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Rio Tinto to build new tellurium plant at Kennecott mine

Rio Tinto will begin construction on a new plant that will recover tellurium (earlier post), a critical mineral used in solar panels, from copper refining at its Kennecott mine near Salt Lake City, Utah.

Rio Tinto is investing $2.9 million to set up the plant, which will recover tellurium as a byproduct of copper smelting, extracting a valuable mineral from waste streams. The plant will have a capacity to produce approximately 20 tonnes of tellurium per year.

Rio Tinto expects to begin production of tellurium in the fourth quarter of 2021, creating a new North American supply chain for this critical mineral. According to the US Geological Survey, Canada is the leading supplier of tellurium to the US.

Tellurium is an essential component of cadmium telluride, a semiconductor used to manufacture thin film photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. Thin films made of this compound can efficiently convert sunlight into electricity. Tellurium can also be used as an additive to steel and copper to improve machinability, making these metals easier to cut. It can also be added to lead to increase resistance to sulfuric acid, vibration and fatigue.

Along with producing almost 20% of US copper, Kennecott’s smelting process also recovers gold, silver, lead carbonate, platinum, palladium and selenium, while molybdenum is recovered from the Copperton concentrator. In total, nine products are currently recovered from the ore extracted at Kennecott.

Rio Tinto is a partner with the US Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI) and works closely with CMI experts to discover further ways to economically recover critical mineral byproducts such as rhenium, tellurium and lithium. The company is also investing in new facilities to extract battery grade lithium from waste rock at its Boron, California mine site and high quality scandium oxide from waste streams at its metallurgical complex in Sorel-Tracy, Québec.

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