Industrial Water Membranes Europe

VIEWPOINT: Navigating the promise and pitfalls of brine mining from industrial wastewaters

Tuesday, 19 December 2023

In the quest for sustainable resource management and innovative solutions, brine mining from industrial wastewaters has emerged as a potential game-changer. So why hasn’t progress accelerated as quickly as hoped? Christos Charisiadis investigates.


Managing industrial water 


Brine mining from industrial wastewaters has emerged as a potential game-changer. This process involves extracting valuable minerals from high-salinity industrial effluents, offering a dual benefit of resource recovery and wastewater treatment.

This approach not only addresses the challenge of managing industrial wastewater but also harnesses the economic potential of the minerals present in these effluents.

The environmental drivers behind brine mining from industrial wastewaters are rooted in the pursuit of sustainable resource management and wastewater treatment. By recovering minerals such as lithium, potassium, and magnesium industries can reduce their reliance on traditional mining practices, minimising the environmental impact associated with resource extraction.

Meanwhile, the process promotes the recycling of water resources and can reduce the ecological burden of untreated industrial discharges.



Forward osmosis


Technological advances in zero liquid discharge (ZLD) and brine mining are crucial to ensuring the sustainable extraction of targeted salts and minerals. High pressure membrane configurations using forward osmosis principles are gaining prominence for their ability to reduce the volume of water with much less energy than traditional thermal evaporators.

Innovations in selective ion extraction technologies aim to improve the efficiency of brine mining by targeting specific ions or minerals for extraction. This selectivity can enhance the overall yield of valuable minerals from brine solutions. Finally, integration of advanced sensors, data analytics and artificial intelligence in ZLD systems allows for real-time monitoring and precise control of operational parameters bringing about optimisation of the overall performance, energy usage and resource recovery.



Six bottlenecks throttling progress in brine mining

 • High initial investment costs: The adoption of new technologies, such as closed-loop systems and energy-driven evaporation, often involves significant upfront investments, which can deter companies from adopting them.

Lack of transparency and accountability: The water industry has been criticized for a lack of transparency and accountability in its innovation practices, with some companies guarding tightly their extraction technologies as proprietary secrets. While protecting intellectual property is understandable, the lack of transparency can obscure potential financial and operational risks associated with these undisclosed methods, creating a black box of uncertainty.

Inadequate Risk Assessments: The rush to adopt new technologies in brine mining may outpace thorough assessments of environmental risks. The lack of comprehensive evaluations, including life cycle analyses and assessments of potential unintended consequences, can lead to unforeseen damages.

Economic Viability: The economic viability of brine mining is closely tied to the market value of extracted minerals. Fluctuations in commodity prices, geopolitical factors, and market demand can influence the profitability of brine mining projects, affecting investment and industry growth.

Complex regulatory frameworks: Inconsistent and sometimes outdated regulatory frameworks can hinder the adoption of sustainable brine mining practices, as companies may face challenges in complying with various regulations and obtaining necessary permits.

Industry Lobbying and Influence: In the absence of an informed public advocating for sustainable practices, industries involved in brine mining may exert more influence on legislators through lobbying efforts. Industries often advocate for projects that align with their economic interests, and a lack of public awareness can allow these interests to take precedence over environmental concerns.

Lack of Standardized ESG Metrics: Without standardized ESG criteria, there is no universally accepted framework for assessing the environmental impact of brine mining projects. The absence of clear metrics to consider factors such as water usage, chemical use, habitat disruption, and waste management to comprehensively assess environmental impact, makes it challenging to compare and evaluate projects consistently.


Charting a collaborative course forwards 

To overcome these bottlenecks, collaborative efforts are needed from industry stakeholders, policymakers, and researchers. Investments in research and development, the establishment of clear regulatory frameworks, and the integration of renewable energy sources into brine mining operations are essential steps toward creating a sustainable future for this innovative approach to resource recovery and wastewater management.

In conclusion, while brine mining from industrial wastewater holds promise as a sustainable solution, addressing the identified bottlenecks is crucial for unlocking its full potential. By navigating the complex terrain of technological advancements, regulatory landscapes, and economic considerations, we can chart a course toward a future where brine mining serves as a cornerstone of responsible industrial practices and environmental stewardship

- Christos Charisiadis is the brine innovation manager for the NEOM portfolio.