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13 August 2021 7 min read

In the highly-competitive resources industry, CSIRO innovations have helped fast-track ESG outcomes for a number of organisations through ongoing commercial partnerships to develop innovative technology that can deliver high-value outcomes and positive ESG contributions.

Three examples of successful CSIRO research that delivers both commercial and ESG outcomes include the VESI™ groundwater monitoring system; the revolution in steelmaking and cement from the dry slag granulation process; and a remarkable water treatment process that combines forward-osmosis and reverse osmosis.

Ground zero for water monitoring
CSIRO Research Technicians David Macedo and Dylan Marley deploying Vesi™ sensor unit in the field

Monitoring and managing mine-site groundwater is a critical part of safe, efficient and legally compliant mine operations, and plays a crucial role in a mine’s ongoing social licence to operate.

Traditionally, groundwater has been monitored via a lengthy, complex and labour-intensive process where surrounding groundwater samples are manually collected and tested, leading to a time-lag between the detection and remediation of any leaks.

CSIRO’s VESI™ system is a world-first automated groundwater monitoring and reporting system which can rapidly and continuously survey the state of mine groundwater and its surrounds remotely, and operates for extended periods with little maintenance, even in harsh conditions.

Commercial Manager Mick Wade and Project Lead Daniella Caruso are part of the VESI™ team who are in the process of turning years of research into a commercially viable outcome.

Commercial options

“CSIRO is a research and development organisation, so we don’t manufacture or distribute products, or compete with companies that make high-volume products and provide services for a market,” Wade says.

Wade says that CSIRO projects typically take a product from idea to proof of concept, and will look for commercial partners when it reaches an appropriate technology-readiness level.

“CSIRO’s goal is to create impact; whether that’s generating revenue to support future research or delivering a public good like improved safety or better environmental outcomes,” he says.

“The range of CSIRO commercialisation pathways includes licensing new technology to generate ongoing revenue, or generating value via equity in a new company,” he says.

“We look at what’s the most appropriate pathway for each project,”.

CSIRO is currently exploring a range of commercial options and partners including deployments in industries outside the mining domain. Systematic and reliable water monitoring provides many exiting opportunities that we are keen to explore with potential partners.

CSIRO’s Dr Miao Chen co-invented the solid-state electrochemical sensor technology (Vesi™ ) for in-situ monitoring of aqueous chemistry ©  Nick Pitsas

The road to patent

Project Lead Daniella Caruso says that in 2008, CSIRO Senior Principal Research Scientist Dr Miao Chen came up with the concept of immersible solid-state electrochemical sensors for on-going monitoring of chemicals in liquids, when Chen was researching mineral ore processing.

This led to the VESI™ team’s development of a robust solid-state reference electrode, now expanded with sensors to measure temperature, pH, oxidation reduction potential (ORP) and conductivity.

The VESI™ team took the product through the CSIRO ON program. Here, discussions with industry progressed the technology for use in groundwater monitoring of in-situ recovery (ISR) operations, where mining fluids escaping the site could cause mineral loss and environmental harm.

The patented VESI™ solid-state probe is permanently immersed into groundwater wells at the site perimeter to wirelessly transmit continuous data, quickly identifying any change, in real-time.

In 2018, VESI™ (then named SENSEI) began an on-site trial at Heathgate Resources’ South Australian mining operation in a collaboration between National Energy Resources Australia (NERA), Heathgate Resources, Boss Resources and CSIRO.

“The next stage is new field trials with companies keen to explore the efficacy of the VESI™ monitoring system for their surface water, closed mine and mine tailings treatment,” she says.

Forward osmosis - reverse osmosis (FO-RO) water treatment technology

Senior CSIRO Researcher Dr Ramesh Thiruvenkatachari, from CSIRO’s Centre for Advanced Technologies in Pullenvale, Queensland, heads a CSIRO project currently trialling an innovative process that was developed to recover fresh water from mine wastewater.

But this forward-reverse osmosis technology has very broad potential beyond the mining sector. For example, a trial is currently underway in an industrial water treatment plant processing abattoir wastewater.

The forward-reverse osmosis water treatment unit (FO-RO) will reduce the quantity of wastewater that the plant must treat and also recover reusable water at source

Thiruvenkatachari says the forward-reverse osmosis water treatment unit will reduce the quantity of wastewater that the plant must treat and also recover reusable water at source.

Traditionally, reverse osmosis water treatment uses hydraulic pressure to force impure water through a partly-permeable membrane that traps the concentrates – whether that’s salt, mining ore, or other impurities – leaving fresh water to pass through.

But membranes separating concentrates from fresh water often become blocked and must be repaired or replaced.

His team’s novel process reduces membrane maintenance by combining the reverse osmosis process with forward osmosis – where fresh water moves naturally to a body of water in what Thiruvenkatachari calls “the natural physical desire of water to flow and equalise the highest concentrated solution.”

“In some of our trials we have been able to completely eliminate the need for pre-treatment by combining forward and reverse osmosis,” he says.

The innovation is in the know-how and applies the team’s engineering knowledge of the integration of a forward and reverse osmosis system, to commercially available membranes.

Thiruvenkatachari says that participation in the CSIRO ON program enabled the team to work with different industry representatives to discover some of their major challenges.

“Our solution helps industry safely meet the discharge requirements of wastewater, and also facilitates more efficient recovery of usable water for various other beneficial purposes within the industry operation and in the wider environment.”

After establishing the process in several mine wastewater applications, the team was approached to investigate its use outside mining, for other industrial applications. 

“The process we have developed can be applied in a number of different ways to recover water from industrial processes, and there is growing understanding that water is a very valuable resource, especially in remote inland locations,” says Thiruvenkatachari.

CSIRO Business Development Manager Stephen O’Dowd says that CSIRO is currently exploring partnership options and welcomes enquiries from industry with potential applications for the FO-RO technology.

Dry Slag Granulation

Dry slag granulation plant built by the Beijing Research Institute of Metallurgical Equipment (MCCE) for the industrial demonstration

Steelmaking worldwide produces over 300 million tonnes of iron blast furnace slag every year, dissipating incredible amounts of heat in the environment. CSIRO’s innovative Dry Slag Granulation (DSG) technology has the potential to combine these heat and slag waste streams into valuable resources.

DSG turns the waste slag from blast furnaces into a high-value additive for cement production, while recovering heat energy and making enormous reductions in water use and greenhouse emissions.

“Traditionally, this waste is crushed and used as base aggregate in road and civil construction, but DSG has potential to convert the slag into a sustainable substitute material for a key component of cement, whose production emits eight per cent of global CO2,” says Adrien Guiraud, Principal Research Consultant in CSIRO Mineral Resources Processing, who has led the CSIRO DSG project for several years.

The technology began development in 2002, and early support from the Australian steel industry helped kick off the project and bring the technology to further maturity.

By 2013, the technology had been demonstrated at pilot-scale in CSIRO’s high temperature laboratories in Melbourne and was ready to move to industrial demonstration.

Despite the Australian steel-making industry’s support for the DSG technology, the move to industrial scale deployment wasn’t feasible in Australia.

CSIRO canvassed likely international engineering collaborators and a landmark research and commercial deployment collaboration was agreed with Beijing Research Institute of Metallurgical Equipment (MCCE) in 2015.

The success of this partnership is underpinned by CSIRO’s long-standing collaboration with China says Professor Gang Wei, Director of China Engagement for CSIRO Mineral Resources, who is managing the relationship with MCCE.

In early 2019, another milestone was achieved with the start-up of a 20 tonnes per hour semi-industrial demonstration plant in China, allowing CSIRO researchers and MCCE engineers to collect data, build know-how and optimise the process, with encouraging results.

CSIRO and MCCE have extended their partnership and plan to scale up the technology to full commercial capacity within the next three years.

“Our objective is to bring the DSG technology to the Chinese market by 2025, before expanding to the rest of the world,” says Guiraud.

He says the project has great potential to reduce the environmental impacts of the steel industry and will allow CSIRO to move into non-ferrous and other slag producing industries which have already shown strong interest in DSG technology.

“Developing and commercialising a technology to significantly reduce the negative impact of steelmaking on the environment will be a major achievement for CSIRO, and an exceptional example of product stewardship for the Australian iron ore industry,” says Guiraud.

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