About one third of the nickel at Hard Creek’s Turnagain property (pictured) is bound up in olivine lattice and has always been considered waste. Hard Creek CEO Mark Jarvis said he hopes the study can free up some of that nickel. Courtesy of Hard Creek Nickel

Pushed by the commodities downturn to return to the drawing board for its expansive property in north-central British Columbia, Hard Creek Nickel is exploring how carbon sequestration might draw the attention of investors.

The company is participating in a research program aimed at developing ways to increase the amount of carbon dioxide that is absorbed by tailings from its Turnagain property. The deposit contains significant amounts of nickel and massive amounts of magnesium silicate mineralization.

“This is an ideal geological and geographical sweet spot to advance carbon sequestration,” said Dr. David Dreisinger, a University of British Columbia professor in the faculty of materials engineering, who will oversee the study.

Fei Wang, a PhD student working under Dreisinger’s supervision, will run the experiments. Wang will use an autoclave to expose the tailings to pressure and heat, accelerating how carbon dioxide reacts to the minerals. “We create the conditions for optimal conversion,” said Dreisinger. “You can think of it as a pressure cooker.”

The goal of the study, explained Dreisinger, is to “rapidly carbonate the material by creating the right conditions in one of the [autoclaves] in order to fix the carbon we’re putting into the system.”

The reduction in carbon, in turn, can be used to offset carbon taxes that Hard Creek will face should it go into production.

“It’s a question of how we make this nickel deposit more economic,” said Dreisinger, who has sat on the advisory board of Hard Creek, where he advised the company on the selection of hydrometallurgical technology for processing nickel concentrates.

Dresinger added that he and Wang also have some ideas on how to alter the solution that is used to process the materials, which could accelerate the rate of carbon sequestration.

For Hard Creek CEO Mark Jarvis, the efficiencies are promising. In 2011, Hard Creek released a preliminary economic model tailored to the moment involving a major capital expenditure and throughput of 80,000 tonnes per day. The model set aside over $300 million to connect to existing power grids. The commodity crash, however, threw a wrench in the plan, forcing the company to “shut down spending.”

And while Jarvis is sanguine about the outlook for nickel, he is now looking to start smaller, bringing down the capital expenditure it will take to get the project off the ground. One option, he explained, would be to truck in liquefied natural gas, rather than hook up to the power grid. The operating cost would be higher, but would give the company “the flexibility” to operate at between 20 and 40 thousand tonnes per day.

Increasing carbon sequestration would make this plan more financially feasible, explained Jarvis, by allowing the company to offset the carbon taxes that would result from burning the gas. “At the very least, we won’t get hit by the carbon tax,” said Jarvis. B.C.’s carbon tax is $23/tonne.

Like Dreisinger, Jarvis also sees potential for increased nickel extraction, though he underlined that it is “early days” and that they are taking “baby steps.”

Up until now, Hard Creek’s models have focused on processing the nickel that is bound up in sulfide form, where approximately two-thirds of the metal resides. A full one third of the nickel is bound up in olivine lattice – and it has always been considered waste. But “if you convert the olivine to carbonate […] theoretically this should free up some nickel,” explained Jarvis.

The company has already had significant breakthroughs in the science department. In 2011, Hard Creek assembled a team of metallurgists and developed a more efficient way of processing its ore, with some advice from Dreisinger. By altering its grind size, the company was able to better separate nickel mineralization from the magnesium silicates, resulting in an increase in nickel extraction. “We can now reliably produce an 18 per cent nickel and one per cent cobalt concentrate,” explained Jarvis.

For Wang, who has worked with a mining company in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the science is relevant to all mining companies. He noted that while carbon sequestration is being studied independently, this study is different – it bridges the worlds of academia and industry.

“Once I get the mechanism of the mineral [carbonation] I can develop a real economic and profitable process,” he said. “This is very important for all mineral companies.”

Wang’s enthusiasm was recently given a boost by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), which awarded the project a $25,000 grant in late February.

For Wang, it came as an important vote of confidence. “The grant represents that the government is very interested in this project and believes it’s a good way to combine carbon dioxide sequestration and [carbonation]. I think that the money is meaningful.”