Working wonders with mine waste
How scientists in Morocco hope to turn huge slag piles of coal mining waste into bricks and transform the city of Jerada in the process
Posted by Brian Owens on August 22, 2018
The city of Jerada in northeastern Morocco exists because of coal. The city grew up around a major coal mine that opened early last century. But when the mine closed almost 20 years ago, the local economy collapsed and Jerada was left with huge piles of mining waste towering over its centre.
“It’s a very old mine and there were no constraints on environmental waste management, so waste was deposited in the middle of the town,” says Mostafa Benzaazoua, a professor at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue’s L’Institut de recherche en mines et environnement and a former Canada Research Chair in integrated management of mine waste. When it rains, the piles of waste leach acid into the water table.
The lack of jobs and the environmental pollution has led to social unrest in the region, so the International Development Research Centre has been funding a project to try and clean up the waste and use it to develop new industries. “The city is very depressed, the population is angry,” says Benzaazoua, who has been working on the project. “We’re trying to lower the pressure.”
Benzaazoua and his colleague Yassine Taha, a materials scientist at Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Marrakech who is leading the project in Morocco, hope to do so by using the huge slag piles to produce bricks — a way of removing the waste and creating jobs at the same time. Taha has a personal connection to the project. His father worked in Jerada’s mine for 20 years and died from silicosis after decades of breathing in coal particles. “It’s one of the reasons I started this, he says. “There’s an emotional aspect for me.”
Benzaazoua and Taha looked at the chemical composition of the mine waste and found that it contained the right kinds of materials to make high-quality bricks. But there was one problem — the waste still contained a fair amount of coal residue, which would affect the technical performance of the bricks. So they started by reprocessing the waste to concentrate the coal residue. What was left over was perfect for bricks. They checked for any possible environmental risks from the bricks, or any issues with construction standards, and found none. “It was an amazing result,” says Taha. “The material is comparable to the clays near Montreal that are used in bricks.”
Additionally, the coal residue that’s recovered can be used to produce electricity. And since it’s anthracite coal, which burns cleaner than other kinds of coal, its environmental impact is low (at least as far as coal goes).
Taha estimates that the approximately 25 million tonnes of material in the Jerada waste piles could make more than four million bricks. “They are really big reserves,” he says, adding that the brick project could have multiple benefits for Jerada and the rest of northeastern Morocco. Producing the bricks will create jobs in a region that has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country; Taha says that when people saw his team working at the waste piles, many came to ask if they were jobs available. The piles also take up a great deal of space in the middle of the city, around 10 to 20 hectares. Using up the piles will free up space for new construction. And currently, the manufacture of bricks requires clay, which comes from agricultural areas. Making bricks from mine waste will help conserve agricultural land, says Taha.
So far, Taha and Benzaazoua have managed to produce bricks in a pilot projects, but they’re now looking to go further and develop larger-scale production that could employ between 100 and 200 people. Doing so, however, will require permits from the government to exploit the mine waste, which is a problem because no such permits exist. At least not yet; Taha and Benzaazoua are working with the government to develop the necessary laws that would allow for this type of brick production.
A bigger problem, says Benzaazoua, is finding investors to finance the project. Taha says they have one potential investor interested, and hope to attract more. But some of the very issues that they hope to address are discouraging investors from working in the region. “The social unrest makes it very difficult for investors,” he says. “They don’t always want to put their money in a place where people are not happy.”
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
The International Development Research Centre has been a key part of Canada's aid program since 1970, and invests in knowledge, innovation and solutions to improve lives and livelihoods in the developing world. Learn more at idrc.ca.