ESG Voices: Vinca Technologies And The Future Of Mining
Mining is an essential economic activity that feeds advanced materials manufacturing. For the world to achieve its decarbonisation goals, the world will need even more mining. Yet the sector has arguably come under greater public scrutiny regarding its contribution to environmental pollution and the degradation of natural resources than perhaps any other sector. Its sheer scale, the literal moving of mountains, to turn ores into usable products, such as steel, copper and lithium, exacts its toll on landscapes, human communities, and biodiversity alike.
As part of the push to meet the call to action set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), mining’s extractives supply chain is undergoing an efficiency drive. Understandably challenging as it may be to extract minerals from the earth, then restore mined areas into reusable spaces, it is entirely possible to take preventative measures to minimise the damage wrought by extraction, while decarbonising operations to reduce CO2 emissions, of which the mining sector contributes up to 3% of the global total.
No-Harm + Lower Overheads
The axiom of “no-harm” is increasingly being applied to elicit mine process innovations which lighten the extractives footprint and fully decarbonise final ore products, partly driven by increasing customer and policy pressures. Think “Green Steel”, and the market benefits of developing renewably-generated steel for the automotive sector, with reduced environmental impact, protected natural resource heritage, and improved community safety, all while moving the needle towards fully net-zero by 2050.
To realistically incentivise mining companies of all shapes and sizes to improve their ESG ratings, the estimated 25% higher capital costs required to meet mining’s decarbonisation goals needs to be better addressed. While many of the scoped changes involve fundamental switches away from diesel-powered processes and vehicles to fully electric operations (Borden in Canada is the world’s first fully electric mine), other innovative improvements to operational efficiencies will greatly reduce the material flows required, as well as moving towards greater circularity.
It is in this arena that Vinca Technologies is making exciting progress. Based out of Singapore, and with operations in North America, the company has developed an advanced materials "clean-teq" solution, using a proprietary non-toxic, non-aqueous molten salt critical mineral extraction technology, that significantly reduces the environmental impact for metal extraction, while also reducing the associated capital and material handling flows. Better still, Vinca is extremely flexible, allowing it to capture varied combinations of valuable metals at once, greatly improving net economics and use case applications.
In short, Vinca’s molten salts act as “metal carriers”, binding with valuable metals during the leaching phase to create metal chlorides. The “carried’ metals are then separated from the salts via electrolysis, resulting in high purity mixed-metal cathodes which can be readily separated into their individual metals. The molten salts can be recovered and reused in subsequent cycles, and any waste oxides can be filtered out and repurposed as inert construction aggregate.
This equates to lowering energy and water inputs, removing toxic emissions, and lifting recovery rates for a range of precious and base metal deposit combinations via “fast kinetics” - improving the efficiency of the energy used to fragment deposits. The overall aim of multiple impact reductions is key, since this conversely increases the ‘social licence’ to conduct operations, as pollution indices can be measured to demonstrate lessened environmental damage, moving towards “no-harm”.
This all leads to greater agency in terms of measuring the overall impact of extractive mining, both environmentally and socially. Miners benefit too, with permitting pathways streamlined for projects that are safer and more circular.
We spoke to Melinda Moore of Vinca Technologies to find out more about where ESG stands in the sector:
How would you introduce yourself?
I am CEO of Vinca Technologies, which is developing a ground-breaking non-toxic metal recovery process for the mining sector. I have always thrived in change-agent roles, while enjoying a career spanning institutional investments/commercial funding/commodity sales & marketing roles, before joining Vinca in early-2021 to lead its commercialisation journey.
I’ve also been involved with Women-in-Mining UK (WIM UK) since 2018, assisting the organisation’s global outreach programme to promote sector diversity innovations, while also serving as its Finance Director. I was named a global inspirational Woman-in-Mining in 2013, which inspired me to lead the same WIM UK initiative from 2018-2020 as Head of Global Outreach for this incredibly dynamic and passionate volunteer organisation.
I am an Australian, now living in London, via Shanghai and Singapore, having been fortunate to work amid China’s booming commodities sector during the country’s 2000s “super-cycle” years, for the Russians, the Brits and the Aussies!
What is your sustainability story?
Growing up on fertile farm lands in southern Oz, I‘ve always keenly felt the powerful pulse of clean, green, open spaces. Living in China for five years, during those boom years of the 2000s, highlighted to me the ills of poor industrial development, including shrinking landscapes; dastardly smells, blackened skies & contaminated waters.
The monumental scale of our ongoing urge to urbanise and city living’s ever-hungry leaching of resources from the countryside has to become more patient and kinder to the environment, as must we to one another. It’s also clear that many industrial processes have not seen any significant overhaul since the Industrial Revolution, and thus are ripe for change.
Through my career, I’ve brought myself to the position where I am able to push boundaries to enact dynamic, industrial change. This is something I find hugely rewarding.
Why did you get involved with Vinca?
Vinca’s Founder, Etienne Kiss-Borlase, was driven to invest in Vinca’s ground-breaking non-toxic molten salts metal recovery process in 2016, with a clearly articulated desire to deliver clean, safe, zero-harm metals for our industrial needs, both responsibly and sustainably. Etienne was elated to discover a ground-breaking technology being developed inside the University of Arizona’s energy division for metal recovery, and the company has grown out of this opportunity to commercialise the university’s technology.
Incidentally, the first human community to engage in metallurgy is believed to be the Vinča civilisation, during the Stone Age, 7000 years ago, in what is now Serbia. The company was named to honour this milestone in human achievement. We embrace the inspiration left by this community, as we seek new innovative horizons for the mining and extraction industry.
What is the most crucial aspect of the transition to sustainability?
There are 4 key pillars to achieving technological success:
Is there a Customer need?
Does the Technology actually work?
Is it Economic?
Does it tick all the ESG boxes?
Of these, it is economics which will always drive successful sustainable adoption. Our best intentions are simply not enough. This is often the hardest lesson for start-up inventors to understand.
How can we reduce the ‘noise’ in ESG?
The importance of living in a sustainable, zero-harm manner, aligned to the UN SDGs, cannot be overemphasised. ESG criteria will continue to evolve and will benefit from engaging debates along the way. Such “growing pains” play a crucial role in reaching a universal set of aspirations, codes and KPIs. We view this so-called ESG “noise” as healthy.
One wish - what would it be?
To live in a happy world, without demonising our planet and one another in the process.
Find out more about Vinca’s work here, or follow them via LinkedIn.
Compare mining company ESG performance via ESG ratings and reports, here.