pulverize rock in the discovered deposits to extract the minerals contained within? BHP believes it is possible and is collaborating with I-Pulse Inc. to advance pulsed-power technology for mining.
BHP is particularly interested in I-ROX, a new technology company established earlier this year by I-Pulse and Breakthrough Energy Ventures that is focused on demonstrating the short, high-intensity bursts of energy can be used to quickly and efficiently shatter rocks and mineral ores.
To accelerate the development of this potentially disruptive mining technology, BHP has entered into a collaboration agreement with I-ROX that links the mining and processing expertise of the global miner with the pulsed-power technology and expertise of I-Pulse and I-ROX.
This will provide BHP, which joins I-Pulse and Breakthrough Energy Ventures-Europe as an investor in I-ROX, with direct access to this potential new application of pulsed-power tech.
BHP is also collaborating with and investing in I-Pulse to identify new applications for pulsed-power technology for mineral exploration, drilling, tunneling, and blasting.
"The collaboration with I-Pulse and I-ROX will contribute to our growing portfolio of options with potential to both improve the competitiveness of and help decarbonise our current business, and also to unlock new growth opportunities beyond those available today," said BHP CEO Mike Henry.
Founded by mining magnate Robert Friedland and Laurent Frescaline, a plasma physicist and electrical engineer who founded a successful high-tech company specializing in pulsed-power applications, I-Pulse has developed a suite of technologies since 2005 that utilizes proprietary capacitors to safely compress and release stored electricity in billionths of a second. By compressing the time, only a small amount of electrical energy is needed to create extremely high-power discharges.
Over the years, I-Pulse has identified multiple applications for this technology in the fields of mining, petroleum, manufacturing, and water discovery and management.
For the mining sector, this I-Pulse technology has applications from mineral exploration to production, and beyond.
At the exploration end, I-Pulse technology is being used as a powerful geophysical tool to detect buried rock formations that may host deposits of the minerals and metals increasingly needed for clean energy and digital technologies.
Known as Typhoon, this geophysics tech sends current into the earth and then uses surface detectors to determine the chargeability, resistivity, and conductivity properties of underground rock formations. This data provides geoscientists with clues about the makeup of the rock, improving the probabilities of discovering buried mineral deposits.
Typhoon is being touted as the most accurate and powerful induced polarization and electromagnetic geophysical survey technology available to mineral explorers today.
"The Typhoon system is being applied to precisely locate ore bodies and groundwater," said Friedland.
I-Pulse can also be used to drill through rocks by generating extremely short and high-power electrical arcs that cause micro-explosions of the contacted rock. Repeated at high speeds, this process, known as spalling, can be used to drill efficiently through even the hardest of materials.
Beyond mining, I-Pulse is being used for metal manufacturing solutions that dramatically outperform existing stamping and welding options.
This technology is capable of welding dissimilar metals, forming precise shapes that were previously considered impossible, forming new metals and alloys, and significantly reducing costs. This opens up a world of new design options for the automotive, aerospace, consumer electronics, and other sectors.
While BHP will likely be able to put all these I-Pulse technologies to use in its mining business, I-ROX could have the biggest impact on the global mining company's bottom line.
The crushing and grinding of rock is the single largest consumer of energy and is the single most energy-intensive and expensive aspect of the entire mining process – estimated to account for roughly 4% of all electrical energy consumption globally.
Typically making up more than half of the power used across the entire mining process, the crushing of rocks to extract the sought-after minerals is also a major contributor to mining's carbon dioxide emissions.
This technology, under development by I-ROX and supported by BHP, is set to demonstrate that it can replace several stages within the grinding process and thereby decrease power usage to the levels miners require as they strive to achieve net-zero CO2 emission targets.
"For the mining industry to move to carbon neutrality and beyond, it has to re-invent the entire mining process, and especially how it generates and consumes energy. A significant element needed to meet that goal is to reduce energy consumption in the grinding and crushing circuit that represents over half of the total energy usage of a mine," said Friedland. "I-ROX's application of pulse power technology holds the potential to achieve exactly that while also being far cheaper and faster than today's conventional grinding processes."
This is the reason why Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investment firm founded by Bill Gates to support companies that will eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, invested in I-ROX.
"Minerals such as copper, nickel and cobalt are essential for the energy transition," said Carmichael Roberts of Breakthrough Energy Ventures. "In I-ROX, we see a rare opportunity to dramatically reduce the energy demand related to the actual processing of such mineral ores."
Now, this I-Pulse technology enjoys the mining expertise and financial wherewithal of one of the world's largest producers of the metals critical to the clean energy transition.
"BHP's investment and our collaboration offer a meaningful step forward in the development and commercialisation of I-Pulse technologies for the mining industry and particularly in relation to the prospect of the crushing and grinding of rocks for a fraction of today's energy consumption, environmental impact and costs," Friedland said.