Tellurium – one of the rarest elements on the earth – will soon be recovered as a byproduct of copper smelting at Rio Tinto’s Kennecott mine in Utah.
Rio Tinto’s latest announcement means a new North American supply chain for the vital mineral, which forms a compound with enhanced electrical conductivity when alloyed with other elements including cadmium.
The compound’s thin films effectively turn sunlight into electricity. Tellurium can also be applied to steel and copper to make them easier to cut.
The company will invest $2.9 million in the construction of a new plant to recover tellurium. The production will be replaced by a new supply chain, based in Amarillo, Texas.
“The new tellurium plant is another valuable contribution to critical mineral independence and energy security in the United States,” said managing director Gaby Poirier.
Kennecott, one of the world’s largest man-made open pit excavations, has delivered more than 20 million tonnes of processed copper ore in its 118 years of operation, making it one of the best-performing mines in the world.
Kennecott’s smelting process also recovers gold, silver, platinum, palladium, and selenium, in addition to generating approximately 20% of the US copper supply. It recovers molybdenum from its Copperton concentrator, which has one of the highest melting points of all pure elements.
Rio Tinto is seemingly entering the rising market for solar energy generation with the inclusion of tellurium, which grew by 22% on a global scale in 2019.