Agera will be responsible for scaling up the sale of sand from iron ore tailings, as well as investing in research and development of new products
On Tuesday, October 17, Vale presented Agera – a company created to develop and expand its Sustainable Sand business. Based in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, Agera receives the sand produced from the treatment of tailings generated by Vale’s iron ore operations in the state and promotes its commercialization and distribution. The new company also invests in research and development (R&D) of new solutions for the product.
Sustainable Sand began to be produced by Vale in 2021 after seven years of research, as a substitute for sand extracted from the environment. Since then, around 900,000 tons of the product have already been sent to the construction sector and road paving projects. The expectation is to sell 1 million tons this year and 2.1 million by 2024.
“We created Agera with the aim of scaling a business that is helping us to reduce the use of dams and piles in Minas Gerais, as well as helping to replace natural sand, which is often extracted predatorily from river beds. The creation of Agera is strongly linked to our strategy of promoting circular mining, which means strengthening the concepts of the circular economy in mining, associating economic development with better use of natural resources,” explains Fabiano Carvalho Filho, Vale’s Business Development Director.
Established about a year ago under the provisional name of Co-Log, Agera projects annual sales revenue of 18 million reais (around USD 3.6 million) by 2023. Today, it has seven customer service points and stocks material in the Brazilian states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo. The company has contracts with seven road hauliers and three rail freight providers. The company currently serves more than 80 manufacturing units in seven segments (concrete, precast, mortar, artifacts, cement, textured paints and pavement) and is investing in research to expand its operations in other applications, such as red ceramics.
“We are structured to accelerate the development of sustainable products and materials, meeting the specific requirements of the market. In addition, our logistical solutions enable end-to-end efficiency to guarantee agility in the supply of sustainable sand,” explains Fábio Cerqueira, Agera’s CEO.
How is Sustainable Sand obtained?
The wet processing of iron ore, which is currently used for less than 30% of Vale’s production, generates tailings, which can be disposed of in dams or piles. These tailings are basically composed of silica, the main component of sand, and iron oxides. It is a non-toxic material, which is only processed physically.
Since 2014, Vale has been investing in research to find solutions for the reuse of sand from iron ore processing, with the aim of reducing the generation of tailings. In 2021, Vale began marketing Sustainable Sand, a product intended for civil construction with 100% legal origin, high silica content and low iron content, as well as high chemical and granulometric uniformity.
The sand has been produced at the Brucutu mine in Minas Gerais since 2021. Last year, the company began small-scale production at the Viga mine and in the coming months it plans to start production at the Cauê mine, in Itabira.
Benefits of Sustainable Sand
In Brazil, around 330 million tons of sand are used every year in construction and industrial processes. The extraction of natural sand from riverbeds often exceeds the rate of natural replenishment and can cause irreversible environmental impacts. With the production of Sustainable Sand, it is possible to carry out 100% circular extraction, transforming a material that would otherwise be discarded into various products for the benefit of society, without compromising biodiversity.
In addition, Sustainable Sand generates greater profitability for the construction market and industries, since the process guarantees greater control and quality of the final product, avoiding material waste and reworking during construction. Also in concrete production, Sustainable Sand helps to reduce cement consumption and CO2 emissions.
In 2022, the University of Queensland and the University of Geneva released a study confirming that sand from the iron ore production process can contribute to solving two important environmental issues by reducing the predatory extraction of sand and reducing the generation of mining waste. The study had the participation of Vale, which provided samples of its Sustainable Sand for the universities to carry out an independent analysis of the material and donated US$ 1 million to support the work of the researchers.
Other applications studied by Vale
Last year, Vale began the final phase of testing a solution that promises to reduce construction costs and increase the useful life of roads. The company inaugurated the first road in Brazil to use Sustainable Sand in all four layers of the sidewalk. Laboratory tests have shown that the increase in service life is in the order of 50% and the reduction in costs is 20% when compared to materials more commonly used on roads. In addition, each kilometer of pavement can consume up to 7,000 tons of waste. The tests are being carried out on a 425m road in Itabira (MG). The road will be monitored until next year with 96 sensors. The study is in partnership with the Federal University of Itajubá (Itabira campus) and Coppe-UFRJ.
Also in Minas Gerais, Vale has the Pico Block Factory, the first industrial plant to produce products for the construction industry whose main raw material is mining tailings. Set up in 2020 at the Pico Mine in Itabirito, the factory has a production capacity of 3.8 million pre-molded products. For the first two years, it operated on an R&D basis and relied on the technical cooperation of the Federal Technological Education Center of Minas Gerais (CEFET-MG) to develop precast products that are widely used in the construction industry, such as interlocking floors, masonry and