An idea germinated by an École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) engineer in 2013 to extract value from mining waste by recycling the quartz it contains to make composite surfaces for kitchen and bathroom countertops, has been picked up by a Brzil-based mining giant.

Vale, the world’s largest producer of iron ore and nickel, has announced its Vale Quartz initiative at a press conference earlier this year.

In 2013, Emile Scheepers, a metallurgical engineer who was then enrolled in EPFL’s Executive Masters of Business Administration (EMBA) program, examined the potential applications of tailings derived from iron ore mining operations.

“We found that mining byproducts containing high levels of quartz could be used to make synthetic quartz, a material commonly used in kitchen and bathroom countertops,” said Mr Scheepers.

Synthetic quartz surfaces are an increasingly popular alternative to marble and granite for home interiors. They are made by pulverizing quartz, mixing it with plastic resins and pigments, compressing the mixture, and baking it an industrial oven. The resulting material is non-porous and highly robust, making it easier to maintain than natural stone surfaces. “The market for synthetic quartz surfaces is huge – it’s worth some 3 billion dollars in the US alone. The natural quartz used to make those surfaces costs over 100 dollars a metric tonne. Our recycled version is a lot cheaper,” says Mr Scheepers, who now works in Vale’s Swiss division.

“On top of the obvious benefit of reducing waste, our method lets miners turn a valueless byproduct into something that could be highly useful,” he adds.

Although the Vale Quartz initiative is still in the planning stages, Vale intends to build a synthetic quartz production plant in the mining-intensive region of Brazil.

The company is also looking into other uses for its quartz-rich tailings. “Tailings are like sand, and sand is one of the most used natural resources on the planet. But it’s not as abundant as you might think,” says Mr Scheepers. Vale therefore hopes its tailings could replace natural sand, and that its initiative will spur further efforts by the mining industry to turn waste into sustainable products.

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