The mining industry continues to be a hotbed of patent innovation. Activity is driven by the need for improved productivity and safety, cost control and reduced environmental impact. New technologies such as GPS, new drilling technologies, 3D mapping and geo-modelling, autonomous equipment and process controls can improve the success of mining activities, reduce the environmental impact and improve productivity at mines. In the last three years alone, there have been over 62,000 patents filed and granted in the mining industry, according to GlobalData’s report on Innovation in mining: extraction by leaching. Buy the report here.

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However, not all innovations are equal and nor do they follow a constant upward trend. Instead, their evolution takes the form of an S-shaped curve that reflects their typical lifecycle from early emergence to accelerating adoption, before finally stabilizing and reaching maturity.

Identifying where a particular innovation is on this journey, especially those that are in the emerging and accelerating stages, is essential for understanding their current level of adoption and the likely future trajectory and impact they will have.

40+ innovations will shape the mining industry

According to GlobalData’s Technology Foresights, which plots the S-curve for the mining industry using innovation intensity models built on over 70,000 patents, there are 40+ innovation areas that will shape the future of the industry.

Within the emerging innovation stage, tunnel ventilation systems, mine drainage systems, and tunnel lining construction are disruptive technologies that are in the early stages of application and should be tracked closely. Battery metal recycling, precision milling and virtual industrial monitoring are some of the accelerating innovation areas, where adoption has been steadily increasing. Among maturing innovation areas are high performance drill bits and hybrid industrial vehicles, which are now well established in the industry.

Innovation S-curve for the mining industry

Extraction by leaching is a key innovation area in mining

Leaching extracts valuable minerals from ore using either heap leaching or in-situ leaching process. Precious metals including gold are extracted from their ores using cyanide or ozone leaching. Acid leaching is used to extract radioactive metals such as uranium. The appropriate metal extraction leaching method is chosen based on economic and environmental viability.

GlobalData’s analysis also uncovers the companies at the forefront of each innovation area and assesses the potential reach and impact of their patenting activity across different applications and geographies. According to GlobalData, there are 90+ companies, spanning technology vendors, established mining companies, and up-and-coming start-ups engaged in the development and application of extraction by leaching.

Key players in extraction by leaching – a disruptive innovation in the mining industry

‘Application diversity’ measures the number of applications identified for each patent. It broadly splits companies into either ‘niche’ or ‘diversified’ innovators.   

‘Geographic reach’ refers to the number of countries each patent is registered in. It reflects the breadth of geographic application intended, ranging from ‘global’ to ‘local’.

Patent volumes related to extraction by leaching

Company Total patents (2010 - 2022) Premium intelligence on the world's largest companies
Metso Outotec 1165 Unlock Company Profile
ENEOS 545 Unlock Company Profile
Vale 256 Unlock Company Profile
Jinchuan Group 198 Unlock Company Profile
Barrick Gold 161 Unlock Company Profile
BHP 123 Unlock Company Profile
POSCO 102 Unlock Company Profile
AEM Canada Group 98 Unlock Company Profile
Nemaska Lithium 89 Unlock Company Profile
Freeport-McMoRan 74 Unlock Company Profile
Teck Resources 64 Unlock Company Profile
Outokumpu 61 Unlock Company Profile
Grinm Advanced Materials 61 Unlock Company Profile
Dowa 61 Unlock Company Profile
eEnergy Group 60 Unlock Company Profile
Heraeus 56 Unlock Company Profile
Zijin Mining Group 51 Unlock Company Profile
Newmont 45 Unlock Company Profile
China Energy Investment 44 Unlock Company Profile
Korea Zinc 42 Unlock Company Profile
IGO 41 Unlock Company Profile
ArcelorMittal 36 Unlock Company Profile
MMC Norilsk Nickel 36 Unlock Company Profile
Anglo Operations 33 Unlock Company Profile
Tivan 32 Unlock Company Profile
Yunnan Chihong Zinc and Germanium 28 Unlock Company Profile
South32 25 Unlock Company Profile
Reed Industrial Minerals 24 Unlock Company Profile
State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council 22 Unlock Company Profile
Dundee Resources 22 Unlock Company Profile
Aurubis 22 Unlock Company Profile
Lixivia 21 Unlock Company Profile
JFE 20 Unlock Company Profile
Tata Steel 19 Unlock Company Profile
EnviroLeach Technologies 17 Unlock Company Profile
Mitsui Mining & Smelting 17 Unlock Company Profile
Proterial 17 Unlock Company Profile
Luksic Group 17 Unlock Company Profile
Eldorado Gold 15 Unlock Company Profile
Scandium International Mining 15 Unlock Company Profile
Lithium Australia 15 Unlock Company Profile
Iluka Resources 15 Unlock Company Profile
Nippon Mining 14 Unlock Company Profile
Neste 14 Unlock Company Profile
Xstrata Queensland 13 Unlock Company Profile
Sociedad Punta Del Cobre 13 Unlock Company Profile
Sepro Mineral Systems 13 Unlock Company Profile
Rio Tinto 12 Unlock Company Profile
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation 12 Unlock Company Profile
Graymont 12 Unlock Company Profile

Source: GlobalData Patent Analytics

Metso Outotec’s leaching process uses highly effective atmospheric chloride leaching technology, which is combined with VSF solvent extraction and electrowinning technology, to provide a dependable and environmentally sustainable processing method. The copper pressure leaching process concept includes autoclave pressure leaching to produce copper-containing pregnant leach solution. After leaching, there is a neutralization step, followed by copper solvent extraction and electrowinning.

Metso Outotec has been chosen to work on several high-profile lithium projects. In December 2022, the company partnered with Keliber, a subsidiary of Sibanye-Stillwater, to provide its sustainable soda pressure leaching technology for Keliber's lithium hydroxide refinery in Finland. The technology will enable exceptional material and energy efficiency for the lithium hydroxide refinery, contributing to its long-term viability and profitability. Later in January 2023, Metso Outotec signed an agreement to supply copper solvent extraction and electrowinning technology to North America. The deal, worth approximately €50m ($54m), will serve as a valuable reference for Metso Outotec in North America's expanding copper market.

Meanwhile, Vale is working with Chinese company Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt and other partners to build two high-pressure acid leaching (HPAL) plants to produce mixed hydroxide precipitate (MHP) from nickel, a material used to make electric vehicle batteries.

In terms of application diversity, Mitsui Mining & Smelting leads the pack, while Iluka Resources and Rio Tinto stood in the second and third positions, respectively. By means of geographic reach, Nemaska Lithium held the top position, followed by Aurubis and ArcelorMittal.

To further understand the key themes and technologies disrupting the mining industry, access GlobalData’s latest thematic research report on Mining.

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GlobalData, the leading provider of industry intelligence, provided the underlying data, research, and analysis used to produce this article.

GlobalData’s Patent Analytics tracks patent filings and grants from official offices around the world. Textual analysis and official patent classifications are used to group patents into key thematic areas and link them to specific companies across the world’s largest industries.