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PROMT Researchers sampling mine tailings in the Phillipines. Photo credit: Reven Gibaga

Exeter to play pivotal role in new research into sustainable mineral production in the Philippines

The University of Exeter has helped secure more than £3 million in funding to lead pioneering new research into sustainable mineral production in the Philippines. 

Experts from the University of Exeter will play a pivotal role in two new projects, designed to support a green future for mining in the Philippines. 

The first project, called PANAMA and receiving a total value of £1.5 million, will develop a novel approach to remediate and protect ecosystems and humans from metal pollutants so that sustainable mining can progress in the Philippines. The project is a major international collaboration between five UK universities (University of Glasgow, Liverpool John Moores University, University of Hull, University of Exeter, and Brunel University London) and four Philippine universities. 

The second project, called Philippines Remediation of Mine Tailings (PROMT) comprises a total value of £1.7 million and will focus on the development of new approaches to recover technology critical metals from mine wastes, clean up pollution, and generate soils which support plant growth and allow the land to be reused. PROMT collaborators include the University of Leicester, University of the Philippines, Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, University of Reading and the British Geological Survey. 

Both projects have been funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology. 

Global targets for a net zero carbon economy hang on the development of clean energy technologies (wind, solar, electric) that are far more complex than traditional hydrocarbon-based technologies.  

This ‘clean energy transition’ is set to triple global demand for so-called ‘technology critical minerals’ by 2040. However, mining these minerals can have an enormous carbon footprint and historical mining has given rise to a variety of environmental and social issues worldwide.  

The Philippines, for example, has globally significant deposits of technology critical minerals. A nine-year national moratorium on new mining activities was lifted in April 2021. This heightens interest in investigating how can we mine in a sustainable fashion that minimises environmental impacts whilst supplying the mineral resources critical to meeting global net-zero targets and mitigating climate change.  

The PANAMA project aims to provide a holistic understanding of the legacy, present and future environmental and ecological impacts of mining on Philippine river systems 

The ultimate goal of PAMANA is to enable a new era of sustainable mining in the Philippines by developing practices and policies that empower government agencies, mining companies, scientists, and communities to minimise the environmental and ecological impacts of mining.  

Karen Hudson-Edwards, Co-I at Exeter on the PANAMA project, said: “This project brings together Philippine and UK researchers to study catchments impacted by legacy and present mining. The lessons learned will feed into new policies and actions for future sustainable Philippine mining. I’m excited to be able to work in such a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from the Philippines and the UK.” 

The PROMT project aims to develop a new multifaceted approach to remediate mine tailings which includes the application of novel and environmentally-benign solvents combined with state-of-the-art “real-time” monitoring and control over solvent flow. They will also investigate how plants and microbes colonise mine wastes, how this is affected by the use of solvents, and identification of the best ways to promote biological growth; this will not only rehabilitate the land and allow it to be reused for agriculture or wildlife, it also minimises environmental hazards by improving the stability of the tailings and decreasing their toxicity.  

The ultimate goal of PROMT is to unlock a new engineering process where mine tailings can be rehabilitated without the need for invasive, energy intensive and potentially environmentally damaging physical excavation. 

Dr Rich Crane (Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Mining) at the Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter, and co-investigator on this project, says: “Metals are the fundamental feedstock for green technology, such as electric vehicles and renewable energy generation. Our successful tackling of the concurrent Climate Emergency and Ecosystem Crisis is therefore inexorably linked to a significant and rapid upscaling of metal mining this Century. We need to be careful, however, that such activity doesn’t result in widespread environmental damage. I am excited to be part of this project will forge new approaches to enable such activity to occur but with lower environmental impact.” 

Dr Laura Newsome (Lecturer in Geomicrobiology) at Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter and co-investigator on this project, says: “I’m delighted we have the opportunity to work on this exciting interdisciplinary project, which brings together leading researchers from the UK and the Philippines to investigate new sustainable technologies to minimise the environmental hazard of mine tailings. We aim to discover new ways to manage metal mine wastes, to mitigate their impact on the environment, and potentially also recover economic resources from wastes at the same time”.  

Date: 9 December 2021