Marnie Finlayson, General Manager of Rio Sava Exploration LLC

Investing In Change

Together with the Government of Serbia and other industrial players, international mining and metals company Rio Tinto is working to change the image of mining in Serbia, and has so far invested $200 million in the lithium-borates Jadar Project

Rio Tinto’s R&D experts have built a small testing facility that has to date conducted more than 2,000 tests to find new technology for processing the mineral Jadarite, according to Mrs. Finlayson, the Rio Tinto representative speaking in this interview for CorD.

Serbian PM Ana Brnabić and Energy Minister Aleksandar Antić recently met with Rio Tinto’s representatives who are working on the development of the Jadar Project. How much support do you have from the government when it comes to implementing your activities in Serbia?

Rio Tinto logo– Mining in Serbia is experiencing a revival and the Government is well aware of its long-term economic potential. This revival is partly due to the reformed regulatory framework, which has attracted a number of leading players in the fields of geological exploration and mining to Serbia.

As one of the global leaders in terms of mining and related health, safety and environmental standards, Rio Tinto is well positioned to contribute to the Serbian mining sector. Together with the Government and other industry players, we are working to change the image of mining in Serbia and are proud to contribute to Serbia’s ambitious reform agenda. The strong support of the local government in Loznica, as well as the communities around the deposit, has been, and will remain, fundamental for our ability to develop our plans.

We are working to change the image of mining in Serbia and are proud to contribute to Serbia’s ambitious reform agenda

In July 2017, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government establishing a foundation for cooperation on the development of jadarite deposits. As we move forward with the project, we will work closely with various Serbian institutions on the preparation and adoption of strategic planning documents, environmental and other permits, road and utility infrastructure and the utilities necessary to support the potential development of this large and modern industrial complex.

When do you expect to complete your geological surveys and how much has Rio Tinto invested in Serbia to date?

– Ever since the formal classification of jadarite as a new mineral in 2007, we have achieved a lot and have come a long way in understanding this unique mineral and its deposit. However, when you find a mineral, such as jadarite, which has never been found in the world before, managing the timetable is never a simple task. The work on this world-class lithium borate deposit discovered by Rio Tinto in 2004 is extremely complex and timely. When you add to that our industry-leading standards in all aspects, millimetre-sized precision and an enthusiastic team of Serbian and international experts, we are proud of our progress, phase by phase, day by day.

Marnie Finlayson

So far, Rio Tinto has committed more than US$200 million to the project and we expect to complete our current study phase in mid-2020. We have to date drilled and tested more than 200 km of core samples, the equivalent of twice the distance from Belgrade to Jadar as the crow flies. Rio Tinto’s R&D experts have built a smallscale test plant in our research centre in Melbourne to find a novel jadarite processing technology.

Designing the mine and technical facilities has been a challenging piece of work. We’ve had to install more than 5,000 pieces of equipment at the pilot processing plant, in collaboration with 40 world-renowned international suppliers. The detailed engineering is still being processed, but some interesting statistics are emerging. For example, the processing plant will need more than 225 km of pipework. 

Is it correct that the Jadar Project being implemented in the vicinity of Loznica is among your company’s top development projects at the global level? In which phase is the project at present and are the levels of reserves of the jadarite mineral known?

– Rio Tinto has a long and proud history of mining exploration and the Jadar Project is a result of our hard work to find minerals that are essential to human progress. We have to prioritise our work rigorously and the investment we have made in Jadar to date is testament to its potential.

The project is still in a pre-feasibility phase and there is still much work to be done – continued technical analysis, planning and understanding the global economic potential of this mineral before the project can move beyond the study phase [towards construction and operation].

We have to date drilled and tested more than 200 km of core samples, the equivalent of twice the distance from Belgrade to Jadar as the crow flies

Rigorous ore body knowledge studies and analysis conducted over the years have increased confidence in the size and composition of the Jadar ore body and we’ve declared Jadar Mineral Resources at 136 million tonnes. The total equivalent of borate product resources are more than 21 million tonnes and equivalent lithium product resources are 2.5 million tonnes, confirming that Jadar is a significant source of borates and lithium.

Could you explain to us precisely what the Jadar project implies and encompasses. As far as we know, it relates to the development of underground mining. What else does this project entail specifically and what are the expected end products?

Marnie Finlayson

– We intend to not only mine, but also process jadarite in order to produce two valuable final industrial products, the first is battery-grade lithium carbonate, and the other, the more-established boric acid. 

So, Jadar should be seen more as a combined underground mine and mineral processing project, on a brand new, greenfield site. It will need to be constructed from scratch and once developed can become a globally significant source of lithium and borates. 

The borates business is well established. The lithium market is relatively new and still developing. Our goal for the project is to develop a long-term technically, environmentally and economically sustainable operation. We want to position Jadar for success. Jadar could produce a battery grade lithium carbonate and thereby add significant value to the final product produced in Serbia.

It is well known that the Jadar Project encompasses one of the world’s most significant deposits of lithium and borates. How useful will this be for you when it comes to the production of lithium batteries and what else can the jadarite mineral be used for?

– Both lithium and borates are essential building blocks for modern life and critical for human progress.

Lithium is used in a vast array of products, most notably batteries for hybrid and electric cars. Lithium has an important role to play in the development of the post-fossil fuel economy. Through its application in efficient battery storage, lithium is vital to the development of renewable energy sources, including the anticipated widespread expansion in the use of electric vehicles. The Lithium battery value chain is relatively new and highly sophisticated, requiring specific technical expertise.

Borates are used in wind turbines and insulation fibreglass for buildings, as well as in a wide range of everyday products, from screens for TV sets and smartphones to detergents and fertilisers. Sodium sulphate, our third product, is used in the textile industry and in the production of powdered detergents and glass.

Both Serbian and international experts are engaged in the preparation of necessary studies and analyses; and what kind of experience have you had with your colleagues from Serbia?

– During the ongoing study phase, the project is supported by Serbian and international experts form a range of disciplines, including underground mining, mineral processing, engineering and community relations. Together, we have been conducting extensive environmental and socioeconomic analyses, and we are proud that the testing has involved the active participation of a number of Serbian graduates.

Marnie Finlayson

 They will also form an important part of our future processing and engineering team. I am really proud of our strong team of talented individuals, who have made the Jadarite processing formula work.

To what extent does Rio Tinto take care of the natural environment of the Loznica area and what environmental studies are you working on?

– At Rio Tinto, we believe that the materials we produce are essential to human progress and that we must produce them responsibly. We consider the environmental impact of all our activities right from the start and are pioneering innovative ways to minimise energy use and carbon emissions, manage water responsibly and reduce waste.

We consider the environmental impact of all our activities right from the start and Rio Tinto is pioneering innovative ways to minimise energy use and carbon emissions

We respect the value of natural resources and believe that environmental stewardship is essential to our relationships with local communities, regulators and others. We are developing an Environmental Impact Assessment that will be reviewed by the Serbian Government and open for public consultation. This will cover potential environmental impacts of the mine and facilities, including our proposals for ultimate closure and waste storage. Our proposals are based on Rio Tinto’s exacting global standards and we hope will set a benchmark for Serbia.

And to conclude, on a more personal note, mining is usually perceived as a “man’s job”. How is it to be a woman in mining? And considering that you’ve been in Serbia for some time now, how do you like the country?

– The image of miners with coal-stained faces as perceived in a Charles Dickens’ novel has long been consigned to our history. In addition, for us, mining in the 21st century is no longer a ‘Man’s job’.

Gender equality and diversity is of great significance to our company and is one of the reasons that I’m so proud to work for Rio Tinto. Many of our pioneers in our 145-year history have been women and we intend to extend this culture to Jadar as well.

I have met many wonderful people during my time in Serbia. When not working, I enjoy nothing more than travelling around the country, experiencing the great beauty, traditions and people of Serbia. My family and I love skiing on Kopaonik and were delighted to attend our Serbian friends’ family Slava. I’m also very passionate about sharing my own insights into the Serbian culture with the many visitors I have from around the world. They always leave Serbia with a very different, positive view, impressed by Serbia’s great talents, opportunities and potentials for further development.

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