A revolution of ‘green mineral’ production

Professor Klaus Regenauer-Lieb looks to unconventional resource harvesting and building a new world-first laboratory as prime ways to drive the fortunes of the new School of Mineral Energy Resources Engineering

With expertise in unconventional energy resources, Professor Klaus Regenauer-Lieb’s current focus is developing innovative technologies that enable the harvesting of difficult-to-reach petroleum stores and valuable minerals.Professor Klaus Regenauer-Lieb

“My research is driven by the increasing global awareness that in order to protect the environment we need to be smarter about how we recover minerals and other precious resources,” says Regenauer-Lieb.

“In both mining and petroleum engineering, our ongoing quest for resources requires companies to dig down into deeper, hotter and more difficult places than ever before. This deeper/hotter phenomenon presents new and interesting ways to harvest minerals that have never been considered before.”

Regenauer-Lieb is heading up a new research centre within the School of Mineral Energy Resources Engineering (MERE), which was created in 2018 by merging the former Schools of Mining and Petroleum Engineering.

“Although the disciplines of mining and petroleum are traditionally quite different, technological advances in both are enabling cross-pollination between the two,” says Regenauer-Lieb who cites the commercial production of petrolithium in the US as a prime example.

“There is a company called MGX who have started to ‘mine’ lithium out of the water used in oil production. This new technique is a great example of next-generation petroleum and mining practice and has similarities to a project I’m currently exploring in Fiji,” he says.

My research is driven by the increasing global awareness that in order to protect the environment we need to be smarter about how we recover minerals and other precious resources.

Professor Klaus Regenauer-Lieb, UNSW Mineral Energy Resources Engineering

The Vautakola gold mine in northern Viti Levu in the Republic of Fiji has been operational since 1932 and is viewed as a ‘sunset’ mine i.e. one that is coming to the end of its productive life. A key feature of the 900m deep underground mine is the high geothermal activity, both in and outside the mine site, with temperatures reaching around 60º C.

Regenauer-Lieb says he has high hopes of extending the life of the gold mine, not by digging deeper, but by using a unique, and patented, technique he and his colleagues have developed to ‘harvest’ gold from the hot mine water.

“We have investigated the mineral content of the mine water and found potentially high levels of dissolved gold,” he says.

“This is a very exciting new area because we already have the technology and expertise within the School. I’m collaborating with mining engineering researchers Professor Serkan Saydam and Associate Professor Seher Ata on this particular project, but we believe our low energy, low operation cost technique could equally apply to the harvesting of other resources such as tellurium, zinc and silver too. This could usher in a revolution of ‘green mineral’ production,” he says.

UNSW is just about to sign an MOU with Fiji National University which links nicely into UNSW’s Institute of Global Development which has a stated aim to provide outreach activities to support Fiji.

As part of the masterplan for the new School, Regenauer-Lieb says he has also been deeply involved in the development of a micro characterisation laboratory to do conjoined multidisciplinary research between, for example, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, bioengineering and the Faculty of Medicine.

“This laboratory will use our existing novel X-ray CT technology for advanced material characterisation, and I have recently submitted a large LIEF [Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities] grant application for over three million dollars, in collaboration with the University of Sydney,” he continues.

“We are in the process of buying a second X-ray CT and hoping to incorporate virtual reality and visualisation with the national supercomputer. We are already exploring the ability to connect our virtual reality simulator used in Mining with our Well Control Simulator in Petroleum,” Regenauer-Lieb says.

“We’re focused on the future of mining and petroleum automation, new training facilities and world-class equipment, the combination of which will be an incredibly strong point for our School in the near future.”

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