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On the same wavelength

Hello dear readers!

My name is Maja, I am ESR7 (which makes me think of agent 007, bookworm and cinephile here) and also one of the three Croatians in SULTAN team.

Firstly, how do you become a Marie Sklodowska Curie fellow? I will take you to my own time machine with a brief look at the graph where you can find the answers: i) study smart from a very early age, ii) apply hard, iii) wear sunglasses (whenever possible).

Secondly, If I could tell something to myself at 7 years old, it would probably be ‘girl, you’ll be Marie Curie fellow’! Having said that, Marie Sklodowska Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and the only person who received it twice in two different sciences. The SULTAN project is following her example as for the first time it has a majority of women in the project team related to the mining industry, which is an encouraging message to all the girls and women who want to work in STEM and the mining industry.

Thirdly, what does it mean to be Marie Sklodowska Curie fellow in SULTAN? It means to be part of a team of 15 enthusiastic and eager people coming from very different backgrounds and places (to be more precise, from 5 different continents!) who are jointly working on the big challenges of modern society from different scientific approaches and paving their way to exciting careers. Of course, we get anxious from time to time… once we start to contemplate about our tasks to do, papers to write, experiments to run along the PhD journey: ‘summer is close and so are my deadlines’, ‘I think I forgot where I put my samples (long silent break)’, ‘this is NOT GOING THE WAY I PLANNED’, etc. Surely, it is all part of an exciting PhD road to us. PhD is a thrilling and complex process that requires a lot of energy, study and dedication. Furthermore, it also has many ups and some downs but it is always interesting and rewarding.

In this project, the team of 15 PhD students is working on the remediation and reprocessing of sulfidic tailings, which is one of the main issues of the mining industry. Tailings are residues obtained after the removal of the valuable minerals from mined ores. But, they still contain small amounts of valuable and critical minerals that are important raw materials to the European industry. Nowadays, Europe has to rely on the foreign market to have access to such raw materials that is not always stable. Sulfidic tailings are produced and stored in large amounts across Europe and they can lead to environmental problems, such as acid mining drainage (AMD) and water contamination, to dam bursts and flooding, air pollution, soil erosion and contamination. SULTAN project wants to valorize and extract valuable materials from sulfidic tailings in the most environmentally friendly and efficient way but also find a solution to use the mineral matrix material as a new construction material. If we manage to do that, it means we created zero waste solution for tailings and that is the main goal of SULTAN project.

The SULTAN team has met for the first time during the kick-off meeting that was held in Leuven in February. Here we had a chance to interact with each other, talk about our different PhD projects and experience different communication approaches as well as get introduced to the SOLVOMET laboratories of the KU Leuven and the GEO INSTITUTE , respectively. Similar consortium meetings will be held two times per year for the whole duration of the SULTAN project, so that we can be updated on the progress and make sure we are always on the same wavelength.

To me, wavelengths are not only important for human relations and communication but also for my PhD research on metal extraction. What do wavelengths and metal extraction have in common? You all got in touch with microwaves, right? Those household appliances that we use to warm up pizza leftovers from Friday’s party or to prepare popcorns for Netflix nights. Well, microwaves are more powerful and are also able to interact with minerals and heat them or heat chemical reactions. Following that, my task will be to develop an advanced technology for the metal extraction from sulfidic tailings by using microwave leaching and testing new chemical solvents. That method is more efficient, cleaner and less energy consuming than conventional hydro- and pyrometallurgical methods that mining industry is currently using. In its most simplest and ideal version, leaching is a process that could be compared to preparing a mint tea. Once I put mint leaves (solid) into contact with hot water (liquid), I will get a desired solution in which the nice mint flavor is dissolved in the water and the leaves are left behind. Similar to that, in my research I will try to get a desired solution of the valuable metals and the rest of the solid tailings material left behind by means of MW-assisted leaching. The solvometallurgical approach to MW leaching is a new and promising branch in the extractive metallurgy, whereby chemical solvents that are very selective for metal extraction are used. There is still a lot of work to do to be able to apply MWs and hydro- and solvometallurgical solutions on the large scale (i.e. industrial application in mining industry) and that’s why we need to develop more knowledge and understanding the underlying mechanisms.

I will keep you updated on my research via this blog. Meanwhile, take a sneak peek to the SULTAN team and stay tuned for more posts from my colleagues!