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Volcanic geofluids rich in tech metals

Metal Tech News - July 10, 2024

Scientists eye dormant volcanoes to extract energy and battery metals.

Researchers at Oxford University in the UK are looking into volcanic geofluids, which could help the green energy transition with a wealth of free energy and minerals.

A dormant volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat has piqued researchers' interest in the geofluids that flow beneath it. Oxford's ReSET program project lead, Jonathan Blundy, a Royal Society Research Professor, is confident in his teams' ability to develop new opportunities to extract both critical battery metals and energy from the superheated fluids beneath the natural powerhouse.

Volcanic activity is the source of most mineral bounties dug out of the earth, produced by a constant dance of geologic upheaval – sometimes immeasurably slow, sometimes incredibly violent. Methods to extract these metals from their ores and use them for our benefit usually come long after this point, in very energy-intensive and potentially polluting processes.

Blundy, a professor in the Earth Sciences department at the University of Oxford, is heading a team studying the Montserrat island volcano to prove a more sustainable way to extract metals directly from the source – potentially saving time, money, and the environment in the process.

Getting the most from geofluids

The mining industry is estimated to generate between 4 and 7% of global carbon dioxide emissions annually.

Many mining operations are located at the roots of once-active volcanoes, which churned metals and rocks to the surface many millennia ago. Today, flows and surrounding rocks enriched with geothermal fluids from old volcanoes can be rich in copper, lithium, and gold. While technologies that can handle magma and superheated gases are few and far between, there is another aspect of volcanic activity that has been studied extensively – geothermal energy and brine mineral extraction.

Blundy's team is looking for ways to replace the energy-intensive mining of metals from ores by extracting them directly from the volcano instead, using its own ready-made power.

Geofluids are superheated liquids that flow below ground, such as underneath dormant volcanoes. Tapping into these could produce free materials and heat as supporting co-products.

The energy transition needs both green technologies and the materials to build them. The hot, mineral-rich waters generated by magmatic activity beneath an otherwise dormant volcano can both drive electricity-generating turbines as well as feed up raw materials for building more.

Together, these provide the potential to create local industries combining metals recovery and processing on small volcanic islands with few resources while reducing or even eliminating the need to import fossil fuels for traditional energy production. Additionally, any landlocked volcanoes are also optimal sources for this practice.

Driving up the value of geothermal

In recent years, geothermal energy has become an increasingly important component of green energy offerings but is still prohibitively expensive. The Oxford ReSet team believes the addition of tech metals recovery makes the premise much more attractive to investors and facilitates more government support.

"Remarkably, every day the world's volcanoes emit as much copper, lithium, gold and many other so-called critical metals in their volcanic plumes as the daily mined output globally," said Blundy. "The challenge for the Rethinking Natural Resources team, comprising earth scientists, social scientists, chemists, historians, economists and lawyers, is working out to harness the natural bounty of volcanic systems in a safe, equitable and sustainable way."


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