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Rio Tinto has started recovering battery-grade lithium from 90-year-old waste piles at the Boron borate operation in California, the United States.

Using a demonstration plant at the 480,000 tonne operation, Rio Tinto expects to recover 10 tonnes in 2021 while it improves the recycling process.

This figure will then be ramped up to 5000 tonnes per year – enough to power around 70,000 electric vehicles.

Rio Tinto minerals chief executive Sinead Kaufman said the development represented exactly how the company would like to be perceived as the world moved towards carbon neutrality.

“This is a valuable next step in scaling up our production of lithium at the Boron site, all from using waste material without the need for further mining,” Kaufman said.

“It shows the innovative thinking we are applying across our business to find new ways to meet the demand for emerging commodities like lithium, which are part of the transition to a low-carbon future.”

The company also stated that a feasibility study was under way for the Jadar lithium-borate project in Serbia.

The study is expected to be complete by the end of 2021.

Rio worked with the United States Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI) to learn how to recover the critical mineral in an economically viable way.

The development aligns with Rio Tinto’s goals to reduce absolute company emissions by 15 per cent by 2030, and to contribute $1 billion to climate-related projects from 2020-24.

In early April, Rio Tinto joined Japan’s Green Value Chain (GVC) Platform Network to achieve scope one, two and three emissions reductions targets – another important environmental development as Rio Tinto is Japan’s largest supplier of iron ore, shipping more than 1.9 billion tonnes over the last 50 years.