The mining industry continues to be a hotbed of innovation, with activity driven by the need for improved productivity, safety, cost control and sustainability, with the growing importance of recycling in order for sufficient metals and materials to be available to support the global energy transition. In the last three years alone, there have been over 48,000 patents filed and granted in the mining industry, according to GlobalData’s report on Environment Sustainability in Mining: Zinc Recovery.

However, not all innovations are equal and nor do they follow a constant upward trend. Instead, their evolution takes the form of an S-shaped curve that reflects their typical lifecycle from early emergence to accelerating adoption, before finally stabilising and reaching maturity.

Identifying where a particular innovation is on this journey, especially those that are in the emerging and accelerating stages, is essential for understanding their current level of adoption and the likely future trajectory and impact they will have.

150+ innovations will shape the mining industry

According to GlobalData’s Technology Foresights, which plots the S-curve for the mining industry using innovation intensity models built on over 350,000 patents, there are 150+ innovation areas that will shape the future of the industry.

Within the emerging innovation stage, high-energy density electrodes, manufacturability analysis, and solid waste management are disruptive technologies that are in the early stages of application and should be tracked closely. Green steel manufacturing, scrap recycling/recovery, and core-shell nanocrystals are some of the accelerating innovation areas, where adoption has been steadily increasing. Among maturing innovation areas are green metallurgy, and solvent extraction processes, which are now well established in the industry.

Innovation S-curve for environmental sustainability in the mining industry

Zinc recovery is a key innovation area in environmental sustainability

As environmental regulations are becoming more stringent, need for developing new technologies to recover metal and manage process waste is increasing. Therefore, companies are offering proprietary zinc recovery systems to recover viable metal. Zinc is extracted from the purified zinc sulphate solution by electrowinning, which is a specialised form of electrolysis. The process works by passing an electric current through the solution in a series of cells, which causes the zinc to deposit on the cathodes (aluminium sheets) and oxygen to form at the anodes.

GlobalData’s analysis also uncovers the companies at the forefront of each innovation area and assesses the potential reach and impact of their patenting activity across different applications and geographies.  According to GlobalData, there are 20 companies, spanning technology vendors, established mining companies, and up-and-coming start-ups engaged in the development and application of zinc recovery.

Key players in zinc recovery – a disruptive innovation in the mining industry

‘Application diversity’ measures the number of different applications identified for each relevant patent and broadly splits companies into either ‘niche’ or ‘diversified’ innovators.

‘Geographic reach’ refers to the number of different countries each relevant patent is registered in and reflects the breadth of geographic application intended, ranging from ‘global’ to ‘local’.

Patent volumes related to zinc recovery

Company Total patents (2010 - 2021) Premium intelligence on the world's largest companies
Metso Outotec 170 Unlock company profile
eEnergy Group 63 Unlock company profile
Glencore 30 Unlock company profile
Yunnan Chihong Zinc and Germanium 29 Unlock company profile
ENEOS Holdings 28 Unlock company profile
Korea Zinc 17 Unlock company profile
JFE Holdings 16 Unlock company profile
State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council 15 Unlock company profile
Kobe Steel 14 Unlock company profile
ArcelorMittal 13 Unlock company profile
POSCO Holdings 11 Unlock company profile
Freeport-McMoRan 11 Unlock company profile
Anglo Operations 11 Unlock company profile
Nippon Steel 10 Unlock company profile
Sumitomo Heavy Industries 10 Unlock company profile
Xstrata Queensland 7 Unlock company profile
Outokumpu 6 Unlock company profile
Jinchuan Group 5 Unlock company profile
MMC Norilsk Nickel 5 Unlock company profile

Source: GlobalData Patent Analytics

Leaders in zinc recovery include Metso Outotec and Korea Zinc. Metso Outotec’s atmospheric direct leaching recovers zinc and byproducts efficiently from a wide range of primary zinc sulphides. Direct leaching necessitates no investment in a roaster or acid plant, making it ideal for smaller plants and plant expansions. Several zinc plants have tested the company's highly cost-effective and environmentally friendly process on an industrial scale.

Korea Zinc's Top Submerged Lance (TSL) method extracts valuable metals from by-products of zinc and lead refining. TSL technology, a nonferrous metal slag processing technology, uses a fumer to recover valuable metals including zinc all the way to the final processing stage by putting zinc slag and wastes discharged from other industries into it. The eco-friendly Korea Zinc technology recovers and discharges the final by-products as clean slag that can be used as industrial aggregates and cement raw materials to prevent environmental pollution.

To further understand the key themes and technologies disrupting the mining industry, access GlobalData’s latest thematic research report on Mining.


GlobalData, the leading provider of industry intelligence, provided the underlying data, research, and analysis used to produce this article. 

GlobalData’s Patent Analytics tracks patent filings and grants from official offices around the world. Textual analysis and official patent classifications are used to group patents into key thematic areas and link them to specific companies across the world’s largest industries.