With three divisions, Australian mining business, ABx Group (ABx), is altering perceptions of the industry across the region. Its operations focus on minimizing environmental impact yet maximizing revolutionary capacity – a unique concept among mining companies.
Although mining and sustainability are not typically discussed in harmony, we sit down with Dr Mark Cooksey, Managing Director and CEO of ABx, to shed light on how the two areas can sometimes coincide.
“With any new idea in the minerals and metals industry, you must consider the fundamentals: economic factors, environmental impact, commercial aspects, political considerations, and community expectations,” Mark begins. “It’s not just about the financial metrics of a project, although of course that’s crucial, but about the wider social impact.
“If we look at all opportunities across the minerals and metal industry, we end up rejecting a lot of them because it might be good for the economy but damaging to the environment, for example. We gradually whittle away all the bad ideas, so we’re left with a small number of interesting, compelling opportunities.”
He continues: “In today’s world, if something doesn’t have positive environmental aspects, then it most likely isn’t a good decision to pursue it. Furthermore, if work has already commenced when negative consequences come to light, it’s often difficult for companies or individuals to make the decision to cease work.
“That’s why I’ve always strived to create a culture in my teams where we give something a go but are equally prepared to stop and start something new as soon as we identify that something won’t work. It’s possibly unusual, and it’s not always easy, but you have to think of the bigger picture; there might be ten good reasons but one negative aspect that outweighs all the positives and stops the entire project.”
Talking about the mining industry at large, Mark proposes: “In a lot of ways, the industry has already implemented positive environmental changes and it will continue to do so. Further metal mining is required because metals are crucial in our day-to-day lives, but we need to ask ourselves how we can extract them with absolute minimum environmental impact.
“One of the biggest problems is that younger generations don’t want to get into the industry because of the perception that mining is dirty and harmful to the planet. In my opinion, one of the best things you can do to address the climate crisis is to work in the mining industry; you can be part of positive change and improve the industry from within.”
Turning to ABx’s operations specifically, Mark explains: “We have three businesses, of which two are the focus. One operation is rare earth exploration, where we’ve identified a ionic clay resource in Tasmania and are currently conducting further exploratory drilling. We’re also doing metallurgical work to understand how to extract the Rare Earth Elements (REE), as well as evaluating operational costs.
“REEs are a set of 17 metallic elements that sit across the bottom of the periodic table. Historically, they haven’t been used in large quantities, but are now frequently used in high-tech applications.”
He elaborates: “Four of them that are used to make extremely powerful magnets, which are key components in electric vehicle engines and wind turbines. So, as sustainability initiatives continue to spring up across the globe, the demand for these magnets, and thus REEs, is constantly increasing.
“Our second business is a new process we’re developing to firstly produce hydrogen fluoride and then aluminum fluoride, all using waste material. We’re taking waste from the aluminum smelting industry and reprocessing it through a chemical engineering process. We are about to build a pilot plant to test the initiative before we begin building a commercial plant.
“We have also conducted extensive bauxite exploration, which is how the business started,” he says. “Today, it’s our smallest division and we’re not commencing any further bauxite exploration, but instead focusing on mining our existing bauxite resources.”
Plan and execute
Having occupied multiple interesting, dynamic positions in the industry for over two decades, Mark is well equipped with industry knowledge, case studies, and experience. “I studied science and engineering at university and then got a graduate role within the industry that focused on research and development and process improvement,” Mark narrates, revealing the story of how he came to be CEO of ABx.
“I went on to work in the minerals division of the Australian Government’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) for 15 years and during this time, I also completed my PhD on improving the efficiency of aluminum smelting. Shortly after, ABx approached me with an interesting proposition; to develop a new process for producing aluminum fluoride.
“It was a perfect fit really, as they wanted someone with experience in process development, both technically and commercially, and my experience in aluminum was a bonus. That led to leading half the business and then in 2021, my role extended to incorporate all operations.”
He recalls: “During my time with CSIRO, one of my senior managers asked me, ‘what big project or concept are you doing for the nation?’ and it has stuck with me ever since. In any job you can get stuck in day-to-day activities and requirements, but the principle of our work is to research and develop revolutionary changes.”
You may find yourself questioning how individuals can have a significant impact in seemingly mundane jobs. “It’s all about prioritization,” answers Mark. “You have to allocate time to plan and then time to execute. That’s the biggest difference between success and failure; people who succeed decide what to spend their time on, and then actually physically spend time on it.”
With three continuously successful operations, Mark is confident that the future will be bright for ABx. “Within the next five years,” he proposes, “I’d like to have commercialized our aluminum fluoride processes and have our rare earth project running successfully, becoming a significant Australian supplier for REEs.”