Chile Stays Ahead in the Race for Scarce Minerals With Radiation Technology

A mining facility in Chile that processes raw copper. Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper. (Photo: F. Diaz/Trazado Nuclear e Ingenieria Ltda.)

Competition is heating up in the multibillion dollar global race for high-grade minerals and metals as known resources grow scarce and demand increases for their use in all kinds of everyday products, from mobile phones to pots and pans. For countries like Chile, radiation technology is key to keeping a competitive edge.

“Radiation technology offers a hard-to-beat advantage over other techniques,” said Francisco J. Diaz Vargas, principal manager of Trazado Nuclear e Ingenieria, a Chilean organization that consults on mineral and metal extraction processes for mining companies. “These tools have become a critical part of how we are growing our most important national industry and keeping our foothold as a global exporter.”

Thanks to its rich mineral reserves, Chile’s vibrant mining industry contributes about 9% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and represents about half of Chile’s total exports. Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper, which is exported for use in alloys, buildings and electrical equipment, among other things. Chile’s mines are also a major source of molybdenum, a chemical element that plays a critical role in over 80% of nuclear medicine procedures.

To keep their national industry thriving and help meet growing export demands, Chilean mining companies have been working with the IAEA to use radiotracers and nucleonic gauges (see Radioactive tracers and nucleonic gauges) to help them streamline their production and mining processes and become more efficient in detecting and measuring mineral and metal concentrations. Compared to traditional techniques, radiation technology does a better job of improving the quality of products, optimizing processes, and saving energy, Diaz Vargas said.

“In many instances, it’s simply not practical to use traditional tracer techniques because they involve large equipment that is too bulky to move around and use in the field. Radiotracers are more portable,” explained Diaz Vargas. “They are also more accurate and faster than traditional techniques, which means we can save time and money because we have an accurate idea of how much we can expect to extract and process.”

Using such innovative techniques is essential to staying ahead in an increasingly competitive global market and ensuring a steady supply of metals and minerals, said Patrick Dominique M. Brisset, an industrial technologist at the IAEA.

More than 2.7 billion metric tonnes of metals and minerals are extracted from natural reserves in the ground and used each year, according to the British Geological Survey’s World Mineral Statistics. These minerals and metals are used in a huge number of products, from machinery to electronics to household goods and automotive parts. In computers alone, more than 60 different kinds of metal are used in making the exterior casing, circuit boards and computer chips.

As the global population grows and the overall standard of living goes up, the demand for products using these materials is rising too. However, the challenge of finding easily-extractable minerals and metals combined with the long mining process — normally 10 to 15 years from discovery of a deposit to the start of extraction — is making it more difficult to accommodate the ever-growing demand.

“The demand is getting more and more difficult to meet because, globally, sources of high-grade metals and minerals are getting exhausted and harder to find, so countries have to find new ways to keep up,” Brisset said.

Through IAEA support, specialists from around the world are building knowledge and skills in using nuclear techniques in the mining, metallurgy and mineral processing industries. They are also working closely with experts from countries like Chile that have developed years of expertise through their well-established mining practices and infrastructures.

“The industry is growing fast. If radiation techniques are developed and implemented on a massive scale, we are potentially looking at annual global economic savings of upwards of US $19 billion from the more efficient extraction and production processes and less reliance on human resources,” Brisset said.

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This is one of several topics that will be discussed by more than 300 experts and officials at the IAEA International Conference on Applications of Radiation Science and Technology (ICARST) happening from 24 to 28 April 2017. Find out more about the conference here and get updates on social media,#ICARST17.

Radiation technology offers a hard-to-beat advantage over other techniques. These tools have become a critical part of how we are growing our most important national industry and keeping our foothold as a global exporter.
Francisco J. Diaz Vargas, Principal Manager, Trazado Nuclear e Ingenieria, Chile