Rio Tinto


Rio Tinto Ore Upgrading Challenge

Rio Tinto seeks economically-viable new technologies to increase titanium dioxide content in ilmenite ore from 32% to 50% or better.

This challenge is closed


This challenge is closed


Rio Tinto supplies the metals and minerals that help the world to grow. Rio Tinto Iron and Titanium (RTIT), the group originating this challenge, provides ilmenite ore containing titanium dioxide as a raw material to pigment producers. Titanium dioxide (TiO2) is non-toxic, biologically inert and used by downstream pigment producers as a coloring or opacity agent in paints, plastics, paper, and other materials. 

In this challenge we seek your ideas for how to cost-effectively improve TiO2 content in our ilmenite ore (from 32% TiO2 content to 50% or better) by isolating and separating out lower-quality hematite inclusions (lamellae) from the ore matrix and liberated gangue (non-valued) material. Given the scope and scale of our operations, the business opportunity for successfully solving this problem is very large.

This two-stage challenge will provide innovators with the most compelling ideas funding to demonstrate feasibility and may ultimately result in commercialization. In our Stage 1 Challenge, participants will provide a non-confidential submission that describes the proposed approach to increasing TiO2 content in ilmenite ore. Up to three (3) of the most compelling concepts will be selected to advance to Stage 2, which will be conducted under mutual non-disclosure agreements. Each accepted Stage 1 winner will receive $50,000 USD to support their work in Stage 2, which is focused on demonstrating initial feasibility for the proposed approach via both written descriptions and results of testing using Rio Tinto ore samples. At the end of Stage 2, Rio Tinto will select the challenge winner and award one winner up to $200,000 to support additional development under a negotiated co-development agreement. Rio Tinto will also provide the winner with technical support and the opportunity to collaborate with Rio Tinto R&D scientists and engineers. Should this solution prove technically and commercially feasible, Rio Tinto may propose a follow-on agreement with the winner for commercialization and scale-up. 

Solving this problem represents a significant opportunity for both Rio Tinto and the challenge winner. We look forward to your engagement and ideas!


Challenge Structure Overview

Stage 1 (Concepts):

  • Stage 1 is open to everyone (see eligibility rules)
  • Submissions must be received by Monday March 2, 2020, 12 noon ET
  • Up to three (3) submissions selected to advance to Stage 2 by Monday April 6, 2020, 5pm ET
  • Stage 1 winners each receive $50,000 for Stage 2 development work along with a sample of ilmenite ore

Stage 2 (Feasibility):

  • Stage 2 begins Monday April 6, 2020 (Only Stage 1 winners are eligible to participate)
  • Upgraded ore and technical report must be received by Monday August 3, 2020
  • Presentations to RTIT and analysis of ore complete by Wednesday September 2, 2020, 5pm ET
  • One winner to be selected by Friday September 18, 2020, 5pm ET
  • Winner will receive up to $200,000 to support additional development work toward validating cost-effective feasibility and potential commercialization

Updated Feb 19, 2020. See details here.

Background and Goals

A particular Rio Tinto mine produces ilmenite ore containing 32% (by weight) TiO2. If the TiO2 content can be increased to the range of 50%, new growth opportunities can be addressed within downstream pigment production markets where this ilmenite is used as feedstock. This upgraded ilmenite must be price competitive with other available ilmenites that are currently on the market as sulfate-process feedstocks. 

The TiO2 content within this ore body is concentrated within ilmenite, not within hematite or other silicate gangue (non-valued) minerals. The microstructure of this particular ilmenite ore also shows fine hematite lamellae intergrown in ilmenite. To concentrate the TiO2, hematite and gangue silicates must be separated as much as possible from the ore. Conventional physical separation and heat treatment techniques have been shown to improve the TiO2 content only up to 42%. Other pyro/hydrometallurgical upgrading methods (smelting, acid leaching) are projected to be too costly for ilmenite upgrading relative to a sulfate-process feedstock. An economical way to separate hematite particles from ilmenite remains a difficult technical challenge.

The overall goal is to identify economically viable technology/process solutions that can help Rio Tinto to improve ilmenite ore TiO2 content from 32% to up to 50%+ (by weight) and enable new growth opportunities for our ilmenite ore in the (sulfate-process) TiO2 pigment production market.


Technical Description

This particular ore is mainly comprised of hemo-ilmenite mineral, a mix of hematite and ilmenite, and anorthosite (gangue mineral part of the feldspar group). The hemo-ilmenite is made of micro lamellae of hematite in an ilmenite matrix. The primary (larger) hematite lamellae are 10-30 µm wide and the secondary ones are ~2 µm wide. The ilmenite also contains other elements in its structure, notably MgO. Removing all the gangue (feldspar) mineral associated with the hemo-ilmenite is currently leading to a ~39% TiO2 product. The hematite rich lamellae contain ~18% TiO2 and ilmenite rich ones contain 46 - 48 % TiO2 (including secondary hematite lamellae). In between secondary hematite lamellae, ~50% TiO2 ilmenite can be found. A more complete technical description and supporting images are included as supplemental information under the Resources tab.


Technology Needs

Rio Tinto Iron and Titanium (RTIT) is seeking new technical solutions that can provide a cost-effective means to isolate and separate out lower-quality hematite inclusions (lamellae) and gangue material from its ilmenite ore. The following potential solution paths are provided as examples of areas of interest, but we welcome ideas and solutions beyond those listed.

Example Solution Paths:

  • Novel means for mechanical separation via grinding, vibration or other means (likely requires 1-10 micron grinding to achieve the target TiO2 content)
  • Chemical solutions that can separate ilmenite from hematite and gangue material within the ore
  • Magnetic separation, including potential heat treatment or other means to differentiate relative magnetism of the particles to enable improved separation after grinding
  • Combination solutions that emulate and accelerate the natural ‘weathering’ process that minerals see (e.g. grinding, oxidation, leaching)
  • Other technologies to break intergrown lamellae structure (ultrasound, microwave, etc.)


Whether your idea follows one of the paths mentioned above or a completely different approach, keep in mind that any eventual successful solution must:

  • Result in processed ilmenite ore that is bulk-shippable, without significant dust or emissions issues (if fine particles are created)
  • Provide a processed ore that can be maintained at < 3% moisture content (affects flow of material for handling)
  • Maintain the TiO2’s ability to be soluble in sulfuric acid
  • Use as an input crushed ore of less than 3 inches in diameter containing ~32 % TiO.
    • We intend to produce additional volume of this ore that would feed the process you are proposing. Currently, this ore feeds our smelter and it will continue to in the future.  See the diagram below.
  • Have a process cost should be below 50$/t (mining costs, crushing costs to minus 3 inches and shipping costs from the mine to client are not part of the process costs).
    • Please see the Cost Estimating Worksheet in the Resources tab to calculate your proposed cost.
  • Be a standalone process implemented directly at the mine site. If the process isn’t implemented at the mine site, additional shipping cost should be included in the cost estimate

You may review our current beneficiation process description in the resource section, but your solution should be implemented prior to the current benefication process as described in the diagram below. You should not use the beneficiated ore of our metallurgical complex as the input to your solution. 


Stage 1 - Concepts

The Ore Upgrading Challenge is designed to identify promising new ideas and solutions (in Stage 1) which would be selected for further development work (in Stage 2). Your Stage 1 concept for increasing the TiO2 content of ilmenite ore should be sufficiently advanced such that, if selected, it could be developed and demonstrated for initial feasibility by the end of the 4-month Stage 2 development period. Strong submissions for Stage 1 will provide well-reasoned scientific rationale and any preliminary data supporting the proposed idea.

Stage 1 is open to everyone (see eligibility rules). The deadline for submitting your proposal is April 6, 2020, 12 noon ET. All submissions will be judged by a group of experts within Rio Tinto, using the evaluation criteria shown below. Up to three (3) of the most compelling concepts will be selected as Stage 1 winners. Each winner will receive $50,000 to support development and demonstration activities performed during Stage 2. This funding will be contingent on signing a mutual non-disclosure and separate acknowledgement of Rules, Terms & Conditions related to your participation in Stage 2 of the Challenge.

Any individual/entity that is not in a position (or does not elect) to support further development and demonstration of their concept in Stage 2 may still consider a submission for Stage 1, with the understanding that promising submissions could result in a negotiated license or other agreement with Rio Tinto for internal development. The concept must be sufficiently advanced such that Rio Tinto or others could undertake further development for potential commercialization if an agreement is reached. By participating in the Stage 1 Challenge you are not forfeiting any of your rights to your intellectual property. Any licensing negotiations and potential agreement would be handled separately and outside of the scope of this Challenge.

Stage 1 Evaluation Criteria:

  • Technical feasibility (50% weight)
    • Strong scientific rationale and proof points supporting the concept for increased TiO2 content
    • Identified path for commercialization to large-scale production (targeting 250,000 tons/year)
    • Soundness of proposed project plan and organization’s capabilities for feasibility stage development
  • Cost (30% weight)
    • Initial projected cost per ton for increasing TiO2 content to >50% (Cost estimating worksheet and guidance provided by RTIT)
    • Strength of rationale supporting the projected cost per ton estimate
  • Innovation (20% weight)
    • Novelty/uniqueness of the proposed approach (e.g. used in non-mining applications, combining known methods together in a unique manner, completely new to the world, etc.)
    • Potential for RTIT to achieve unique access to existing or potential intellectual property that could enable competitive advantage

Stage 2 - Feasibility

Only Stage 1 winners can participate in Stage 2. Accepted Stage 2 participants will each receive $50,000 in development funds and a sample of ilmenite ore at the start of this stage. The Stage 2 participants will undertake analytical and prototyping development work in order to demonstrate initial feasibility of their concept. At the end of the Stage 2 development period, participants will submit a report that addresses the criteria listed below. Additionally, they will send back the upgraded ore for Rio Tinto to analyze, as well as any unused ilmenite ore.

Stage 2 submissions will be judged by a group of experts within Rio Tinto, using the evaluation criteria shown below. Rio Tinto analysis of the upgraded ore will also be a factor in the Stage 2 submission process. Results of these analyses will be shared with each participant respectively. The winner will be awarded up to $200,000 to further develop the winning technology and will receive support from Rio Tinto technical and production experts. 

Stage 2 Evaluation Criteria:

  • Technical feasibility (40% weight)
    • Rio Tinto’s analysis of upgraded ore with focus on TiOcontent achieved
    • Reduction of technical risk demonstrated and clear path for commercialization to target throughput of 250,000 metric tons/year
    • Proposed project plan for further development and commercialization
    • Strength and capabilities of organization for co-development and commercialization
  • Cost (40% weight)
    • Current/initial estimated cost per ton for increasing TiO2 content to >50% and rationale
    • Projected optimized cost per ton for increasing TiO2 content to >50% and rationale
    • Estimate of resources needed to demonstrate process at pilot scale
  • Innovation (20% weight)
    • Novelty/uniqueness of the proposed approach (e.g. used in non-mining applications, combining known methods together in a unique manner, completely new to the world, etc.)
    • Potential for RTIT to achieve unique access to existing or potential intellectual property
    • Our assessment of potential sustainable competitive advantage provided to RTIT through this approach


Submission Form

Stage 1 Submission Form

General Description

  • Please provide an overview of your proposed approach to upgrading ilmenite ore’s TiO2 content to >50%. Discuss any supporting scientific rationale(s) and whether or not they’ve been applied to this or similar situations previously. If there is supporting data, please provide it. (6000 character maximum, including spaces)
  • Upload any supporting materials in a zip file.

Technical Feasibility

  • Describe the current stage of development and feasibility for this concept or technology. What are the major technical hurdles and how would you work to overcome them? (5,000 characters maximum, including spaces)
  • Please describe your team. List key team members and backgrounds as appropriate. (1,000 characters maximum, including spaces)
  • If selected, do you intend to participate in developing the concept in Stage 2? (If no, skip remaining questions in this section) If yes, what expertise would you provide directly for the proposed work? What additional expertise or external support will you need?  (2,000 character maximum, including spaces)
  • If you are a Stage 1 winner, you will have 4 months to further develop your approach and provide an initial demonstration of technical feasibility, using Rio Tinto supplied samples of ilmenite ore. Please share your project plan for this effort, including the key tasks, timeline, resources and how the award funding would be spent to support the efforts. (6,000 character maximum, including spaces)
  • What rationale or initial proof points can you provide for feasibility of potential scale-up of the process to high-volume (targeting 250,000 tons/year)? (2,000 characters maximum, including spaces)


  • Upload your completed cost worksheet, using the template provided: access here.
  • Using your proposed approach, what do you project will be the direct operating cost per ton for increasing TiO2 content? (1,000 character maximum)
  • Please discuss your rationale for this projected cost. (2,500 character maximum)



  • Please discuss the novelty and uniqueness of your proposed solution. (For example, is this approach used in other non-mining applications? Is it several known methods coupled together in a unique manner? Is it completely new to the world?) (2,000 character maximum)
  • Is there existing intellectual property or other know-how that is being applied in this solution? (Reminder: do not disclose any proprietary or confidential information) (1,000 character maximum)
  • If your proposed approach proves to be successful, do you believe it will enable new patentable technology?  Why? (2,000 character maximum)



Challenge Updates

Final Announcement

Dec. 8, 2020, 12:23 p.m. PST by Kyla Jeffrey

We would like to thank all those who participated and followed the Rio Tinto Ore Upgrading Challenge. We are particularly grateful to the winners of Stage 1 (Concepts), the HavenSter Team (Hendrik Havenga, Simon Streicher and Danie Murrey) and Eric Agorhom's Team (Eric Agorhom, Clement Owusu, and Jim Pae Lem), who tried hard to meet the Challenge objectives.

Unfortunately, in Stage 2 (Feasibility), neither of the winners of Stage 1 was able to produce an ore concentrate of the quality desired by Rio Tinto. Therefore, there is no Stage 2 winner.

Exploiting Earth’s resources in an efficient and responsible way is increasingly difficult. For this reason, Rio Tinto remains committed to Open Innovation. Another Rio Tinto challenge remains open to ideas, and more may appear in the near future. 

Phase 2 Teams Announced

April 30, 2020, 2 p.m. PDT by Kyla Jeffrey

We are excited to announce the teams that will be moving on to Phase 2 of the Rio Tinto Ore Upgrading Challenge:

  1. HavenSter Team - Hendrik Havenga and Simon Streicher
  2. Eric Agorhom's Team - Eric Agorhom, Clement Owusu, and Jim Pae Lem

Rio Tinto is excited to see what these two teams are able to accomplish during the development period. 

We would like to thank everyone who participated in Phase 1. At this time, Rio Tinto has selected only two entries to fund for Phase 2 development and will not be selecting a third entry. The winning submissions propose novel approaches that are well substantiated and Rio Tinto is hopeful that the teams will be able to make significant progress in the development period.

Congratulations to the teams progressing to Phase 2!

Final Deadline Reminder

April 5, 2020, 9:02 p.m. PDT by Kyla Jeffrey

Submissions are due in less than 12 hours for the Ore Upgrading Challenge! Submissions are due on Monday, April 6th at noon Eastern Time (New York).

To be considered eligible for the judging stage, you must complete and finalize your submission before the deadline and meet the requirements outlined in the Guidelines section.

Here are a couple of last-minute tips for a smooth entry process:

1. Begin your submission process before the cutoff time. This allows you to ensure everything you have been working on can be seamlessly integrated into the form.

2. Your submission will not be reviewed until you click the orange "Submit Final Entry" button at the top of the final review page. Please remember to do this! 

3. Review the Challenge Guidelines to ensure your submission is complete. Pay particular attention to the judging criteria which will be the scorecard used to evaluate your entry.

4. If you haven't already, watch the challenge webinar and review the important details that were released in February.

5. Have any questions? Head over to the challenge forum and we would love to help you out. 

In case you need assistance, you can view a How-To video on completing your submission here.

We can’t wait to see what you’ve developed!

Submission Reminder: 48 hours Remaining

April 4, 2020, 9 a.m. PDT by Kyla Jeffrey

It's not too late! This is your final weekend to work on and submit your solution to the Ore Upgrading Challenge. 

You must finalize your submission prior to the deadline which is Monday, April 6th at noon Eastern Time (New York).

Please also make sure your submission meets the requirements outlined in the Guidelines section.

You can view a general how to submit your entry video here.

We are excited to review all your innovative ideas!

Submissions Due Monday April 6

March 31, 2020, 4:15 p.m. PDT by Kyla Jeffrey

We are 6 days away from our submission deadline for the Ore Upgrading Challenge!

This message is to remind you to complete and finalize your submission before the deadline on Monday, April 6th at noon Eastern Time (New York). Make sure your submission is finalized before that time to be considered for the judging stage. For your entry to be eligible, it must meet the requirements outlined in the Guidelines section.

View a How-To video on completing your submission here.

As a reminder, if you have any questions regarding the competition, you can post it in the forum or email us at

We look forward to receiving your solutions!