In May 2008, Rio Tinto announced a significant financial investment to establish the Centre, to help realise its vision for the Mine of the Future™. Over five years, the investment is funding a group of academics at Imperial’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering.
They are developing a range of new technologies that use less energy to mine and process minerals from hard to reach places deep underground, and that minimise environmental disturbance.
The mining industry has never before worked with academia in the way in which Rio Tinto is through its Rio Tinto Centres such as Imperial College.
Rio Tinto’s model is based around a small internal core of technical professionals who are closely connected to each other, the company and research providers. In total, about 30 people contribute to the work of the Centre, the majority funded full time by Rio Tinto’s investment.
The scientists from Imperial stay in close contact with a team from Rio Tinto, to make sure that the projects are heading in the right direction and squarely address Rio Tinto technology challenges.
The Centre is unpicking the accepted processes for mineral extraction and recovery, and in many cases going right back to scientific fundamentals. “For years, people have been tweaking techniques and models that already existed, in an attempt to use them for new applications,” said Jan Cilliers, Imperial College’s professor of mineral processing, and director of the Centre.
“But we believe that step changes in mineral recovery will not be possible unless we go back to basics, understand the science fully, and develop new ways of doing things. Some of our work is absolutely cutting edge science, and it’s extremely difficult. Rio Tinto understands that if you are going to do these projects properly then it will be hard, and it will take time.
"They are not looking for quick solutions - they are looking for right solutions.”