Mining the clean energy revolution

By Professor Adrian Pearce, Melbourne School of Engineering

Smartphone charging on table with small plant in background

Each time you use a mobile phone you are not just plugging into information and communication networks, but also into the sustainable energy revolution.

As the world ‘decarbonises’, one of the key components of the electrification underpinning renewable energy generation is battery technology. And the batteries that allow smart phones to double as powerful computers and high-definition cameras is an enticing example of the new energy matrix unfolding before us.

Battery technology, as the basis for economy-wide renewable energy storage, now needs to scale up from its early use in electronics. The University of Melbourne is participating in the Future Battery Industries Co-operative Research Centre (FBI-CRC) which is bringing together an array of research disciplines – chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering; materials science; artificial intelligence and machine learning; and advanced mining and minerals processing technologies.

The construction of tomorrow’s high-capacity battery power and storage, particularly for transport and industry, needs new energy materials – elements such as lithium, vanadium, nickel, cobalt and graphite. These need mining and processing, but we need to transition our technologies and processes to far more sustainable and sophisticated methods rather than relying on the traditional approach to ore extraction.

New mining technologies being researched include in situ processing of ore bodies requiring little to no disturbance of the environment, and the development of solvent-extraction towers to replace large settling ponds

We are also a participant in the recently announced ARC Centre of Excellence for Enabling Eco-Efficient Beneficiation of Minerals. The Centre will specifically focus on the development of sustainable minerals processing to reduce the environmental footprint from the production of new energy materials.

The need for a new renewable energy matrix, and the extraction and processing of mineral components for this energy transformation for lithium batteries, for example, cannot be separated. Both need and will greatly benefit from the sciences of sustainability.

Electric car charger with sign indicating charging station

This marriage of energy and materials science will create new industries, and reinvent some of the oldest. New mining technologies being researched include in situ processing of ore bodies requiring little to no disturbance of the environment, and the development of solvent-extraction towers to replace large settling ponds. Miniaturised autonomous systems and artificial intelligence controlled robotics can replace excavation with operations more akin to keyhole surgery. Precision mining techniques are not only more sustainable, they also make mining safer for the people involved.

The University of Melbourne is a key research participant shaping the transition to mining in a more sustainable way. We have cross-disciplinary research capabilities needed for building sustainable battery industries domestically and globally, with a goal to provide the resources sector with more sustainable processes.

We have cross-disciplinary research capabilities needed for building sustainable battery industries domestically and globally, with a goal to provide the resources sector with more sustainable processes

This role is facilitated by the Melbourne Mining Integrator (MMI), a University initiative through which we work with explorers, miners and mining equipment, technology and service providers to address the sector’s greatest challenges in transitioning away from fossil fuels. Alongside our industry partners, we provide end-to-end solutions; analysing issues, shaping new technologies, and developing and testing solutions through simulation technologies and prototype testing.

In the face of climate change and the challenge to decarbonise, we consider it a global imperative to approach mining with a cross-disciplinary, research and development-led methodology. We will continue to partner with industry to support and develop enabling technologies which will deliver sustainable benefits across the sector.

Related topics

Energy sustainability Real world impact

Computing & information systems